Fridays with Fuhrmann: ECE in the middle

FWF_image_20161021Those that have been following this column or the activities in the ECE Department know that I am really keen on beefing up our educational and research programs in robotics, control, autonomy, and mobility. I see this as a very important space for Michigan Tech, especially considering the university’s role, spelled out in our founding legislation, to support industry in the State of Michigan. As it turns out, there is already quite a bit going on; I just think we need to get it unified and a little better organized, and publicized as well.

I want to share an amusing anecdote with you, one that I think speaks to the important role that EE and ECE departments play in cyber-physical systems and everything that goes with them, like autonomous vehicles. I was wandering about the Internet a few days ago, looking for interesting tidbits related to robotics and control, and for some reason I decided to Google the phrase “computer control of mechanical systems.” The first search result turned out to be a course description for a senior-level course offered at the University of Illinois, with that exact title: ME 461, Computer Control of Mechanical Systems. I thought – interesting, let’s see what that is all about.

Here is the list of topics in said course, according to the web page:

• DC circuits.
• Analog and digital electronics.
• Sensors, transducers, and actuators.
• Data conversion and transmission.
• Microcontroller architecture.
• Microcontroller programming and interfacing.
• Response and control of electro-mechanical systems.
• Introduction to sampled time control theory.

Look at this carefully. I laughed out loud, literally, when I saw this outline. A course called “Computer Control of Mechanical Systems” is nothing more, or perhaps nothing less, than a survey course in electrical engineering!

What does this mean? For me, it says that the connection between computer algorithms and mechanical systems is in the domain of electrical engineering. We are the bridge that brings computational intelligence to rotating machinery. If CS is the brains and ME is the brawn, then ECE is the central nervous system.

ECE is front and center in the technological revolution of autonomy and mobility – well, perhaps “center” but maybe not so much “front.” A lot of what we do is in the background, perhaps because many of our efforts have been so successful that the results have been commoditized. This seems to be particularly true for the FIRST Robotics programs, a highly successful nationwide high-school competition intended to get students fired up about STEM fields. FIRST has been great for computer science and mechanical engineering, no doubt, but the EE glue that holds everything together doesn’t get quite the same visibility.

Robotics is really an amalgamation of CS, EE, and ME, and all three play different but critical roles. As was recently pointed out to me by one of our industry partners, the magic really happens when you get this trio to play nicely together. I will continue to work for that at Michigan Tech. Of course, in my role as ECE chair I will continue to advocate for electrical and computer engineering as a central player in this rapidly emerging field, and to be recognized as such.

[I should add that none of the above is meant to give a hard time to the University of Illinois, a fantastic institution with one of the best engineering schools in the country.]

Next week’s column will probably be written in a hotel room in Detroit, as I take this message on the road. Until then, have a great week everyone!

– Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann
Dave House Professor and Chair
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Michigan Technological University