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Keeping the dominoes standing

Nader Motee, P.C. Rossin Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Mechanics, focuses on the field of distributed control and dynamical systems -- a rapidly growing branch of engineering.

“A networked system can be almost anything,” he explains. "It can range from Facebook to a power grid to a fleet of drones, and what makes it so interesting to study is the relationship every node in a network has with others. All of these systems encounter distinctly different challenges, but they follow the similar mathematical laws.”

Most real-world networks have an inherently undesirable feature, usually referred to as cascading failure or a domino effect: if a subsystem endures an external shock, there is a chance that the entire network may collapse. Motee’s research, one could imagine, focuses on determining why the dominoes "line up" and how the first one may fall.

“The vulnerabilities of dynamical networks are real, and can have massive consequences,” he says. “As examples, consider the 2003 power blackout in the U.S. Northeast, the 2008 financial crisis, the 2011 Fukushima earthquake and associated power plant disaster, not to mention air traffic congestion around the globe and the spread of disease such as of H1N1. These events caused lives to be lost and billions of dollars in damages, and every one of them can be linked back to a network-wide breakdown.”

His goal is to find and understand the conditions of networks that could experience systemic rare events and undermine the network’s reliability, and then identify the triggers for possible cascading failure. Large-scale, crucial networks are precarious and interdependent, and there exists a huge research gap between theory and practice – a situation Motee is addressing through his research.

"This is absolutely theoretical work," he says. "We're trying to pave the way for future researchers and practitioners to use what we develop to understand and apply it physically."

Motee has recently been recognized by the Office of Naval Research Young Investigator Program -- one of the oldest and most selective scientific research advancement programs in the country -- for his project Risk is New Robustness: A Systemic Perspective. Motee and his students are developing data-driven algorithms to assess global performance, risk, and fragility features of various real-world networks by computing the value of their systemic measure in real-time.

The ONR award will also support laboratory equipment, graduate student stipends and scholarships, and other expenses critical to ongoing and planned investigational studies.

Motee is also recipient of a 2013 Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) Young Investigator Award, as well as a 2015 NSF CAREER Award.