WHEN IT COMES TO DEVICES OR SYSTEMS, people rarely pay any thought to why they work the way they do. They are operated by control systems, which can be as simple as a thermostat controlling a room’s temperature or as complex as control and monitoring units in a large industrial manufacturing plant or oil and gas refinery.
Put simply, control systems are the brains behind the operation.
These systems collect data from sensors connected to communication networks and then respond to that data by empowering actuators, like valves and pumps that regulate liquid levels in tanks. They also allow human operators to observe the operation and intervene when necessary.
Developing such control systems is a research focus for Assistant Professor and UBC Okanagan Principal’s Research Chair Ahmad Al-Dabbagh. As lead of the Okanagan Laboratory for Control Systems Research, Al-Dabbagh focuses on leading research and development activities related to control systems, including those that are distributed geographically and use communication networks to exchange data.
Al-Dabbagh is a licensed professional engineer in the provinces of British Columbia and Ontario. Before returning to academia to pursue his doctoral research, he worked in industry for several years designing, developing and commissioning solutions mainly for control systems in manufacturing and energy applications. After completing his PhD — followed by a few months of postdoctoral research at the University of Alberta in 2018 — Al-Dabbagh continued his academic journey. He held an NSERC Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Toronto and was a sponsored researcher at Imperial College London before joining UBCO’s School of Engineering in 2020.
In today’s modern world, industrial facilities like manufacturing plants and oil and gas refineries have many interconnected devices and systems that are distributed and use communication networks. And those are only as powerful as their control systems.
“Control systems collect lots of data, and delving into that data is very fascinating,” says Al-Dabbagh. “It provides so much information on how devices and systems function the way they do.”
By analyzing the data, Al-Dabbagh is able to investigate and develop strategic recommendations to improve the operation of devices and systems. He also studies different methodologies to control, monitor and automate the operation.
“Sometimes improvements are quite straightforward, but in other cases, advanced techniques have to be explored and applied to reach the desired outcome,” Al-Dabbagh explains, adding that his team applies and develops solutions using control theory, data mining, machine learning and optimization.
Al-Dabbagh believes the possibilities are truly limitless when considering future applications and developments of control systems. “Research related to control systems is leading to another industrial revolution, and I can’t wait to uncover where we go from here.”