Industry Spotlight: How Electrical Engineers Shape Today’s Hottest Gadgets

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Electrical engineers are among the unsung heroes of the ongoing revolutions in mobile computing, the Internet of Things (IoT) and renewable energy. While much attention is focused on the user-facing design of smartphones and other contemporary electronics, the internal functioning of these devices is just as important to their ultimate acceptance by organizations and individuals. For instance, their CPUs, networking capabilities and batteries dictate their look and feel – and all of these components are the work of electrical engineers.

How electrical engineers influence the designs of smartphones and similar devices

Consider the recent case of the Apple iPhone X. One of the biggest storylines about the handset was its distinctive “notch” – i.e., a black bar intruding into an otherwise edge-to-edge organic light-emitting diode (OLED) screen. Opinions differed on the elegance of its appearance, but its placement was ultimately determined by engineering constraints:

  • Apple’s electrical engineers had to fit many advanced electronics in that notch, including a dot projector, flood illuminator, proximity sensor and infrared camera.
  • These features work in tandem with the phone’s front-facing camera to support the Face ID authentication system, which is an alternative to signing in with a passcode.
  • Due to the total size of all of the different hardware required for accurately scanning someone’s face, the notch reached down into the top-center of the OLED display.

High-profile mobile tech like the iPhone is hardly the only domain for electrical engineers, but it is one of the highest paying and fastest growing. In each of these fields, electrical engineers operate largely out of the public eye to ensure the efficiency, safety and cost-effectiveness of the numerous essential systems underpinning today’s hottest technologies. Their work doesn’t normally catch the public’s attention like the iPhone X, but it always makes a difference in how numerous in-demand gadgets and infrastructures actually function.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, electrical engineers working in semiconductor and other electronic component manufacturing had a median wage of more than $100,000 in 2016. Electronics are the building blocks of an enormous industry: IDC estimated that 363 million smartphones alone were shipped in the third quarter of 2017, while Gartner has projected there will be 8.4 billion internet-connected “things” (e.g., sensors, home appliances, etc., all of them outfitted with specially engineered semiconductors) by the end of 2017.

Meanwhile, the Advanced Energy Now 2016 Market Report pegged the U.S. clean energy market at $200 billion in 2016. For reference, that makes it larger than pharmaceutical manufacturing and twice the size of the beer industry. Revenue from solar photovoltaic (PV) cells, which electrical engineers help design and test, jumped 21 percent from 2015 to 2016.

Behind the scenes: A look at a few ongoing projects in electrical engineering

In fact, cutting-edge solar PV research and testing provide a prime example of the tasks electrical engineers perform before any products they contribute to are brought to market. Solar engineers oversee the design of PV and thermal systems, diagram connections between solar implementations, establish separate specifications for residential and commercial products and provide guidance to installers.

These responsibilities are broadly similar to the ones associated with other common subfields of electrical engineering, such as electronics engineering. Beyond ensuring the viability of solar power infrastructure, the electrical engineers of today and tomorrow might tackle ambitious projects in design and testing, such as:

Boosting the efficiency of Wi-Fi connectivity

Wi-Fi is ubiquitous. Although only 20 years old, it has virtually replaced wired Ethernet in many contexts, to such an extent that many laptops no longer ship with Ethernet ports, while smartphones and tablets never had them to begin with. However, its fundamental reliance on wireless signals means that it is a significant strain on battery life, especially for mobile devices with power-hungry HD displays.

Wi-Fi-related battery drain has been a long-term concern for electrical engineers. In 2016, one group of them, working alongside computer scientists at a university, made a breakthrough with the discovery of Passive Wi-Fi, which they claimed uses 10,000 less power than the state-of-the-art tech for low-power Wi-Fi. It is also more energy-efficient than Bluetooth and ZigBee, two standards pivotal to the IoT.

As of late 2017, passive Wi-Fi is still mostly conceptual. If and when it becomes integrated into mainstream commercial products via precisely engineered chips, it could potentially save as much battery as turning Wi-Fi off entirely would on a smartphone today. It would also be a boon to IoT devices, which might be able to follow smaller and less energy-intensive designs.

Implementing laser applications in various electronics

Lasers often conjure up images of the futuristic weaponry from sci-fi films and books. In reality, lasers are everywhere, with numerous electrical engineering applications including:

  • Lighting: Lasers are appealing alternatives to LEDs in some communications systems, due to their narrower optical bandwidth. They can facilitate digital point-to-point communications without needing electrical connections between them.
  • Cutting and heating: Lasers can be embedded into equipment used for tattoo removal, medical treatment (e.g., photodynamic therapy) and spectroscopy. In each of these cases, the laser creates a specific chemical or physical reaction.
  • Depth sensing: Lasers are useful for assisting cameras in determining depths, distances and angles. Accordingly, they are engineered into products such as drones and satellites.

The aforementioned iPhone X relies on lasers to assess any face trying to access Face ID. Upcoming smartphones may also incorporate lasers into their rear cameras, in order to measure depth for purposes of the 3-D imaging integral to virtual and altered reality applications.

Turning your electrical engineering ambitions into reality

Electrical engineers are at the center of every major development in electronics and renewable energy going forward. Having a master’s degree gives you the knowledge, technical skills and credentials to secure a position in this vital field. At the University of California – Riverside, you can conveniently earn an online master’s in electrical engineering. Visit the program page today to find out more about your opportunities.

Recommended Readings:

 Power Electronics and Engineering

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Quora, What Can I Do With Laser in Electrical Engineering Projects? 
The Verge, The iPhone X’s notch is basically a Kinect
The Verge, Apple is reportedly working on a laser-based 3D sensor for 2019 iPhone
Wired, The Future of Wi-Fi Is 10,000 Times More Energy Efficient 
Learn.Org, What Does an Electrical Engineer Do?
EnvironmentalScience.Org, What is a Solar Engineer? 
Gartner, Gartner Says 8.4 Billion Connected “Things” Will Be in Use in 2017, Up 31 Percent From 2016
The Verge, Apple’s iPhone X notch is an odd design choice
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Electrical and Electronics Engineers 
Advanced Energy Economy, Advanced Energy Now 2016 Market Report 
Troops to Energy Jobs, Solar Energy Systems Engineer