Form, Function, and Robotic Superorganisms

Form, Function, and Robotic Superorganisms

Soft Condensed Matter & Physics of Living Systems


September 25, 2018 - 3:00pm to 4:00pm




1116 East


Cornell University


Natural swarms exhibit sophisticated colony level behaviors with remarkably scalable and error tolerant properties. Their evolutionary success stems from more than just intelligent individuals, it hinges on their morphology, their physical interactions, and the way they shape and leverage their environment. Mound-building termites, for instance, are believed to use their own body as a template for construction; the resulting dirt mound serves, among many things, to regulate volatile pheromone cues which in turn guide further construction and colony growth. Throughout this talk I will argue how we can leverage the same principles to achieve greater performance in robot collectives, through hardware and software co-development, and by integrating the environment into the design process. I will give examples of systems from our lab that exploit form, function, and the concept of robotic superorganisms, spanning collective robotic construction inspired by African mound-building termites, ongoing work towards slime-mold inspired soft robot collectives, and initial studies of bio-hybrid collectives of honey bees.


Kirstin Petersen is an Assistant Professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Cornell University; she is also a member of the Computer Systems Lab, and has field positions in Mechanical Engineering and Computer Science. Her lab, the Collective Embodied Intelligence Lab, is focused on design and coordination of large robot collectives able to achieve complex behaviors beyond the reach of an individual, and corresponding studies on how social insects do so in nature. Major research topics include swarm intelligence, embodied intelligence, and autonomous construction. Before arriving at Cornell, Petersen did a postdoc with the Physical Intelligence Department at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Germany. She completed a PhD in 2014 in computer science at Harvard University and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. Her graduate 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.