Section: Scientific Foundations
Comore is interested in the mathematical modelling of biological systems, more particularly of ecosystems subject to a human action; the framework is thus that of renewable resources. It is now clear that it is important to understand how these complex dynamical systems work in order to regulate the exploitation of such resources by man. Our framework is Control Theory, whose central concept is “the system”, described by state variables, with inputs (action on the system), and outputs (the available measurements on the system). The systems that we consider are, mainly, ecosystems, that we generally model through a set of differential equations. The variables are, for example, the size or the density of populations. The inputs can be actions exerted on the ecosystem: e.g. action of man ( fishing effort, introduction of food, etc), or action of an external factor (pollution, light, etc). The outputs will be some product that one can collect from this ecosystem (harvest, capture, production of a biochemical product, etc), or some measurements (number of individuals, concentrations, etc).
The Control Theory approach begins with the mathematical modelling of the system. This stage is fundamental and difficult, because one does not have rigorous laws as it is the case in physics. We develop techniques to identify and validate the structure of a model from a set of available noisy measurements: qualitative analysis of the data (extrema, relative position,...) is used to build a model which is able to reproduce the same qualitative pattern. We also work on methods that are dedicated to the identification of the mathematical functions that link the dynamics of a state variable to other variables. Finally, we verify that the model satisfies some biological constraints: for example the concentrations must remain positive or some mass balance relationship must be satisfied. A fundamental problem is the validation, or invalidation, of these models: how to accept, with a certain precision, a model by comparing it with noisy experimental data ? The traditional approach, which consists in identifying the parameters of the model by minimizing a criterion of variation between the outputs of the model and the data, is often inefficient. We are developing new methods that are more relevant experimentally.
Having built a model that synthesizes the behavior of such a complex nonlinear biological system, we can now study its properties and understand the way it works. However, specific problems are posed by the biological origin of the models: functions or parameters are uncertain, or unknown. The quantitative conclusions that we can draw are therefore limited. One then seeks to study the qualitative behavior of the system, the existence of equilibria, their stability, the existence of periodic solutions... Answers to these qualitative questions are fundamental because they tell us whether or not the system is viable (does the model predict the extinction of any species, etc). Answers can often be found, in particular when the models have a strong structure belonging to a general class of systems, for which one develops adjusted techniques: for example the well-known Lotka-Volterra models in dimension n , describing the interactions between n species.
Once the dynamics of the considered living system have been understood we consider problems of regulation: how to maintain a variable at a given level. This is important, for example, in the framework of wastewater treatment where the tolerated pollution levels are determined by governmental laws. The main problem that we have to address is the control of a complex system when the model is uncertain. We mainly work on one class of biological systems, the bioreactors, that have a growing importance in many domains related to the human environment: food (production), pharmaceuticals (production of medicine), environment (wastewater treatment, plankton study), etc. The strong structure of these systems, for which the hydraulic flow plays an important role, is used in order to derive controllers.
Finally, we develop observers that use the model and on-line measurements to asymptotically estimate the variables that are not directly measured. These so called "software sensors" help monitoring some systems and replace some expensive measurements. For the design of such observers, we are faced with uncertainties that are specific to biological modelling: the model is uncertain (parameters, functions) while the inputs can also be affected by disturbances and the outputs highly variable. Therefore, we have to deal with these uncertainties in the design of observers. We have developed robust observers that assume that some parameter or input belongs to a given interval. The observer then asymptotically estimates intervals for the state variables. Other estimators are also considered.
The methods developed by our group are validated and tested on several applications.