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Professor John Simpson-Porco’s (ECE) research is in the area of automatic control.

The Edward S. Rogers Sr. Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering (ECE) is welcoming four new faculty members before the start of the 2020 fall academic term. This is the first in a series of introductions to ECE’s newest faculty members.

Professor John Simpson-Porco’s research is in the area of automatic control and he’s looking forward to collaborating with other researchers on everything from small-scale microgrids to management of smart buildings and water distribution systems. Writer Jessica MacInnis spoke with Professor Simpson-Porco to learn more about his research, why he chose ECE at U of T Engineering and his advice to new students.

Tell us about your research.

I work in the area of automatic control, which is an interdisciplinary topic at the boundary between engineering and applied math. About half of my work is on fundamental problems, such as how to generally analyze control systems and how to design controllers. The other half of my work is application-driven, and focuses on applying advanced control and optimization methods to problems in the energy sector. The broad goal of this application research is to improve efficiency and reliability of the power grid and to move towards a renewable-centric energy system; there are plenty of difficult control problems that need to be addressed for this to happen at scale.

What excites you about this research area?

Control is fascinating in that it approaches engineering design problems through the lens of rigorous mathematics; you have to clearly pose the problem you want to solve, develop a solution, and prove that your solution solves the problem you posed! In other words — no cheating allowed. My background is in physics, and I like to think of feedback — which is one of the key ideas in control — as a fundamental natural phenomena to be studied, like gravity. Viewed through this lens, control theory is the scientific study of feedback, and control engineering is the principled application of feedback to engineering problems. I think this duality helps keep both the scientist and the engineer in me excited.

Why did you choose ECE at U of T Engineering?

I joined U of T due to its outstanding research reputation in control. Members of the Systems Control Group have made foundational contributions to both control theory and control engineering over the years, and that spirit of discovery continues to this day and drives the research agenda. Being originally from Toronto, it’s also a privilege to come back to my hometown and contribute towards developing cutting edge technology and educating Canada’s top engineering students.

What advice can you share with the incoming class of 2T4?

Students this year are in a very unique situation, and — even more than usual — time management is going to be a major challenge for some students who are used to having more externally-imposed structure in their days. If you can make yourself a firm schedule with clearly blocked out time for study and work, and have someone around to help hold you accountable to that schedule, you will be in great shape.

What do you hope to accomplish, as an educator and as a researcher, in the next few years?

In terms of research, my group is currently developing control designs which optimize the operation of an engineering system in real-time by combining technical methods from control and operations research. We’re going to be applying these methods across a broad range of energy system problems over the coming years. The tightrope we are trying to walk is to develop methods that are backed by solid theory, but also simple and effective enough to be transferred for industrial use. As an educator, my goal is always to get students excited about control engineering, and to give them at least some understanding that control is a pervasive and universal technology applied across all modern engineering sectors.


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