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Control theory can be fun - if put to the test!

02 August 2010

Students of automation technology at Tsinghua University in China are discovering that practical hands-on experience beats hours of theory. They have recently used commercially available real-time control software in a contest to see who could design the best controller to balance a mechanical system

Tsinghua University in China is rated among the country’s most elite schools for engineering. Last year, the university’s Automation Department held an open competition to test engineering students’ ability to apply their control theory to a practical control application. The university believes that hands-on implementation of theory captivates students and motivates them to learn more, and it wanted to encourage and capitalise on that enthusiasm through the medium of the competition.

The first Automatic Control Design Contest was a significant undertaking for the undergraduate participants, requiring a lot of preparation and work over a period of four months. The task set by the department - to control the balance a mechanical seesaw – at first appears relatively simple but actually poses some tricky control problems. Through a series of one-on-one elimination bouts, opposing teams used their applied control design skills to weigh down or counter-balance the seesaw, design a control algorithm and build an appropriate PID controller to maintain its balance.

The competition’s progress proved frustratingly slow at the beginning and, in particular, the organisers struggled to find a control platform that the majority of participants would be able to use with confidence. Most of the 77 contestants had limited familiarity with LabVIEW, while DSP control required extensive initial testing. The students were mired in the theoretical work that control prototyping can demand – quite counter to the initial aim of the competition. The contest needed a tool that would allow them to focus on the development of their control strategies, rather than on hardware testing.

A few weeks into the competition, Kevin Zhang, a field engineer from the Shanghai Baolai Scientific Development Company and the China regional representative of Canadian control specialist, Quanser, gave a presentation on QStudioRP at the university. This Quanser application for rapid control prototyping is powered by Quarc, a powerful software package seamlessly integrating with MATLAB/Simulink – a simulation environment the students were familiar with. Dr Zhang notes, as a result of his presentation - and thanks to Quarc’s easy-to-learn and easy-to-use features - most of the 22 participating teams decided to use QStudioRP as the contest platform during the preliminary rounds.

Automatic Control Design Contest organisation committee member, Xin Rong, was also impressed by the software, as was the whole department. The Quanser seminar proved the turning point in the competition. The students were delighted with Quarc because of the time it saved them on tedious prototyping and coding tasks. The application levelled the playing field – not to mention the seesaws – speeding up the competition and stimulating the competitors.

By the end of the competition, QStudioRP was the platform of choice among all competing teams. Mr Rong recalls how students were able to connect the seesaw to a Quanser data acquisition card and, in a very short time, use Quarc to determine the PID terms in order to control its balance. The whole exercise proved a rewarding learning experience.

Students spent more time applying the theory and less time reviewing it. As they became familiar with the Quarc environment they were able to focus on tactical planning and control strategy development, all of which contributed to the success of this first departmental competition for students of automation at Tsinghua University.

Quanser is represented in the UK by Adept Scientific.

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