Think Again: Control engineering technologies can save the world

Apply the control loop—sense, decide, actuate—to the U.S. National Academy of Engineering’s 14 Engineering Grand Challenges, giving the world a better, more just, future. See photos; link to related stories, videos.

By Mark T. Hoske September 2, 2011

Engineer with purpose: Measure what needs to change to save the world. Decide what engineering to do and how. Do it; engineer a better future. Thus the control loop—sense, decide, and actuate (and repeat until optimized)—fits perfectly into the U.S. National Academy of Engineering’s 14 Engineering Grand Challenges. These vast categories of engineering innovation were named in 2008, with input from engineering-minded visionaries globally, to give engineers and policymakers a framework to help save the world.

Control Engineering subscribers work on the Grand Challenges directly, or develop, integrate, and use related technologies to: 1) Make solar energy economical, 2) Provide energy from fusion, 3) Develop carbon sequestration methods, 4) Manage the nitrogen cycle, 5) Provide access to clean water, 6) Restore and improve urban infrastructure, 7) Advance health informatics, 8) Engineer better medicines, 9) Reverse-engineer the brain, 10) Prevent nuclear terror, 11) Secure cyberspace, 12) Enhance virtual reality, 13) Advance personalized learning, and 14) Engineer the tools of scientific discovery.

At its NIWeek in August, National Instruments highlighted the 14 challenges. Shelley Gretlein, NI director of software marketing, told more than 3,300 attendees to use their talent and put knowledge into practice. Then she highlighted a stage full of talent and demonstrations that do that.

  • A 55-inch, transparent human-machine interface integrates a touchscreen for conveying, manipulating, and advancing engineering ideas more quickly, using a touch-enabled programming language. 
  • Fast multi-core machines run complex mathematical calculations 1,000 times/sec to measure plasma shape and location in a fusion reactor, which can allow for faster actuation of electromagnets, extending control for longer periods. Previously, a lookup-table approximation accrued errors quickly, limiting plasma field stability.
  • Portable medical diagnostic tool, optical coherence tomography (OCT), uses a mobile light source and image analysis for real-time, point-of-care medical testing. Early cancer detection can translate into a 90% or more survival rate after five years versus 10% or less for later diagnosis.
  • Urban infrastructure improves with wireless sensor networks, calculating bridge fatigue life in real time by measuring stressful loads that decrease time to repair. Smart Grid technologies boost electrical system reliability with sensors and automation.

Think again about finding ways to engineer a world that’s better. Gretlein said, “I’m relying on you to solve these engineering grand challenges…. Today, together, we’ll engineer a path to ‘better.’ ”

ONLINE extra

Engineering Grand Challenges from NIWeek: more details

Engineering should improve the quality of the world, which was one of the points of citing Ray Bradbury, author and futurist, at NIWeek 2011 “To hell with more. I want better.” (Bradbury’s prolific technology-infused works include Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, and Yestermorrow: Obvious Answers to Impossible Futures.)

A record number of NIWeek attendees (more than 3,300) in Austin, Texas, endured record-setting August heat for the technology conference and exhibits, Aug. 2-4, 2011. On Aug. 3, they applauded Shelley Gretlein, NI director of software marketing, and others, who offered a stage full of National Instruments technologies demonstrating some of the 14 Engineering Grand Challenges.

Additional notes

– Fusion: Tighter control of the plasma shape through electromagnetic fields inside a toroid (Tokamak) containing the plasma is expected to more quickly lead to environmentally benign electricity generation from fusion. Plasma shape estimation and control uses an NI PXI RT solver and MIMO controller at 1,000 x sec. (1 ms) runtime for real-time calculations and tighter controls. The viability of electric power generation through fusion is sought by 2019.

– Optical coherence tomography (OCT) was said to have greater image resolution than more traditional diagnostic methods. Portable, more economical, and more widely available diagnostic testing, like the OCT imaging system that Santec Corp.  demonstrated, will detect cancers and other diseases earlier, for higher survival rates (and lower costs). Gretlein said that for every living person who has or had cancer, over 200 cases are undetected. OCT also serves cardiac care, dentistry, and ophthalmology. System development involved NI PXI, NI LabVIEW FPGA, NI FlexRIO hardware, and a custom adapter module. With 100 mega-sample inputs, 6 digital and 9 analog, the FlexRIO module is among the fastest analog-to-digital converters, NI said. Those involved in this project said the NI technologies reduced development time to 6 months. See NI’s video: 

-Advantage of using NI Wireless Sensor Network (in place with help from University of Texas at Austin, Cockrell School of Engineering is that processing can occur at the nodes, using the wireless network to send only the important data points, with a new low-power strain gage node. Algorithms can be changed as needed based on information gathered. Wireless solutions save wire; one 800-ft span bridge with just one sensor can use a roll of wire (photo). Technologies like this will help with federal government requirements to inspect bridges every two years. (Traditional visual inspections are costly and time-consuming.) A new NI Technical Data Cloud service, which could help with applications, like this, is expected to be available this fall, accessible via browser. A custom web user interface will help users find meaningful information in the data to make better decisions.

-Smart Grid technologies, as applied in India, could help increase reliability and prevent power theft. In the Rajasthan, India, area of the grid 35% of power generated is lost to “unauthorized modification.” Automated substations, 2,820 of them, each use an NI single-board RIO controller to automate meter reading and opening and closing of switches. Grid monitoring will help with accounting, auditing, and geographic monitoring, saving time and reducing complexity.

– Smart Grid controls, instrumentation enable reliability, efficiency (see story and photos)

More samplings from NIWeek

-NI LabVIEW, the system design software, marked its 25th anniversary. See the “then and now” images of the original developers.

-Other efforts include an autonomous robotic soccer team that won the Robocup challenge, a biometric (robotic) fish, gesture recognition, and a waterfall that can spell LabVIEW. (See Coordinated valve controls write messages on water wall: Optimation.)

-As for engineering design tools for scientific discovery, Gretlein said, “Of all the grand challenges, we – National Instruments – we own this one [engineer the tools of scientific discovery]. We are committed to doing our part. We will equip you with the tools of scientific discovery. LabVIEW is and will continue to be the ultimate system design software that provides you with all the tools needed to create and deploy better measurement and control systems.”

Referring to Bradbury’s quote, she suggested working together to engineer a better path, not just more.

Additional links

See more on Engineering Grand Challenges at

– Compact multicore controller uses Intel Core i7 processor

– Data acquisition modules support wireless, USB, Ethernet, are backward compatible

– System design and programming software helps integrate hardware: 25th anniversary

– National Instruments leaders give U.S. economic engineering advice

– Mark T. Hoske, CFE Media, Control Engineering, 

Author Bio: Mark Hoske has been Control Engineering editor/content manager since 1994 and in a leadership role since 1999, covering all major areas: control systems, networking and information systems, control equipment and energy, and system integration, everything that comprises or facilitates the control loop. He has been writing about technology since 1987, writing professionally since 1982, and has a Bachelor of Science in Journalism degree from UW-Madison.