Welcome Kirstin Petersen

  • New Faculty Year: 2016

When Kirstin Petersen was a high school student, she had the opportunity to spend some time at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena. At the time, she pictured herself as a future astrophysicist. But then she saw a robot and her future changed, just like that. It was a Limbed Excursion Mechanical Utility Robot (LEMUR) and NASA was developing it for the surface exploration of planets, moons, and asteroids.

Today, Petersen is an assistant professor at Cornell’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE). Building on that initial introduction to robots, Petersen is interested in the design and coordination of bio-inspired robot collectives and their natural counterparts. Now that she has joined the faculty at Cornell Engineering, she is excited to expand her work in this field to incorporate soft robotics.

The task assigned to her initial robot swarms is construction. Petersen draws her inspiration from ants, bees, termites, and other social insects. In these species, thousands of individuals coordinate to gather food, construct nests, and defend the group. No individual insect could accomplish any of these tasks alone, yet the group manages to do all of this without central control. Petersen is designing her robot swarm to mimic the scalability and error tolerance of insect systems. Another goal of Petersen’s is to replace the need for complicated sensors and control with passive mechanical features.

“These robot swarms manage to combine many of my research interests,” says Petersen. “To build them requires knowledge of mechanics, electronics, computer science, biology, and more. They are a great challenge.”

Petersen grew up in Odense, Denmark. She attended the Odense University College of Engineering, where she earned her B.Sc. in electro-technical engineering. During her undergraduate studies, she went back to JPL, this time for an undergraduate internship. At that point, she was fairly certain she wanted to get her degree and then find a job in industry working on robots. After graduation she found a job in Finland, but it wasn’t long before she was back in school, working on her Master’s in modern artificial intelligence at the University of Southern Denmark.

Petersen then earned her Ph.D. in computer science from Harvard. She worked closely with Professor Radhika Nagpal at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. The research that came out of Petersen’s time at Harvard was named one of the top ten scientific achievements of 2014 by Science magazine. The work involved a group of robots that were programmed to work together to build simple structures by sensing progress and inferring the next steps.

After postdoctoral work at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems with Director Metin Sitti, Petersen joined the faculty at Cornell in the summer of 2016. “I am very multi-disciplinary in my approach,” says Petersen, “and I have found Cornell suits me well. People here are much more collaborative than competitive.” At Cornell, Petersen will have a chance to collaborate on verifiable algorithms for decentralized control of robot swarms. She will also be able to further explore soft robots, which should prove to be cheaper, easier to produce, and lower maintenance than more traditional robots.

Living in Ithaca will give Petersen a chance to engage in two of her favored pastimes—hiking and kayaking.  Petersen is currently teaching a graduate class in Bio-inspired Coordination of Multi-Agent Systems.

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