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Section: Research Program

Research domain

The activities of CAGE are part of the research in the wide area of control theory. This nowadays mature discipline is still the subject of intensive research because of its crucial role in a vast array of applications.

More specifically, our contributions are in the area of mathematical control theory, which is to say that we are interested in the analytical and geometrical aspects of control applications. In this approach, a control system is modeled by a system of equations (of many possible types: ordinary differential equations, partial differential equations, stochastic differential equations, difference equations,...), possibly not explicitly known in all its components, which are studied in order to establish qualitative and quantitative properties concerning the actuation of the system through the control.

Motion planning is, in this respect, a cornerstone property: it denotes the design and validation of algorithms for identifying a control law steering the system from a given initial state to (or close to) a target one. Initial and target positions can be replaced by sets of admissible initial and final states as, for instance, in the motion planning task towards a desired periodic solution. Many specifications can be added to the pure motion planning task, such as robustness to external or endogenous disturbances, obstacle avoidance or penalization criteria. A more abstract notion is that of controllability, which denotes the property of a system for which any two states can be connected by a trajectory corresponding to an admissible control law. In mathematical terms, this translates into the surjectivity of the so-called end-point map, which associates with a control and an initial state the final point of the corresponding trajectory. The analytical and topological properties of endpoint maps are therefore crucial in analyzing the properties of control systems.

One of the most important additional objective which can be associated with a motion planning task is optimal control, which corresponds to the minimization of a cost (or, equivalently, the maximization of a gain) [156]. Optimal control theory is clearly deeply interconnected with calculus of variations, even if the non-interchangeable nature of the time-variable results in some important specific features, such as the occurrence of abnormal extremals [119]. Research in optimal control encompasses different aspects, from numerical methods to dynamic programming and non-smooth analysis, from regularity of minimizers to high order optimality conditions and curvature-like invariants.

Another domain of control theory with countless applications is stabilization. The goal in this case is to make the system converge towards an equilibrium or some more general safety region. The main difference with respect to motion planning is that here the control law is constructed in feedback form. One of the most important properties in this context is that of robustness, i.e., the performance of the stabilization protocol in presence of disturbances or modeling uncertainties. A powerful framework which has been developed to take into account uncertainties and exogenous non-autonomous disturbances is that of hybrid and switched systems [159], [118], [147]. The central tool in the stability analysis of control systems is that of control Lyapunov function. Other relevant techniques are based on algebraic criteria or dynamical systems. One of the most important stability property which is studied in the context of control system is input-to-state stability [143], which measures how sensitive the system is to an external excitation.

One of the areas where control applications have nowadays the most impressive developments is in the field of biomedicine and neurosciences. Improvements both in modeling and in the capability of finely actuating biological systems have concurred in increasing the popularity of these subjects. Notable advances concern, in particular, identification and control for biochemical networks [137] and models for neural activity [105]. Therapy analysis from the point of view of optimal control has also attracted a great attention [140].

Biological models are not the only one in which stochastic processes play an important role. Stock-markets and energy grids are two major examples where optimal control techniques are applied in the non-deterministic setting. Sophisticated mathematical tools have been developed since several decades to allow for such extensions. Many theoretical advances have also been required for dealing with complex systems whose description is based on distributed parameters representation and partial differential equations. Functional analysis, in particular, is a crucial tool to tackle the control of such systems [153].

Let us conclude this section by mentioning another challenging application domain for control theory: the decision by the European Union to fund a flagship devoted to the development of quantum technologies is a symptom of the role that quantum applications are going to play in tomorrow's society. Quantum control is one of the bricks of quantum engineering, and presents many peculiarities with respect to standard control theory, as a consequence of the specific properties of the systems described by the laws of quantum physics. Particularly important for technological applications is the capability of inducing and reproducing coherent state superpositions and entanglement in a fast, reliable, and efficient way [106].