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Faculty Candidate Seminar

Designing Collective Behavior in Robotic Swarms

Justin WerfelSr. Research ScientistHarvard University

Attend this event remotely via BlueJeans: https://bluejeans.com/232188481

Nature is full of systems where independent, limited agents together give rise to sophisticated collective results, from cells in a body to organisms in a society. Such cases show that dynamically interchangeable, individually unreliable components can produce effective and reliable outcomes at the group level. The goal of engineering systems that work in such a way has the promise of producing powerful systems with advantages like robustness to failures of individual elements and flexibility in adapting to unknown conditions and unexpected events. At the same time, meeting this goal requires overcoming challenges not only of accommodating unpredictability and limitations of individual agents, but also of designing low-level behaviors that guarantee a particular high-level outcome.

In this talk, I will discuss the design of several multi-robot systems centered on the topic of collective construction, in which independent agents jointly build large-scale structures. Key principles that make engineering such systems possible include using the environment as a tool for coordinating effort and facilitating mechanical tasks, and creating regularities that constrain the space of possible trajectories. I will first discuss a system of independent climbing robots that flexibly build structures using specialized building blocks; a user can specify a precise target structure as an input, and robots follow simple rules that provably guarantee the correct completion of that structure. Next I will outline more recent work on the use of physical forces within truss-based structures as an additional cue for coordination, and on robots that drive interlocking sheet piles to serve as anchors for superstructures or as direct interventions for environmental restoration. I will close with an overview of our studies of collective construction in natural systems, uncovering principles used by the social insects that inspire the field of swarm robotics.

Bio: Justin Werfel is a Senior Research Scientist at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, where he leads the Designing Emergence Laboratory. His research interests are in the understanding and design of collective behavior in complex and emergent systems, with work in areas including swarm robotics, social insect behavior, evolutionary theory, engineered molecular nanosystems, and educational technology. His work has been featured by numerous national and international media, highlighted among Science’s “top 10 scientific achievements of 2014”, and denounced by a former assistant secretary of the US Treasury as “an enemy of the human race.”

11:30-Noon: Grad Student Round Table with the Candidate (join via the BlueJeans seminar link)


Cindy Estell

Faculty Host

Ed Durfee