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We present the first closed-loop separation control experiment using a novel, model-free strategy based on genetic programming, which we call ‘machine learning control’. The goal is to reduce the recirculation zone of backward-facing step flow at
manipulated by a slotted jet and optically sensed by online particle image velocimetry. The feedback control law is optimized with respect to a cost functional based on the recirculation area and a penalization of the actuation. This optimization is performed employing genetic programming. After 12 generations comprised of 500 individuals, the algorithm converges to a feedback law which reduces the recirculation zone by 80 %. This machine learning control is benchmarked against the best periodic forcing which excites Kelvin–Helmholtz vortices. The machine learning control yields a new actuation mechanism resonating with the low-frequency flapping mode instability. This feedback control performs similarly to periodic forcing at the design condition but outperforms periodic forcing when the Reynolds number is varied by a factor two. The current study indicates that machine learning control can effectively explore and optimize new feedback actuation mechanisms in numerous experimental applications.
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