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Dr. Kirstin Petersen — Designing Robot Collectives

Kirstin Petersen
February 2, 2016 - 4:15pm to 5:30pm
Clark Auditorium

Open to the public

In robot collectives, interactions between large numbers of individually simple robots lead to complex global behaviors. A great source of inspiration is social insects such as ants and bees, where thousands of individuals coordinate to handle advanced tasks like food supply and nest construction in a remarkably scalable and error tolerant manner. Likewise, robot swarms have the ability to address tasks beyond the reach of single robots, and promise more efficient parallel operation and greater robustness due to redundancy. Key challenges involve both control and physical implementation. In this seminar I will discuss an approach to such systems relying on embodied intelligent robots designed as an integral part of their environment, where passive mechanical features replace the need for complicated sensors and control.

The majority of my talk will focus on a team of robots for autonomous construction of user-specified three-dimensional structures developed during my thesis. Additionally, I will give a brief overview of my research on the Namibian mound-building termites that inspired the robots. Finally, I will talk about my current research thrust, enabling stand-alone centimeter-scale soft robots to eventually be used in swarm robotics as well. My work advances the aim of collective robotic systems that achieve human-specified goals, using biologically-inspired principles for robustness and scalability.


Kirstin Petersen is a Postdoc with the Physical Intelligence Department at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Germany. Here, she develops novel soft actuators to enable stand-alone centimeter-scale soft robots. Kirstin finished her Ph.D. in computer science at Harvard University and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering in 2014, her thesis topic a combination of termite-inspired robots for collective construction and corresponding studies of the real termites. This work was featured in and on the cover of Science in February 2014, and was elected among the top ten scientific breakthroughs of 2014. Kirstin completed her M.Sc. in modern artificial intelligence in 2008 and a B.Sc. in electro-technical engineering in 2005, both with the University of Southern Denmark. In her spare time Kirstin is an avid hiker and traveler.