NTNU professor Kristin Ytterstad Pettersen is a pioneer in her field. She is the first Norwegian to receive the prestigious BODE award. In addition, she is only the second woman in the world to receive this award – in a field that is still quite male-dominated. Photo: Kai Dragland

An award that puts Norway on the international map

Cybernetics professor Kristin Ytterstad Pettersen has been awarded the BODE prize for her groundbreaking research in underwater robotics. It is one of the most prestigious technology prizes in the world.

Scientists have been working on snake robots for more than 30 years, but Kristin Y. Pettersen and her team have gained attention for their flexible underwater robots that link biology and technology.

Other scientists have focused on building the robots. Pettersen’s team has taken a different approach.

“We wanted to explore how we could give our underwater robots greater flexibility and movement,” she says.

One outcome of their research is the budding company Eelume, which Pettersen started in 2015 after working closely with industry for many years.

Created mathematical model

“After several trials with prototypes, we realized how challenging it was to control the robot, so we created a mathematical model to solve the problem. That’s our strength,” she says.

The team’s research straddles mathematics and more practical applications.

“This is where technical cybernetics has its purpose, and that’s where we like to be,” says Pettersen.

Now they have started up operations with snake robots in deeper waters.

“In cybernetics we build models to understand the inherent properties of the robots. What happens if we make them a little bigger, a little smaller or give them more speed? No matter what the robot looks like, whether it’s moving on land or in water, with a mathematical model we can analyse the behaviour of all these different robots,” explains the cybernetics professor.

Snake robot during deep sea testing. Photo: Eelume

The Nobel Prize for cybernetics

On 12 December,  Pettersen was awarded the prestigious BODE prize. Her colleagues call it “the closest you can get to the Nobel Prize in cybernetics.”

The BODE Award

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.

Pettersen's address will take place at the CDC 2020 next December in Jeju Island, Republic of Korea. The basis for the award 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 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 officials say "We are very proud to count her as one of our own".

“Only candidates with international breakthroughs in the field qualify for this award. It is perhaps the greatest international academic and scientific recognition in the field of Control Engineering,” says Asgeir J. Sørensen. He is a professor of marine engineering and has been Pettersen’s colleague and collaborative partner for more than 15 years.

“That this prize also happens to be in an enormously competitive field​​ between major nations is nothing short of fantastic. It puts NTNU on the map internationally,” says Sørensen, who has a background in cybernetics as well.

Very surprised award winner

Pettersen was surprised to receive the BODE award.

“Only the pioneers in the field have received this award before, so I feel very humbled. The prize hasn’t even been on my radar, so I was very surprised,” she says.

She admits that being the first Norwegian to receive this award is a little extra special. In addition, she is only the second woman in the world to be award the prize – in a field that is still quite male-dominated.

Kristin Ytterstad Pettersen and the President of the IEEE Control Systems Society (CSS), Robert Bitmead. Photo: private

Award for the entire academic group

Although only Petterson will be travelling to Nice to receive the award, she stresses that this is a prize for the entire academic group.

“It’s impossible for anyone to carry out such large projects on their own. So I am representing the entire unique research community at NTNU in accepting this award,” she says.

Sintef has been an important partner in snake robotics, especially in connection with the early prototypes that were developed.