Electrical Engineering | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Electrical Engineering

Upon graduation, many electrical engineers form their own companies to manufacture electrically based products or to provide consulting services. Others become involved in research, design, manufacture, sales or maintenance of electrical equipment.
Tidal Power Plant
The Annapolis Tidal Power Plant was the first to transform tidal energy to electricity (courtesy Tidal Power Corp).

Electrical Engineering

 Electrical engineering is a discipline in the ENGINEERING profession that deals with the application of electricity, electronics and computers to serve the needs of society. Electrical engineers are involved in the transfer of energy and information from one point to another. They engage in a wide range of activities, from designing and manufacturing computer and COMMUNICATION systems to planning and overseeing the operation of large ELECTRIC POWER stations. The field is expanding rapidly, and in the 1980s and 1990s many universities modified their programs to provide many specialization options. The biggest change is the inclusion of a large number of computer engineering topics into the curriculum, with the result that most electrical engineering departments in Canada have changed their names to electrical and computer engineering.

Upon graduation, many electrical engineers form their own companies to manufacture electrically based products or to provide consulting services. Others become involved in research, design, manufacture, sales or maintenance of electrical equipment. Electrical engineering has many applications that affect our daily lives.

Communications Systems

Electrical engineers are involved in the design, manufacture and operation of devices and systems for transmitting, receiving and storing voice, video and data. Communication systems are made up of transmitters in which voice or other information is used to modulate a "carrier" signal. The carrier is transmitted through space or conductors, and the information is extracted at the receiving end. The transmission of radio waves through space has been the key to worldwide and interplanetary communication systems.

Electrical engineers are involved in many of these applications, including SATELLITE COMMUNICATION facilities. Canada's first SATELLITE, the Alouette I, was launched in 1962 and the first communication satellite, the Anik A-1, was put into orbit in 1972 by Telesat Canada (see SPACE TECHNOLOGY). Communication satellites are used to relay signals from ground-based sending stations to ground-based receiving stations. Canadian satellites now relay television, radio, telephone and computer data to ground-based receiving stations.


Electrical engineers are involved in the design and manufacture of computer components and peripheral devices (eg, printers, monitors and scanners), and also in many areas where a more fundamental knowledge of computer hardware is required, eg, at the design stage of business and personal computers. Electrical engineers use computers to solve technical problems or to monitor and control complicated processes. In other situations, eg, ROBOTICS and feedback control systems, they use microcomputers and related hardware as part of a total system (seeARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE).


While much of the early software was written in an informal way, the complexity of modern software systems has required highly structured design methodologies, with the result that the new discipline of software engineering has emerged. One example is the Canadian Automated Air Traffic System (CAATS), whose software is being built by MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) of Richmond, BC under contract to Raytheon. This software contains over a million lines of code and is being built by a team of 100 software specialists. Safety and real-time operation are key design requirements, necessitating careful design and quality control methodologies.

Electrical Power

Before building new generating plants, electrical engineers use simulation studies to determine generator size, control hardware characteristics and provide other pertinent information. During commissioning of large power generators and, subsequently, during operation, electrical engineers are involved in analysing operational problems and maintaining and improving the quality of service to homes and industry.

Electric generators and their energy sources, steam turbines and hydraulic turbines, are controlled by electronic modules. An understanding of feedback control theory is a necessary part of an electrical engineer's training, along with COMPUTER SCIENCE and fundamentals of power systems.

Recent advances in superconductivity, eg, where the resistance of a conductor is lowered by refrigeration, are being applied to electric generator design. Magnetohydrodynamics (MHD), where a liquid conductor carries an electric current by interaction with a magnetic field, provides an alternative means of generating electricity. Electrical engineers are involved with these new innovations and in the development of such alternative energy sources as wind, solar and tidal energy.


In the transportation field electrical engineers were initially involved with electric motor drives, but this involvement has expanded to other areas. The use of computers for scheduling and controlling traffic provides a greater degree of safety and convenience for the public, as does use of electronics in communication systems at airport control towers and in aircraft. Transporting payloads into space using disposable rockets and recoverable vehicles (eg, the space shuttle) is expected to continue to be a dynamic area where the expertise of the electrical engineers is required.


The use of electronics and microcomputers in MEDICAL RESEARCH, hospital patient care and operating rooms is another area of application. Electrical engineers are involved in the design and manufacture of devices that monitor and analyse electrocardiograms and electroencephalograms and control life-support systems. Medical applications of LASERS and the use of X-rays, magnetic resonance and ultrasonic scanners for 3-dimensional viewing of body organs have involved electrical engineering skills.

Remote Sensing

Canada has become a world leader in REMOTE SENSING technology, where large areas of land and oceans are surveyed periodically by airborne or space-borne sensors. These include optical and radar sensors, which can measure parameters of weather, forests, fields, ocean waves and sea ice. Electrical and computer engineers are key designers and builders of such systems, which are important to Canada because so much of its vast area is difficult to monitor. A highlight of Canada's remote sensing program is the RADARSAT satellite, which was launched in November 1995 and can survey the whole of the Canadian northern ice every day, as well as monitor crops and natural disasters.

Military and Defence

The use of microprocessor-controlled guidance systems for rockets and sophisticated electronics for detection and interception of incoming missiles has meant a greater dependence on electrical engineering support for the military. World War II hastened the development of RADAR for aiming guns at incoming aircraft. Since that time, the military establishments of many countries have accelerated the development of many devices that incorporate microprocessors and other electronic components. One of the new enabling technologies is digital signal processing, which has allowed computers to enhance the performance of modern radar and sonar systems.


One of the earliest programs in electrical engineering was established at McGill University in 1891. In 1907 the University of New Brunswick had 3 professors offering courses in electrical engineering. Engineering curricula are regulated by the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers, with periodic reviews made at each university by the Canada Accreditation Board. Engineering programs typically take 4 years, after which time the student is qualified to be an engineer-in-training. After 2 to 4 years of practical experience, the engineer may be qualified to be certified as a professional engineer by one of the many engineering societies in Canada.