by Sebastian Engell and Françoise Lamnabhi-Lagarrigue

In a recently published position paper, members of the HYCON2 Network of Excellence (‘Highly-Complex and Networked Control Systems’) demonstrate that control is at the heart of the information and communication technologies of complex systems. As a consequence, control should be supported as a priority in the coming European Commission’s work programmes, both at the level of enabling technologies and at application level, including ‘public private partnerships’ (PPPs) on Energy-efficient buildings, Factories of Future and European Green Cars Initiatives. The recommendations for a ‘European Research Agenda towards Horizon 2020’ are supported by major European enterprises and academia.

Systems and control science provides the scientific foundations and technology to analyse and design complex, dynamically evolving systems, in particular systems in which feedback plays an important role. Feedback means that the effect of actions is monitored and future actions are planned taking this information into account. Feedback is ubiquitous in technical systems where it enables automation and autonomy, and in social, socio-technical, economic and biological systems.

Systems and control science is both a scientific core discipline and a crucial part of application areas such as automotive, aeronautics and aerospace, manufacturing, generation and distribution of electric energy, heating, ventilation and air conditioning, production of chemicals, paper, food and metals, robotics, supply chains and logistics.

Systems and control science provides tools for modelling dynamic physical, chemical, biological, economic and social systems and develops concepts and tools for their analysis and design. It integrates contributions from mathematics, signal processing, computer science, and from the application domains. Systems and control science is indispensable to analyse, design, simulate, optimize, validate, and verify the technological and socio-technical systems that will be characterized by massive interconnection, the processing of huge amounts of data, new forms of synergy between humans and technical systems, and challenging requirements for substantially improved performance, reliability, and energy efficiency.

The basic roles of systems and control science are thus the following:

  • model physical phenomena and artefacts to understand and predict their dynamic behaviour and the interactions among their components
  • develop control strategies and algorithms to optimize the behaviour of systems so that they accomplish certain intended functions, satisfy constraints, and minimize negative effects, eg consumption of resources
  • implement the control strategies by selecting sensing devices, computing elements and actuators and integrating them into a system with maximum performance under cost constraints
  • validate and verify that the implementation of control strategies acting on the physical systems satisfies constraints and performance requirements.

Systems and control science has played an important enabling role in all major technological evolutions, from the steam engine to rockets, high-performance aircrafts, space ships, high-speed trains, ‘green’ cars, digital cameras, smart phones, modern production technology, medical equipments, and many others. It provides a large body of theory that enables the analysis of dynamic systems in order to better understand their behaviour, improve their design, and augment them by advanced information processing, leading to qualitative leaps in performance. Over the last fifty years the field of systems and control has seen huge advances, leveraging technology improvements in sensing and computation with breakthroughs in the underlying principles and mathematics. Motivated by this record of success, control technologists are addressing contemporary challenges as well, examples of which include:

  • The automotive industry is focusing on active safety technologies, which may ultimately lead to partially autonomous driving, where humans will become passengers of automated vehicles governed by automatic control algorithms for substantial parts of their trips, leading to improved safety, better fuel economy, and better utilization of the available infrastructure.
  • Automatic control will help improve surgery. Robots are already used to support surgeons to minimize invasive procedures and increase accuracy of operations. It is conceivable that semi-autonomous robots, remotely supervised by surgeons, will be capable of carrying out unprecedentedly complex operations.
  • Automatic control will play a fundamental role in the energy landscape of the future, both in the efficient use of energy from various sources in industry and in buildings, and in the management of the generation, distribution and consumption of electrical energy with increased use of renewable and decentralized generation. The management of important schedulable loads (eg the recharging of electric cars) and of distributed sources (eg at customers’ homes) calls for completely new large-scale control structures.
  • Systems and control science is important in all kinds of maintenance tasks for large infrastructures. Robotic sensor and actuator networks will be employed for autonomous surveillance and maintenance in large buildings, distribution networks, etc.
  • Control is ubiquitous in the biological mechanisms that govern life. An improved understanding of the dynamic behaviour of these complex biological systems will provide new opportunities for biotechnology and medicine and support the design of such systems (‘synthetic biology’).
  • In the defence and security domains, besides the interest in improved performance of equipment of all kinds, there is an increasing demand for highly autonomous devices and, in particular in coordinated sets of devices and vehicles that cooperate to carry out a particular task, asking for distributed multi-agent control.

The Systems and Control position paper outlines ten crucial areas in which control will make a strong impact in the next decade: Ground and air smart traffic management; green electricity and Smart Grid; improved energy efficiency in production systems; security in decentralized automation; mechatronics and control co-design and automation; analysis, control and adaptation of large infrastructures; autonomous systems; neurosciences; health care ( from open medication to closed loop control) and cellular and biomolecular research.

Then the main overarching challenges behind these applications are summarized: 1) System-wide coordination control of large-scale systems 2) Distributed networked control systems 3) Autonomy, cognition and control 4) Model-based systems engineering 5) Human-machine interaction. This is followed by a discussion of new sectors where control will have a major role to play: control and health; control and social and economic phenomena and markets; control and quantum engineering.

Finally some operational recommendations are listed in order to provide the means to develop this extremely important scientific and technological discipline whose critical role in ICT is essential to meet European Policies in the future.

Systems and Control position paper, 30 pages:

Please contact:
Sebastian Engell
TU Dortmund, Germany
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Françoise Lamnabhi-Lagarrigue
CNRS, France
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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Next issue: October 2024
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