Monday, January 29, 2007

RC planes vs Air traffic control

Brian had us do two quickie systems exercises. First we had to find a motor for an RC plane, then we had to design an air traffic control (ATC) system, and we got 5 minutes for each round. "You won't finish," he said. We didn't. But we learned a few things.

First, there are a range of systems engineering problems. The RC plane involved a lot of physical constraints (due to the laws of thermodynamics, electromagnetism, and that sort of stuff). It was easy to quantitize and optimize even if we had to make decisions about tradeoffs between the electrical, mechanical, and thermal systems. The ATC wasn't was fuzzier, "designer-y", and harder to defend our answers because there wasn't an universal understanding of what was "good." In fact, one of the main characteristics of systems that I'm finding is that the "right answer" is very dependent on your definition of the problem, moreso than other fields I've experienced.

Secondly, it was amusing to compare different approaches to the same problem (we worked in pairs). For instance, Chris and Andy drew diagrams for the RC plane problem that reminded me of the minimax theorem and linear optimization in game theory (, among other things). Very pictorial, more holistic and simultaneously mathematical.

In contrast, Marco and I went to the board and started listing out criteria for the ATC. We would have gone on to do a flowchart of decisions if we hadn't run out of time. More sequential and linear, broken into subcomponents, in written format, and... almost programmatic.

The RC plane, Brian said, was more characteristic of traditional engineering education. Mm, math, optimize. The ATC was more Olin-ish, although we still do a lot of RC plane stuff. "And the ATC was more exciting," Boris pointed out, "because it has the potential to save lots of lives, whereas a toy plane..." However, even as the world moves towards systems problems, engineering education still remains behind to work on traditional engineering ones.

That's okay. After all, you need to learn addition before you get into ring theory or Gauss-Jacobi sums. We're always going to need the RC plane optimizers, but now we need the ATC ones too.

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