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University of Pennsylvania GRASP Lab

Ali Jadbabaie, Ph.D. Control and Dynamical Systems

What makes birds fly in flocks and fish swim in schools? And once you know the answer, can you use it to make unmanned airplanes fly in groups? These issues fall into the area of control systems, the focus of Dr. Ali Jadbabaie’s research.

Dr. Jadbabaie is an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Systems Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception (GRASP) Lab ( at the university.

Dr. JadbabaieDr. Jadbabaie got his Ph.D. at Caltech in control and dynamical systems. He then worked as a postdoc on the KDI-funded project Coordinated Motion of Natural and Man-Made Groups. Under the direction of the project’s principal investigator, Dr. Stephen Morse from Yale, the multi-disciplinary team of control theorists, marine biologists, and evolutionary biologists researched how natural groupings—swarms of bees and herds of deer, for example—coordinate themselves and move flawlessly, usually without an obvious leader or form of centralized control. "The biologists were studying different species of animals," says Dr. Jadbabaie, "and they were trying to understand what the evolutionary advantages were for the animals to move in a group or flock. We (the control theorists) were trying to see, from a mathematical point of view, how it’s possible to have a stable global behavior in the absence of global information exchange."

According to Dr. Jadbabaie, "In the course of doing the literature survey, we realized that this problem is something that has been studied one way or another across many different disciplines. People in control theory, in computer graphics, and in statistical physics had all been looking at the general problem of how it is that you can have a group of man-made or natural agents interact with each other locally using simple, local information and how a complicated global behavior emerges from this interaction."

The group was interested in studying this problem rigorously, and with the help of Dr. Jadbabaie’s research, they were able to explain the behavior they had observed. Models in physics as well as in computer graphics had been used to explain how a group of moving objects with only local interaction can reach consensus about what direction they want to go in. The team provided a mathematical proof and justification for why this happened and generalized it to several situations.

Dr. Jadbabaie’s work on the KDI project has led him to continue studying group coordination, but now of man-made groups. He explains, "I’m interested in how we can develop a group of unmanned autonomous vehicles, air vehicles or ground vehicles, that coordinate with each other without centralized supervision." The military is very interested in this research because of the trend toward unmanned military operations. Researchers hope to have a group of airplanes interact with one another, with a human providing only a high-level mission objective, a map, and periodic updates. According to Dr. Jadbabaie, "On the surface, the problem of planes and birds are very different, but if you study the mathematics behind it, you see that they are related."

Currently, the military uses unmanned planes for reconnaissance missions. But the direction of Dr. Jadbabaie’s research is, first, to enable planes to work in a group and second, to use them for more aggressive tasks. "The goal is that eventually—over the next 15–20 years—you’d replace a squadron of jets with a squadron of unmanned air vehicles," says Dr. Jadbabaie.

If you would like to learn more about Dr. Jadbabaie’s work, you can visit the Web site of the GRASP Lab at

You can also visit Dr. Jadbabaie’s Web page at

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