May 2014

Featured Article

The Demise or Renaissance of Classic Control

By Tom Lee Ph.D.
Chief Education Officer, Quanser
Adjunct Professor, Systems Design Engineering, University of Waterloo

At the 2014 ECEDHA conference, held in Napa, Quanser conducted a focus group on the future of the conventional control systems lab. Quanser is well known for its motion systems and plants used in a wide range of control teaching and research applications. The objective of this focus group was to explore the future of rigorous, analytical control analysis and design techniques that we have taught, and continue to teach, since the mid twentieth century, in the face of more contemporary application fields such as mechatronics, robotics, and embedded systems. This is a polite way of asking “is the traditional control course doomed as the students rush to program fun robots?”

In the end, the group concluded that the rumors of classic control’s death is highly exaggerated and indeed, it is more critical than ever to reflect and execute on the importance of rigorous control in a modern mechatronics-crazed world.

The emerging generation of freshmen often come to campus with significant experiences in embedded programming, sensor applications, and mechanical design and prototyping. The famed FIRST Robotics competition, which now reaches more than 350,000 students, is a good example of real mechatronics methodologies being introduced in a meaningful way to young students. In all senses students are entering college with the “right stuff”. However, in the particular context of control education, which arguably should be enjoying a golden age from this global interest in robotics, faculty have yet to fully reconcile this modern opportunity with the rich traditions of control that we continue to teach. The ECEDHA focus group was part of the larger strategy at Quanser to identify and commercialize lab systems that would retain the very best parts of control tradition but exploit the unprecedented level of interest in mechatronics.

The core of this strategy is the identification of modern engineering design workflows and toolchains that connect the hands-on “fun” of contemporary mechatronics with the rigor of classic control. The latter dimension of rigor is the key. Many institutions already have engaging projects and courses that introduce students to increasingly sophisticated variations of the programming and digital techniques. But the actual systems or applications that students work on tend to be simple robots or devices controlled by logic which generally ignores much of the inherent dynamics of the system. The control programs, at best, gather sensor input, apply some logic, and execute commands from this logic. Conversely, the modern control course continues to teach the analytical framework derived from differential equations, Laplace transforms, and signal science – all intimately related to the potentially complex dynamics of engineering systems.

Succinctly, Quanser’s goal is to identify highly motivating and engaging lab experiences where complex system dynamics are important and are well integrated into the programming framework. Of course if this were an easy task, most institutions would have done it already. The reality is, it has only been within the recent few years that various technology pieces have reached a level of maturity required for a relatively efficient introduction of new methodologies in a majority of campuses. Among these are,

  1. The cost reduction of dynamic system plants that offer the deterministic dynamics required for educational applications.
  2. New programmable embedded computers, such as the NI myRIO that provides a rich selection of prebuilt software component that make the development of more complex controllers feasible within academic constraints.
  3. The academic adoption of high level control/system design and real time control software such as LabVIEW and Simulink that provide an intuitive conceptual framework to articulate and manage system complexity.
  4. Fundamental increase in the range of formal and ad hoc instructional resources available to teachers and students.

Points 1 and 2 deal with basic accessibility and efficiency. With reduced cost and a broader range of support material, any newer idea is easier to deploy. Points 2 and 3 are very particular to the control and mechatronics context. With more mainstream platforms such as C and inexpensive hobby targets such as Arduino and Raspberry Pi, the time and effort cost of introducing complex system dynamics in an application is prohibitive for most course or project structures. In essence, these new technologies allow an appropriate shift of the focus away from the digital details and towards the core system dynamics. Consequently the connections to the analysis dimensions in control, which are intimately tied to the dynamics, are now accessible within a modern mechatronics context.

At ECEDHA annual conferences, Quanser regularly present concrete case studies of these methodologies in pilot collaborations with various institutions.

  • ECEDHA 2013, Visual realtime control applications: The adaptation of conventional speed and position control of servomotors to an automotive application with immersive visualization and gamification (in collaboration with the University of Toronto).

Adapting a servomotor lab to an automotive application

Video of automotive control application

  • ECEDHA 2014, Complex mechatronic system design: The extension of a standard servomotor by designing and fabricating (3D printer) new parts, to perform a more complex task controlled by an embedded processor (in collaboration with National Instruments).

Classic control to complex mechatronic system design

Video of extending servomotor functionality

  • Looking towards ECEDHA 2015, Mechatronics as a platform for creativity: The application of advanced mechatronic control of a complex dynamical system to move “pleasingly” to arbitrary music (in collaboration with University of New Mexico).

Making an inverted pendulum gracefully dance

Video of dancing inverted pendulum

In all of these case studies, the heart of the application is still a conventional dynamic system plant – often a precision servomotor, and the analytical techniques such as frequency domain methods, stability analysis, etc. are still fully retained. The real difference is that the analytical framework is richly infused with important motivational dimensions or system level engineering insights. These include very industry-relevant aspects such as automotive applications and rapid prototyping, to familiar aspects from popular culture such as gaming and music. In the end, these projects aim to provide students with the same degree of technical proficiency as more conventional labs but greater proficiency in more complex system and interdisciplinary approaches to modern engineering design, all in a package that actually promises some real fun.

The near future of these and other similar initiatives from Quanser and its partners is very promising. As the concept are based on something that we are all already familiar with in control (servomotors) and as the surrounding technology ecosystem (software, 3D printers, embedded controllers, etc.) are becoming increasingly easier to work with, the missing pieces, in the end, tend to be basic human creativity. The hope is that more institutions will be interested in taking some steps to try something new with their servomotors. Within its plans, Quanser will begin disseminating a broad range of ancillary resources for its systems to make it easier to take such steps.

The ECEDHA focus group saw the creative re-application of fundamental control theory as a potentially powerful motivational tool not just for senior level students but also for the younger levels. In addition to students becoming increasingly empowered with pre-existing robotics skills, the emerging generation is passionate about being a part of the solution of the world’s most pressing challenges. Whether it is about technological responses to climate change, or revolutionary biomedical solutions, or re-engaging in the human exploration of our solar system, a comprehensive educational strategy that harmonizes the grand traditions of engineering science with the wizardry of modern mechatronics may offer the right mix to keep today’s students engaged and focused.

Is classic control going the way of the analog computer? Hardly. In fact, it just may be the secret ingredient that puts the magic back into the curriculum.

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