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Using virtual laboratories in control engineering education

Some experiences

Author - Aidan O’Dwyer


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2 Control engineering at DIT, Kevin Street

Modules in automatic control are available in a variety of ordinary degree, honours degree and taught postgraduate programmes at DIT, Kevin Street. Following recent institute policy, most modules are studied in a thirteen-week period and are examined in a semesterised structure. The author has primary responsibility for module development, syllabus design, and instruction in automatic control on the following programmes:

  1. Bachelor of Engineering (B.E.) in Electrical/Electronic Engineering (4 year honours degree, validated by Engineers Ireland). The modules offered (in the newly validated degree) are:
    • Introduction to Control (Year 2, Semester 2)
    • Control Engineering Major 1 (Year 3, Semester 1)
    • Control Engineering Major 2 (Year 4, Semester 1)
    • Control Engineering Major 3 (Year 4, Semester 2)
    • Time Delay Systems (Year 4, Semester 1)
    • Feedback and Control – Origins, History and Development (Year 4, Semester 1)
    The latter two modules are elective modules.
  2. M.E. in Advanced Engineering (1 year, taught masters course). Students choose six subjects, followed by a dissertation. Each subject has a yearly class contact time of 60 hours. Advanced Control Systems was one of the six subjects, taken by seven students, in this past academic year.
  3. Other programmes: Automatic control is an elective subject on the following programmes:
    • Bachelor of Engineering Technology (in Control and Automation Systems or Electrical Energy Systems) – three year ordinary degree
    • B.E. in Electrical/Electronic Engineering (part-time) – four year honours degree
    • B.Sc. in Medical Physics and Bioengineering – four year honours degree
    • M.Sc. in Sustainable Energy Management – taught Masters degree.

Typically, undergraduate courses, after introducing basic ideas, explore the construction of time domain and frequency domain diagrams (e.g. root locus diagrams, Bode plots, Nichols charts), followed by controller design methods using these plots. Final year honours degree work typically includes process control ideas, adaptive control algorithms, and the analysis of non-linear systems. The M.E. in Advanced Engineering course places more detailed emphasis on, for example, process modelling and controller design.

Since 2001, the author has increasingly used computer-aided design tools to assist in increasing student understanding of challenging topics, to act as motivation for further exploration and to demystify important design ideas. MATLAB/SIMULINK (www.mathworks.com) has been the platform used, and the author’s experiences were reported at EdTech 2004 (O’Dwyer 2004). In addition, some work has also been done on developing an expert system, to provide a more intuitive ‘virtual instrument’ environment for student learning (see O’Dwyer 2005).

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