‘I enjoy the game’

Name: Paolo Massioni
Nationality: Italian
PhD supervisor: Prof. Dr Michel Verhaegen (Delft Center for Systems and Control, 3mE)
Subject:Distributed control for large scale systems
Thesis defence: One year to go

“Most people have no idea what control engineers like me do.

They ignore the fact that there are control systems everywhere around them, from the brake assistance in their cars to the laser head controllers in their CD players. We look for the mathematical algorithms that describe how such controllers should act. We look for the right input for the right output.

“What I try to do in particular is to use ‘smarter’ mathematics to control huge systems, like those made of many similar elements working together. Allow me to give an example to make myself clear, and since I have an aerospace engineering background, I’ll give an example from aerospace.

“The kind of tools I work on will enable space agencies to have a great number of small satellites flying in formation. Thanks to this kind of technology, in future we might be able to scan the universe with onboard telescopes for small (exo)planets that may support life.

“Instead of letting one ground control station steer all the satellites – the classic and very laborious approach – we develop a system in which each satellite is equipped with its own control system. Each satellite can then communicate with its neighbouring satellites and position itself according to its neighbours’ locations.

“Can you imagine? Simply put, the satellites will talk to one another: ‘Hey where are you going? A little to the right? Okay, then I will move a bit to the right as well’. Since all these satellites function the same way, it’s relatively easy to make such a system work. It needs less computational power than a centrally based system with one ground control centre.

“Right now I’m finalizing a paper I plan to present at a conference in Shanghai later this year. Fortunately, I get to travel a lot for my work. I’ve also been to Mexico and South Korea.

“What’s great about being a PhD student is that you’re also so free to do what you want. At first I had some difficulties understanding what research I should pursue. I was only given a ‘wide sense task’; how to fulfil it was entirely up to me. You can however get lost if you don’t know what you want, but luckily that hasn’t happened to me. When I started to understand that I could do things my way and that this was appreciated, I started getting results, writing papers and attending conferences. I really started to enjoy the game.”

Delta, 31 januari 2002:
“Ons station is eigenlijk niet veel meer dan een poortje met wat armen en benen”, zegt Ton Klein Breteler bescheiden. Een automatisch geleid voertuig met container rijdt het station in. Vier robotarmen pakken een twistlock op en bewegen daarna ieder naar een hoek van de container om het slotje daar vast te klikken.

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