Control engineering is the engineering discipline that applies control theory to design systems with predictable behaviors. The engineering activities focus on the mathematical modeling of systems of a diverse nature.
Modern day control engineering (also called control systems engineering) is a relatively new field of study that gained a significant attention during twentieth century with the advancement in technology. It can be broadly defined as practical application of control theory. Control engineering has an essential role in a wide range of control systems from a simple household washing machine to a complex high performance F-16 fighter aircraft. It allows one to understand a physical system in terms of its inputs, outputs and various components with different behaviors using mathematical modeling, control it in a desired manner with the controllers designed using control systems design tools, and implement the controller on the physical system employing available technology. A system can be mechanical, electrical, fluid, chemical, financial and even biological, and the mathematical modeling, analysis and controller design shall be done using control theory in one or many of the time, frequency and complex-s domains depending on the nature of the control system design problem.
Before it emerged as a unique discipline, control engineering was practiced as part of mechanical engineering and control theory was studied as a part of electrical engineering, since electrical circuits can often be easily described using control theory techniques. In the very first control relationships, a current output was represented with a voltage control input. However, not having proper technology to implement electrical control systems, designers left with the option of less efficient and slow responding mechanical systems. A very effective mechanical controller that is still widely used in some hydro plants is the governor. Later on, previous to modern power electronics, process control systems for industrial applications were devised by mechanical engineers using pneumatic and hydraulic control devices, many of which are still in use today.
There are two major divisions in control theory, namely, classical and modern, which have direct implications over the control engineering applications. The scope of classical control theory is limited to single-input and single-output (SISO) system design. The system analysis is carried out in time domain using differential equations, in complex-s domain with Laplace transform or in frequency domain by transforming from complex-s domain. All the systems are assumed to be second order, single variable, and the higher order system responses and multivariable effects are ignored. A controller designed using classical theory usually requires on-site tuning due to design approximations. Yet, due to the easiness in physical implementation of the controller designs over the controllers designed using modern control theory, these controllers are preferred in most of the industrial applications. Most popular controllers that come under classical control engineering are PID controller. In contrast, modern control theory is strictly carried out in complex-s domain or in frequency domain, and can deal with multi-input and multi-output (MIMO) systems. This overcomes the limitations in classical control theory to be used in sophisticate control systems design problems such as fighter aircraft control. In modern controls a system is represented in terms of a set of first order differential equations defined using state variables. Nonlinear, multivariable, adaptive and robust control theories come under this division. Being fairly new, modern control theory has many areas yet to be explored. Scholars like Rudolf E. Kalman and Aleksandr Lyapunov are well known among the people who have shaped modern control theory.
Originally control engineering was all about continuous systems. Development of computer control tools, posed a requirement of discrete control system engineering because the communications between the computer-based digital controller and the physical system are governed by a computer clock. The equivalent to Laplace transform in the discrete domain is z-transform. Today many of the control systems are computer controlled and they consist of both digital and analogue components. Therefore, at the design stage either digital components are mapped into the continuous domain and the design is carried out in the continuous domain, or analogue components are mapped in to discrete domain and design is carried out there. The first of these two methods is more commonly encountered in practice because many industrial systems have many continuous systems components, including mechanical, fluid, biological and analogue electrical components, with a few digital controllers.
At many universities, control engineering courses are taught in electrical and electronic engineering, mechanical engineering, and aerospace engineering; in others it is connected to computer science, as most control techniques today are implemented through computers, often as embedded systems (as in the automotive field). The field of control within chemical engineering is often known as process control. It deals primarily with the control of variables in a chemical process in a plant. It is taught as part of the undergraduate curriculum of any chemical engineering program, and employs many of the same principles in control engineering. Other engineering disciplines also overlap with control engineering, as it can be applied to any system for which a suitable model can be derived.
Control engineering has diversified applications that include science, finance management, and even human behavior. Students of control engineering may start with a linear control system course dealing with the time and complex-s domain, which requires a thorough background in elementary mathematics and Laplace transform (called classical control theory). In linear control, the student does frequency and time domain analysis. Digital control and nonlinear control courses require z transformation and algebra respectively, and could be said to complete a basic control education. From here onwards there are several sub branches.
Control engineering is the engineering discipline that focuses on the modeling of a diverse range of dynamic systems (e.g. mechanical systems) and the design of controllers that will cause these systems to behave in the desired manner. Although such controllers need not be electrical many are and hence control engineering is often viewed as a subfield of electrical engineering. However, the falling price of microprocessors is making the actual implementation of a control system essentially trivial. As a result, focus is shifting back to the mechanical engineering discipline, as intimate knowledge of the physical system being controlled is often desired.
Electrical circuits, digital signal processors and microcontrollers can all be used to implement Control systems. Control engineering has a wide range of applications from the flight and propulsion systems of commercial airliners to the cruise control present in many modern automobiles.
In most of the cases, control engineers utilize feedback when designing control systems. This is often accomplished using a PID controller system. For example, in an automobile with cruise control the vehicle's speed is continuously monitored and fed back to the system which adjusts the motor's torque accordingly. Where there is regular feedback, control theory can be used to determine how the system responds to such feedback. In practically all such systems stability is important and control theory can help ensure stability is achieved.
Although feedback is an important aspect of control engineering, control engineers may also work on the control of systems without feedback. This is known as open loop control. A classic example of open loop control is a washing machine that runs through a pre-determined cycle without the use of sensors.
Published - July 2009
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