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What is Control Engineering?

By Harriette Halepis
Updated May 17, 2024
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Control engineering is a type of engineering that applies control theory to various design systems. Control engineers work with numerous types of technology from household appliances to rockets in order to create control systems. Control engineering is based upon specific mathematical theories that allow engineers to effectively gather control feedback.

Once feedback has been computed, engineers apply this information to the creation of a control system. A completed control system will allow a machine of any kind to operate independently. Almost every type of machine has a control system that was designed by a control engineer. Without this field of study, machines would not be able to operate without constant human interference.

Using modern technology, control engineers can command any kind of system. Systems can include electrical, financial, mechanical, chemical, fluid, and sometimes biological. Control theory is split into two main schools of thought that are both studied today. These two schools of thought include modern control theory and classical control theory.

The best way to distinguish between modern control theory and classical control theory is to note the differences in domain usage. Frequency domains refer to an infinite time response that sweeps in frequency. Complex-s domains are similar to frequency domains, though they are a literal abstraction of the frequency.

Modern control theory is solely performed in complex-s domain or in frequency domain. In addition, modern control theory can be applied to both multi-input and multi-output systems. Those that practice modern control theory often stick with this form of control engineering. Similarly, engineers that follow classical control theory hardly ever utilize modern control theory.

In contrast to modern control theory, classical control theory strictly deals with single-input and single-output systems. Classical control theory is practiced using differential equations in conjunction with complex-s domains. Today's control systems are almost entirely mechanical, though control engineers do provide the basic control systems for most machines.

Control engineering is a relatively new discipline within the field of engineering. The practical use of control theory was not exercised until the twentieth century. Prior to the twentieth century, technology was not a vital part of society. As technology began to rapidly advance, a demand for control engineers also began to rise. Even though control theory was present within the mechanical engineering field directly following the need for control engineers, it was not a large part of other engineering disciplines until very recently.

Today, university level control engineering courses are often part of electrical, electronic, mechanical, computer science, or aerospace engineering disciplines. Chemical engineering also includes a form of control theory, though this type of study is often referred to as process control. Essentially, most engineering disciplines incorporate some form of control theory, since it has proven to be highly important within the engineering field.

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