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Mechatronics engineering is a hybrid discipline that consists of mechanical, electronic and control aspects. It is the discipline used to design and manufacture devices that can respond to their environments in real-time. Feedback provided by electrical sensors is managed by a central computer that issues commands to take actions. These commands govern the response of the device, which in turn leaves it in a new situation. Mechatronics engineering is useful for designing many systems that do not rely entirely on human operation.
The first aspect of mechatronics engineering is the mechanical aspect. Mechanical engineering is concerned with the design of physical structures in a machine. Underlying mechanical engineering is the science of mechanics, which is a branch of physics that addresses large-scale forces and matter in motion. Another contributing field is materials science, which can give engineers a suite of materials to use in designing products. In a car, the mechanical aspect would comprise the body, chassis and engine, for example.
Another necessary component of mechatronics engineering is the electronic aspect. Electronic engineering is concerned with designing practical devices that use the motion of electrically-charged particles to operate. This flow of electricity can be used to transport both energy and information. Electrical energy may be used to power a mechatronic device through an electric motor. Information produced by sensors can be managed by a central control system.
The final element required in mechatronics engineering is some form of control. Control theory is concerned with maintaining some optimal state in a dynamical system. It works by obtaining feedback on its current state in an environment, making a decision, and then issuing commands to take some action. When an object is further from its optimal state, it may respond more strongly to reach that state. In a mechatronic device, control is typically managed by a microprocessor—a single integrated circuit with a central processing capability.
Mechatronic devices are widespread in many societies. A car, for instance, combines mechanical systems with electrical systems and a central computer. Many electrical sensors detect information about the car’s state, such as its speed, fuel level and engine temperature. These signals are transported by electrical pathways to the car’s computer, which makes decisions on how to respond. If fuel is too low or the engine is too hot, the computer may issue a command to display a warning message to the operator.
In a car, the task of making decisions is shared by a computer and an operator. Many mechatronics devices, on the other hand, are not operated in real-time by humans. Spacecraft often must use onboard computers to make decisions in real-time because there is a communication delay between the spacecraft and Earth. The Mars Exploration Rovers had a communication delay of several minutes and, therefore, used a central computer to make many quick navigational decisions. Without this capability, the rovers could have fallen off a ledge or gotten stuck by an object by the time operators on Earth noticed the threats.