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European Control Award for Ming Cao

27 June 2016

On Thursday 30 June, University of Groningen Associate Professor Ming Cao will receive the European Control Award, which recognizes ‘outstanding contributions by a young researcher in the area of systems and control’. Cao has pioneered control systems which allow groups of autonomous robots to work together.

‘It is a fairly new, but prestigious award’, says Jacquelien Scherpen, Director of the ENgineering and TEchnology institute Groningen (ENTEG), to which Cao’s research group belongs. The European Control Award is awarded to a scientist working in Europe who is younger than 40 and has made an outstanding contribution to the field. Cao is the third recipient of the prize.

Ming Cao
Ming Cao

‘The University of Groningen has a good reputation in Systems and Control’, explains Scherpen. That’s what brought Cao to Groningen in 2008 from Princeton University, where he worked as a postdoc following his MSc and PhD at Yale University. He has since built up a sizeable group, with some ten PhD students and two postdocs.

But what is systems and control, and why does Groningen have a name for it? ‘We develop systems to control anything from robots to smart power grids. Basically, we produce algorithms that make a computer chip do what it has to do, develop a system such as a robot or a team of robots perform its tasks autonomously, and use mathematics to prove that it works’, says Scherpen. The man who started this work in Groningen was Jan Willems , a world leader in the field. ‘He really put us on the map’, says Scherpen.


Ming Cao is doing that as well. His PhD thesis was on controlling autonomous groups of robots. ‘Ming was one of the first to tackle this’, says Scherpen. He has developed this further in his work in Groningen. A week ago, one of his students was awarded his PhD for a dissertation on just this topic. Hector García de Marina designed a new algorithm which makes it possible for groups of robots to perform different tasks without extensive reprogramming.

One characteristic of Cao’s approach is his emphasis on interdisciplinary research. ‘He works with biologists and sociologists to learn how birds flock together or how ideas spread through a community and lead to decisions.’ Some of the rules that biologists have discovered govern group behaviour in animals can be used to engineer control systems, such as teams of robots, to behave in a similar manner. Decision making is important for autonomous robots, because they have to base their actions on the cues they receive from the local environment.


Cao has been successful in funding his research. He obtained both a Veni and a Vidi grant from Dutch science funding organization NWO, and an ERC Starting Grant from the European Research Council. ‘And he has other funding sources, not least projects involving industry.’ Cao is a member of the SmartBot consortium, which aims to develop smart robots for industry.

The European Control Award is further recognition of Cao’s work. He will receive EUR 3,000 in prize money and will be a plenary speaker at the European Control Conference in Aalborg, Denmark. The title of his presentation is An Evolutionary Approach to Coordination of Self-Interested Agents. ‘That is typical of Ming: a talk about systems control with biology and sociology in the title!’

Last modified:08 October 2018 12.09 p.m.
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