April 18, 2002

D'Andrea Awarded Government Honor

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The White House announced last month the recipients of the Presidential Early Career Award for Science and Engineering (PECASE). Prof. Raffaello D’Andrea, mechanical and aerospace engineering, was among those named.

Top Honors

The PECASE is the highest award given by the government to scientists. According to Barbara Cain, director of Engineering Communications and Media Relations, “the PECASE was established in 1996 by President Clinton.” Researchers must have received their Ph.D. in the past five years to be awarded a PECASE.


Cain said Cornell has had seven professors in the past who have won the PECASE. The majority of these recipients have been in the College of Engineering.

The award includes a $500,000 research grant. In addition, the U.S. Air Force Office for Scientific research awarded D’Andrea a matching award.

According to the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), “the Presidential award embodies the high priority placed by the government on maintaining the leadership position of the United States in science by producing outstanding scientists and engineers and nurturing their continued development.”

D’Andrea’s research is concerned with controlling complex systems by building mathematical models. “What I do is mathematical — it’s not any specific application,” he said.

According to D’Andrea, “control systems are everywhere. Your cruise control is the simplest example of a control system. When you’re going up and down a hill, your car automatically changes the throttle, so that the car goes at a constant velocity. That’s a feedback control system.”

Other items that use simple control systems include CD players, disk-drives, and cellular telephones. According to D’Andrea, “very complicated ones are found in power plants or in high-performance vehicles such as airplanes.”

D’Andrea described several questions that need to be answered in designing a complex control system: “How do you design a control system that keeps the plane flying without human intervention? The way that you do that is you first try to come up with a model, a physical model of how the airplane behaves based on equations of motion and laws of physics,” he said.

“Once you have a mathematical model, you can ask yourself how is it that I should change the thrust of the engines? How is it that I should change the angle of attack of the aircraft so that the plane flies itself in a steady fashion?”

Recipients of the PECASE are scientists who are currently receiving research funding from one of the eight participating federal agencies. According to D’Andrea, “If you’re funded by the National Science Foundation or any other government agency, they select a few people that they want to put forward for this award, and then they select about fifty from everyone in the United States to get this.”

D’Andrea was one of six researchers chosen by the Department of Defense to receive a PECASE. “I do pretty fundamental research, basic research,” D’Andrea explained. The Department of Defense funds “my type of research because it could be applied to their applications, or they envision that it could be applied to the Department of Defense’s needs.”

D’Andrea said that the research funded by the PECASE grant will include controlling complex systems working together. “We’re interested in controlling systems that have hundreds or thousands of degrees of freedom and hundreds of thousands of activators and sensors.”

D’Andrea received his undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto in engineering physics. While receiving his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the California Institute of Technology, he spent time in Holland working as part of a mathematical systems group. Currently, D’Andrea teaches a senior elective on feedback control systems and a graduate class on advanced control systems. In addition, he is the advisor for the Cornell RoboCup Team.

According to Cain, D’Andrea is a very “student-oriented” professor. “He’s one of those faculty members who gives faculty members a good name,” she said.

Archived article by Kate Cooper