Two Yale Professors Awarded $2.6 Million National Science Foundation Grant for 21st Century Technology Research

Electrical engineering Professors A. Stephen Morse and Peter Belhumeur are recipients of a $2.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the second largest 1999 award among 31 national research grants to study knowledge and distributed intelligence.

Chosen from a pool of 700 proposals, the Morse/Belhumeur research team seeks to understand how schools of fish, herds of deer or flocks of birds can coordinate themselves and move flawlessly, often without an apparent leader, in three dimensions. From this study, Morse and Belhumeur hope to put their theories about coordinated motion to work by building man-made autonomous vehicles that will move in perfect tandem with each other.

“We hope to discover underlying concepts upon which the coordination of group motion might depend and use these concepts to help explain how fish maintain their spacing and develop guidelines for designing groupings of man-made autonomous vehicles,” said Morse, professor of electrical engineering at Yale. “We are very excited to have this opportunity to take our research beyond theory and into concrete practice. This award also illustrates the expanding growth computer technology is having across all areas of science and engineering.”

The Yale team’s grant is part of a $50 million program involving two dozen institutions in 20 states that supports a NSF initiative to focus on information technology research for the new millennium. The Morse/Belhumeur team will look for answers to questions such as, are there universal principles of coordinated group motion? How might these principles be used to design a school of autonomous submerged vehicles, or a coordinated group of ground-based or airborne mobile robots?

To address these questions, the team will develop biological models, come up with operating strategies, and use computer simulation. They will then use the information they gather to form the world’s first database recording the long-term, three-dimensional motions of individual fish within a large school. Once compiled, the database, along with full documentation, will be made available to science and engineering communities via the Internet.

“We will take timed sequences of stereo video images of actual fish schools living in a large tank of 1,000 gallons or more,” said Morse. “We will then image the schools’ responses to various stimuli under varying conditions.”

These experiments are expected to be useful from both the biological and engineering perspectives. The team will test robotic versions of hypothesized biological models not possible in a fish tank and they will test a man-made school in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

“Our first goal will be to instrument these vehicles so they can function autonomously without remote control,” said Morse. “We will then experiment with a variety of maneuvers including group formation, cruising, splitting up, avoiding obstacles, and changing group shapes.”

The Morse/Belhumeur research team is a cross-disciplinary group of experimental and theoretical marine biologists, experts in computer vision, control systems and robotics. They include Roger Brockett of Harvard’s engineering and applied physics division; Naomi Leonard of Princeton’s mechanical engineering department; and Julia Parrish and Daniel Grunbaum in the zoology department at the University of Washington/Seattle.

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Media Contact

Karen N. Peart: karen.peart@yale.edu, 203-432-1326