Kelly Sanders and Nora Ayanian are MIT Technology Review 35

| August 23, 2016

Since 2009, 13 USC Viterbi Faculty Have Been Recognized by MIT Technology Review


Photo Credit: Peter Shin

Today, MIT Technology Review released its annual list of Innovators Under 35. Two researchers from the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, roboticist Nora Ayanian, assistant professor of computer science and director of the Automatic Coordination of Teams Lab at USC; and environmental engineering scholar, Kelly Sanders, an assistant professor in the Sonny Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the director of the Sustainable Systems Group at USC, were selected for their innovation and scholarship in their disciplines.

The two are among 35 innovators selected worldwide each year by MIT Technology Review. With their selection, Ayanian and Sanders join an elite cadre of global innovators including Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the cofounders of Google; Mark Zuckerberg, the cofounder of Facebook; and Jonathan Ive, the chief designer of Apple who have been recognized on the list. They join the ranks of 11 USC junior faculty who have been featured on this list since 2009 (for a total of 13 USC Viterbi faculty on the Innovators Under 35 since 2009).

“It is gratifying that the remarkable talent and promise of Nora Ayanian and Kelly Sanders were aptly recognized by MIT Technology Review. Together with the other 11 USC Viterbi recognized in this list in the last seven years, they represent the new face of engineering: talented, innovative, charismatic, diverse and immensely promising. We could not be more proud of their achievements,” said USC Viterbi Dean Yannis C. Yortsos.

Nora Ayanian: Solutions for Multi-Robot Coordination

Nora Ayanian’s research focuses on getting multi-robot systems out of the lab and into the real world. She creates end-to-end solutions for multi-robot coordination, which allow a user to specify the task at a high level, such as using a tablet app, and deliver code to make the team of robots work without roboticists on hand to monitor their progress.

As someone who is interested in control theory and efficient systems, she needs to know: how can we get robots to work well together as group?

Other roboticists have studied schools of fish or flocks of birds in order to deconstruct their behavior and apply these findings to groups of robots. Ayanian is one of the few who “crowdsources” humans to deconstruct their behavior.

“Teams of humans are exceptionally good at coordination. Teams of robots, however, are clumsy at coordination, requiring extensive communication and computation,” says Ayanian. This poor coordination is something Ayanian would like to eliminate.

Using an online multi-player game she developed with funding from a National Science Foundation CAREER award in 2016, Ayanian is studying how people in groups behave when they need to complete group tasks, but have limited communication, sensing, and motion capabilities—essentially putting “humans in the same situations as robots,” since communication is expensive and difficult for large teams of robots. Her purpose is to record how humans coordinate under these conditions, including how leaders emerge out of the group, how they communicate with each other with signaling, and how humans decide if and when a task is completed. Ultimately, Ayanian would like to bring these methods of coordination and signaling to develop models to apply to teams of robots. Her research is critical for helping teams of robots complete joint, complex tasks efficiently in warehousing, manufacturing, surveillance or in assessing the environment or perhaps even working together to rescue humans in the case of a disaster.

In addition to considering communication and coordination channels, Ayanian is also working to ensure inter-robot collaboration by introducing the concept of diversity. Humans work best together when they have diverse capabilities and ways of thinking. By introducing diversity in how the robots act, they will not compete to complete the same task at the same time in the same way. For example, in tight passageways, the chance for a robot traffic jam will be diminished and robots can be more productive.

Kelly Sanders: Mediating the Power Struggle Between Water and Energy Use

Sustainability expert Kelly Sanders’ focus is the energy-water nexus, namely the idea that producing a safe and reliable water supply requires a lot of energy, while producing a safe and reliable energy supply requires a lot of water. Sanders has been researching ways to optimize this relationship between energy and water services for nearly a decade through new technical, regulatory and market interventions.

Currently, she is looking at novel ways to reduce the tension between energy production and water stress. Whether it is electricity, oil and gas, or biofuels, “all of the types of energy we consume take a lot of water to produce,” said Sanders. “With climate change and drought, a lot of power plants, and the fuels that they depend on, are becoming stressed due to unreliable water supplies, negatively affecting power reliability and adjacent ecosystems,” said Sanders. “Many of our energy sources are contributing to climate change and drought, creating a reinforcing feedback loop,”

The question Sanders is contemplating now is “Can the electricity grid operate smarter when it comes to environmental performance of our power plants?” Through her research, she is trying to increase the power sector’s reliability and cleanliness, whether it be water and ecosystem stress during drought or air emissions on bad air quality days. “Today our power markets aim to minimize cost when selecting power plants to meet our electricity demands. Then we spend a lot of money trying to reverse the environmental and public health damages that these plants impose. Sanders is focused on this: what if we were willing to pay a little more up front to operate our power plants more cleanly and reliably?” By integrating power grid and hydrologic models, her group simulates how hundreds of power plants operate under various operational rules and climatic conditions. Sanders and her team then assess changes to cost, power system reliability, and impacts on local watersheds and human health. She also looks at opportunities for technical intervention, such as coupling water and power utilities to promote the use of recycled water for power plant cooling.

MIT Technology Review Innovators Under 35 honorees are featured at and in the September/October MIT Technology Review print magazine, which hits newsstands worldwide on August 29. Honorees will also be recognized in person at the upcoming EmTech MIT conference October 18–20 in Cambridge, Massachusetts (



Published on August 23rd, 2016

Last updated on May 16th, 2024

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