Top Ten (Challenge) Problems in Control

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Richard Murray
Control and Dynamical Systems
California Institute of Techology

12 May 2002; revised 27 Oct 05

At a 2002 NSF meeting, a group of people did some brainstorming about "challenge problems" for control. Here are a couple of ideas of things that came out of that meeting that I think are hard (and interesting). The team that initially contributed to these ideas included Ioannis Kanellekopoulos, Bonnie Heck, Bill Levine, Craig Smith, Jim Rawlings, Bill Messner, Wei Lin, Pravin Varaiya, BK Ghosh, Dawn Tilbury, Andrew Alleyne, Magnus Egerstadt, Dimitris Hristu, Faruz Dharba, and Hassan Khalil. I've modified them over time, so everyone above can claim they had nothing to do with any of these that they think are particularly outrageous. More information on the workshop and other related activities at the bottom of the page.

A couple of topics were added in October 2005 as part of thinking through "complex systems" for an NSF Planning Meeting on "Fundamentals of Complex Engineered, Organizational and Natural Systems". I added some comments to the discussion page in August 2008, while attending an ARO strategic planning workshop.

1. World Cup Robotic Soccer Team. Design a robotic soccer team that is good enough that it can compete against humans in the World Cup (and win!). The robots should have the mass and volume of a human being. If we could do this, we could probably design robotic search and rescue teams, security forces (police, firefighters, combat teams), and other collections of robots that perform cooperative tasks in unstructured environments. Target date: 2025.

2. InternetRT. Redesign the Internet so that it could be used to provide real-time (RT) connections between sensors, actuators, and computation that had arbitrary geographic locations. This could revolutionize the way we do control, perhaps even allowing control laws to reside in the computers of consulting companies who would sell them as services (this cool idea is courtesy of Craig Smith at Texas A&M). It might also be useful for global service and supply chains and defense systems (eg, missile defense). Target date: 2005 for the protocols, 2010 for the implementation.

3. Dynamically Reconfigurable Air Traffic Control. Design the air traffic control system so that passengers always got to their destination on time, with a plane that was always 90+% full, and with no delays due to weather anyplace in the country except your departure or arrival city. Supply chains and the power grid could probably benefit from the resulting technology as well. Target date: 2008.

4. Human Life Stabilization Bay. Design a medical system that, when connected to a human through biometric sensors and drug delivery systems, can diagnose a human being and keep it alive indefinitely. Target date: 2015.

5. Redesign the Feedback Control System of a Bacteria. Scientists are able to genetically modify microbiological organisms so that they produce certain chemicals or change their behavior. Can we redesign the control systems in bacteria (including implementation!) so that we can program their behaviors in response to external stimuli? Possible applications include new types of medical treatments and in vivo sensing systems. Target date: 2008.

6. Control 101. Develop a single, unified curriculum for teaching undergraduate control that is a required course for all engineering disciplines (including computer science!) and is sought out by students from the sciences and mathematics as a essential part of their education. Make the principle of robustness through feedback as common as the knowledge of Moore's law. Target date: 2005.

7. Packet-Based Control Theory. Develop a theory for control in which the basic input/output singles are data packets that may arrive at variable times, not necessarily in order, and sometimes not at all. Related problems including figuring out how to do the source coding to support such networked control systems ("real-time information theory", in the words of Sanjoy Mitter). Target date: 2005.

8. Slow Computing. Build a computer capable of powering a PDA out of devices with 10 msec (100 Hz) switching times. Our brain is able to function at the level of a PDA (perhaps higher) but the "devices" in our brain have time constants measured in milliseconds. Can we design and build similar systems? Target date: 2010. [added 25 Oct 05]

9. Write a 100,000+ line program that works correctly on first execution. Engineers in other areas are able to design relatively complex systems that are built for the first time in full working condition (Boeing 777, FETT). Can we do this for software systems? Part of the difficulty is the interaction with "unknown" components (operating systems, libraries, etc). [added 25 Oct 05]

For more ideas, not quite in this form, see the report of the Panel on Future Directions in Control, Dynamics, and Systems and the report from the 2002 NSF Workshop on Modeling, Dynamics, Monitoring and Control of Complex Engineering Systems (no longer online). I also made a list of Top Ten Research Problems in Nonlinear Control a long time ago.