Researchers have worked on the idea of snake robots for more than 30 years, but the greatest breakthrough so far was done by key scientist at NTNU AMOS Professor Kristin Ytterstad Pettersen and her colleagues. In recognition of this work, Pettersen has been awarded the Bode Lecture Prize.

Kristin Ytterstad Pettersen gave a lecture at  The Big Challenge science festival in Trondheim this summer. Photo: Per Henning / NTNU

Text: Kjersti Lunden Nilsen

The Bode Prize recognizes distinguished contributions to control systems science or engineering. Pettersen’s colleagues argues that it is the closest you get to a Nobel-prize within the field of Cybernetics.

Director of NTNU AMOS, Professor Asgeir J. Sørensen has known with Pettersen for many years, and they have worked together for the last fifteen.

“Only candidates with international breakthroughs in the field are qualified for this prize. That Kristin gets it on account of the work she has done in an area where there is intense competition between the large nations is simply fantastic,” says Sørensen.

Sørensen says that he is very proud to have the first Norwegian to receive the prize as a colleague.

A robot that mimics a biological snake

For several years the research team at NTNU has been working on developing an underwater robot that is flexible and slim enough to conduct complex operations in confined spaces, very much like a real sea snake. The result is a flexible snake robot with motorized joints that can change its form as needed, just like a real snake.

“Because of this the robot is capable of conducting a wide spectrum of inspections and surveys under water in places where we have previously struggled to get access to. It is also capable of gripping and manipulating tools and objects, just like an operational underwater drone,” says Professor Pettersen.

She is both humble and somewhat surprised to be awarded the prize.

“Only the great pioneers within this field have received this prize before, so I feel very humbled to be placed among their ranks. I never even suspected it, so I was very surprised when I learned that it would be awarded to me,” explains Petersen.

Pettersen is the first Norwegian to get the prize, and only the second women. She confirms that the field is still very dominated by men.

“Luckily, a lot has happened in our field since I started almost thirty years ago, and it is very inspiring to see the growing interest for cybernetics and robotics,” she says.

Even though the prize was awarded to her personally, Pettersen is adamant that this is a prize that also recognizes her colleagues at NTNU.

“No one can conduct projects of this size on their own, so it is as a representative for the unique research environment at NTNU that I receive this award,” she says.

Pettersen is a professor at the Department of Engineering Cybernetics, a key scientist at the Centre for Excellence NTNU AMOS, and professor II at the Norwegian Defence Research Institute.

Puts Norway on the map

“This might be the most prestigious international scientific recognition one can receive within the field of Control Engineering – a large and important area within ICT. That Kristin and NTNU receives an award like this in a generic field is exceptional, and it really shows what a brilliant scientist she is,” says Asgeir Sørensen at NTNU AMOS.

Kristin Ytterstad Pettersen is also an entrepreneur, and, together with her research group, she has used her research results to establish the underwater robotics company Eelume.

“This is also a great recognition to the Department of Engineering Cybernetics and to NTNU AMOS. It really puts Norway on the map,” says head of department Morten Breivik at the Department of Engineering Cybernetics at NTNU.

He also recognizes the importance of Sintef as a partner in the development of generic underwater robots over several years. In particular in connection with the early prototypes to be developed.

“The work that has led to this award spans more than 15 years of focused and systematic research and everything from developing prototypes, modelling, analysis and simulation to control, experimental verification and commercialization. This is very much in line with NTNU vision “knowledge for a better world”, where knowledge, in the form of more sustainable products and services, is provided to the world,” says Breivik.

The world’s largest engineering society

The prize is named after Hendrik W. Bode, one of the founders of modern cybernetics, and is awarded by The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), which, with more than 400 000 members, is the largest engineering society in the world.

Every year a select few members that have achieved extraordinary results are named fellows. Pettersen was named fellow three years ago as the first Norwegian woman to achieve the honour.

This is what the Control Systems Society has to say about this year’s prize:

“The Bode Lecture Prize is the most prestigious award given by the Control Systems Society (CSS) and is accompanied by a plenary address at the Society’s largest conference the Conference on Decision and Control (CDC).

This is the technical highlight of the conference and is avidly attended. Kristin’s address will take place at the CDC 2020 next December in Jeju Island, Republic of Korea.

“The basis for judgment is “the technical merit of distinguished contribution to control science or engineering.” The awardee is selected by the CSS President after consultation with senior figures in the field. This small-group selection process is designed to identify an individual whose contributions have true depth, breadth and significance.

In Kristin Ytterstad Pettersen’s case, the technical contribution has extended from fundamental theory through implementation, application and commercialization, which describes a broad arc of achievements and impact in the science, engineering and technology of control systems. CSS is very proud to count her as one of our own.”