Take the 2-minute tour ×
Electrical Engineering Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for electronics and electrical engineering professionals, students, and enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I'm trying to understand something very basic about Control Theory. Let's say I have the following loop:

Block Diagram

If we'll relate this loop to a cart with a motor going in its single axis from X = 0 to X = 50, the controlled variable will be the engine speed (v), while the monitored variable will be the cart location (x).

In this case:

  • The measured output should be the cart location, right? But the system output should be the engine speed, shouldn't it? If so, how does this work in the equations? (units-wise)

  • What will be the Reference, System Input, System Output?

share|improve this question

5 Answers 5

up vote 6 down vote accepted

The control output (what you are calling the system input) and the system output are not necessarily proportional. In your example, the system is in part a integrator. This sort of thing is common. The extra pole in the system does have to be taken into account in the controller, else it can easily lead to instability.

The less directly related the control output and the system output are, the more complicated the control algorithm has to be. In the real world, you often get systems that are non-linear, partially integrate the input, etc. This is why control theory is a discipline onto itself.

share|improve this answer
Quote: "In your example, the system is in part a integrator". A good approximation for a dc motor (voltage in and rotating angle out) is a third-order transfer function (I-T2). –  LvW Jun 27 '14 at 7:27

You need to have a goal to measure with respect to. If the goal is to simply get the cart to a certain location then you will be monitoring the location as you move along the path (like an encoder counts light ticks) and subtracting that from the total distance you intended to travel until you reach zero.

In your example it comes across to me as the system output will be the cart's location and the system input is going to be motor speed. In this way, we either slow down or speed up the motor speed to get to out destination.

The example I fall back to when thinking of control theory is a car in which the intent is to minimize the variance between a vehicle in front of you and a fixed distance behind it. The sensor is your eyes through which you observe (feedback) the change in distance and rate-of-change of distance. If you see that the variance is increasing then you may input into the system an acceleration that is proportional to the rate-of-change observed by your eyes between you and the vehicle ahead (this may either positive of negative acceleration depending on the direction the car is moving with respect to your position relative to it).

share|improve this answer

I think, a good example for your block diagram is the classical x-y plotter, which has two such systems (one for each direction). In this case:

  • Input (reference): Voltage in V;
  • Output: Location in cm;
  • Controller: Control unit for correction of dynamic loop properties (V in and V out); in our example (x-yplotter): Mostly PD-T1 (lead) controller.
  • System (two sections): (1) DC motor (conversion of voltage into revolutions per seconds, rps); (2) Gearbox for translation into horizontal movement (rps into cm).

  • Sensor: Conversion of location (cm) back to voltage (like a potentiometr).

share|improve this answer

Unit-wise the solution is actually rather trivial. The parameters to your controller (for example, P, I and D) are not in fact dimensionless, but can be dimensioned (implicitly) as such that they 'convert' the error to the desired system input. For example, if your input is volts, the output amperes, your proportional action would be in ampere per volt (hence, proportional!).

Your in- and output should be carefully chosen by yourself. For example, a 'position' measured output would be much more logical than some meaningless 'voltage', but there are limits. Take for example the flow in the river with a dam: if you measure too far away from the dam, your system will have so much lag that it will become uncontrollable. In other words, you are free to choose your system borders for any subsystem, but choose them carefully.

share|improve this answer

The measured output should be the cart location, right? But the system output should be the engine speed, shouldn't it? If so, how does this work in the equations? (units-wise)

You will implement this either in a analog circuit, or in a discrete environment. In an analog system, the magnitudes will be in V (volts). And, in a discrete system, there will be bits and bytes. So the original units are gone. Don't worry about the units.

What will be the Reference, System Input, System Output?

Reference and input are the same things. We apply the reference as input. If you are asking these two information, then you are leaving the system design to us. There may be infinitely many solutions to this problem. The position and velocity information can be given out from some part of the system. However, the actual system output can be anything.


Reference: Angle of the gas pedal
Output: Voltage level generated by the tachometer
Sensor: Something that scales tachometer reading to the gas pedal level

You can find the position by integration the tachometer reading.

share|improve this answer
Would output in your example be more appropriately the increased RPM of the engine or is that not related to the control by is rather just some consequence thereof? The sensor would then be something that measures the RPM which would adjust the tach. In this way, the driver observes the tach and, through feedback, adjusts the angle of the gas pedal accordingly. –  sherrellbc Jun 26 '14 at 14:17
Units are very important. Those volts represent a physical quantity, according to some units conversion. Saying "don't worry about the units" is a recipe for huge trouble. –  Ben Voigt Jun 26 '14 at 18:43

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.