Portrait of researcher
Naomi Ehrich Leonard. Photo by David Kelly Crow

Naomi Ehrich Leonard, the Edwin S. Wilsey Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, has been awarded the 2023 IEEE Control Systems Award for her research exploring hidden rules that govern the remarkable behavior of leaderless groups such as honeybee swarms or schools of fish and designing rules to enable likewise remarkable behavior in decentralized teams of autonomous vehicles or robots.

Combining tools from mathematics, engineering and robotics, Leonard has developed theory and algorithms that help explain the structures behind the smoky swirls of starling flocks and the resilience of desert ants and provide the means to design efficient, reliable and flexible decision-making for distributed robots in complex environments. Her research formulates mathematical models to examine how group behavior is affected by group members’ communications and responses as well as by individual differences among members. Among other questions, Leonard’s work has explored mechanisms by which groups made up of relatively unsophisticated individuals, such as single bees or off-the-shelf robots, can achieve sophisticated group behaviors such as foraging or navigation that is robust to unimportant fluctuations and adaptive to changes in the environment.

Leonard has applied many of these findings to robotics where her tools enable robot teams to self-organize as they carry out collaborative tasks ranging from environmental monitoring and cleanup to search and rescue. For example, she has designed rules for robotic trash collection in human-populated areas, and developed a multidisciplinary project that deployed underwater robots in Monterey Bay, California, to explore, monitor and measure complex, changing ocean conditions.

She has also collaborated extensively with colleagues in the arts. In 2010, she co-created “Flock Logic,” a project that explores dancers’ use of models of flocking birds, and in 2016 she collaborated on the improvisational dance work “There Might Be Others,” which premiered in New York City. More recently, Leonard collaborated with Susan Marshall, the director of Princeton’s dance program, on “Rhythm Bots,” an art+robotic installation that explores rhythmic connection between humans and robots.

Established in 1980, the IEEE Control Systems Award recognizes outstanding contributions to control systems engineering science or technology. It is awarded annually by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), one of the world’s top technical and scientific societies.

Leonard is the director of Princeton’s Council on Science and Technology and an associated faculty member of the Program in Applied and Computational Mathematics. She received her B.S.E. in mechanical engineering from Princeton and her doctorate in electrical engineering from the University of Maryland. Leonard has been selected as a MacArthur Fellow, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the IEEE, the International Federation of Automatic Control, and the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics.