Control Engineering: The Secret Science Pushing the Future of Tech

When it comes to engineering degrees related to tech, you might think you know them all. There’s computer engineering, in which hardware engineers build the devices and software engineers develop the programs for the tools you use every day. There’s electrical engineering, which steadily improves the electrical aspects of tech. Then, there are a few other engineers, like mechanical engineers and manufacturing engineers, that dip their fingers into the technology pie.

However, there is likely one critical field of engineering you — and everyone else — often overlooks: control engineering. Also, sometimes called control systems engineering, this obscure field is steadily becoming responsible for many of the tech innovations you look forward to, including artificial intelligence and automation. If you want to know where tech is headed — and make contributions to the future of tech through engineering — you should consider learning more about controls, systems and control systems engineering.

What Are Controls?

During a controls engineer degree program, students study how systems change over time and how they can effect the change they desire. Control engineers must have a fundamental understanding of exceedingly complex math to excel in the field. Though the systems they study and manipulate can take any form, they are often electrical in nature; thus, controls engineering is often seen as a subfield of electrical engineering.

While control engineers are trained in many of the same fields as other engineers — physics, calculus, computers, etc. — their area of expertise, the knowledge that sets them apart, is control theory. Control theory governs how engineers can devise a model for controlling systems with stability. Control laws are mathematical algorithms that help engineers guide and determine change in various systems.

For example, autopilot for an aircraft is designed almost entirely through control engineering. An engineer (or a team of engineers) develops a set of equations that describe the forces at work to keep an aircraft up as well as various modifications alter flight characteristics. Using that information, engineers would create further formulae to instruct the autopilot system how to take off, land, and prescribe and maintain a trajectory. These laws govern how the autopilot software functions, and they can only be written by engineers with a background in controls.

What Do Control Systems Engineers Do?

Today, control engineers are responsible for designing, producing, and maintaining systems and equipment. This requires extensive research and measurement as well as continuous testing and analysis to ensure that the systems adequately address the appropriate problems. Most importantly, a control engineer works to develop a system that acts with precision and accuracy, so system users can become reliant on it.

Control engineers never work alone. All systems require a team of engineers, designers and users to contribute information. Most often, control engineers work in teams with electrical engineers, mechanical engineers and design engineers, and later they will alter their systems based on feedback from users.

Becoming a control systems engineer requires at least a bachelor’s degree in the field, but most professionals eventually pursue graduate-level education. An entry-level salary for controls engineers is $84,221 on average. As tech firms recognize the value of adding control systems engineers to their teams, demand for this specialization will undoubtedly increase, and wages will rise.

How Does Control Systems Affect Tech?

Though they might not have earned their current name until recently, there have been control systems engineers for centuries — ever since the purported first automatic device, the famed water clock of Alexandria. Control engineers have always been associated with technological innovation and progress because they are often devising systems that are new and advanced.

In the current age, control systems engineering has been closely tied to automation efforts. Most notably, control engineers are working diligently to produce autonomous vehicles, which have been tantalizingly close to widespread release for more than a decade. However, control system engineers are also helpful in producing automated software, factory automation, and more. Automated technology,like computer-automated design programs, has improved control engineers’ ability to develop systems with reliable outcomes. As a result, engineers have become more proficient at producing systems that greatly improve and impact the world.

Control engineers aren’t widely recognized for their efforts in developing the tech-filled world we have today. However, for technology to advance, we will place more reliance on control engineers to design consistent systems that keep us safe and productive.

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