Carnegie Mellon University puts tech rig into infrastructure - CTTEC - Carnegie Mellon University

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Carnegie Mellon University puts tech rig into infrastructure

Patrick Lazik likes to play practical jokes on his parents from time to time.

From Oakland, the Carnegie Mellon University graduate student can click a button on a computer screen and turn on the hot tub in his parents' home in Munich. Or turn off lights in their living room. Or draw their blinds.

"They freak out when I do that," said Lazik, 23, who studies electrical and computer engineering. A video link allows him to see their reaction.

The technology that makes Lazik's gags possible, integrated with a computer program allowing him to monitor energy use in his parents' home in real time, is no joke. It's part of the wide-ranging research that will drive CMU's Pennsylvania Smart Infrastructure Incubator, opening early next year.

The program, being developed with $2.2 million in state and private money, will look for technological answers to America's infrastructure problems.

"When you talk about infrastructure, you're talking about everything," said Ed Schlesinger, incubator co-director and head of CMU's electrical and computer engineering department. It includes traditional systems -- such as roads, bridges, railroad tracks, pipes, power grids and buildings -- and what he called "cyber-infrastructure," or the computers, networks and sensors increasingly used to run, inspect and maintain them.

"Many parts of the (traditional) U.S. infrastructure are deteriorating, but we don't have the trillions of dollars" needed to build, rebuild or run them, said James Garrett, an incubator co-director and head of CMU's civil and electrical engineering department. More efficient, cost-effective approaches provided by next-generation technology are needed, he said.

Officials held a ceremonial groundbreaking on campus Wednesday. Researchers showed off some works in progress: from devices aimed at better pinpointing leaks and cracks in pipelines and weak spots in bridges to ones that would reduce energy use in homes and businesses. An electric car shuttled people around campus.

CMU will remake existing space into homes for two research areas, both about 1,500 square feet and named for primary corporate sponsors. The Bombardier Smart Infrastructure Collaboration Center, named after the aerospace and transportation company with operations in West Mifflin, will be in Hammerschlag Hall; the IBM Smart Infrastructure Laboratory will be in Porter Hall.

Work is under way.

Joel Harley and Yujie Ying, both doctoral students, showed technology designed to better monitor pipelines. More than 250,000 miles of transmission pipelines and 1 million miles of distribution lines are in the United States. Instead of probing them inch by inch to hunt for cracks and leaks, technology would enable companies to run ultrasonic waves between two sensors spaced far apart.

"It's still several years before this will be used in practice, but it will save time and money," Harley said.

Anthony Rowe, assistant research professor of electrical and computer engineering, showed energy-use readings collected by some of the 1,500 meters on CMU's campus. The goal is to use sensors to reduce energy use automatically in campus buildings, based on their needs and level of use at a given time.

"We are building the faith with the facilities management department," Rowe said.

Paul E. Rybski, a CMU systems scientist, thinks sensor technology will save lives and money. A university-developed driverless sport utility vehicle has traveled up to 60 miles, using 16 sensors to guide its way. He thinks such technology will guide light-rail vehicles without rails, eliminating costly maintenance, and serve as "robot chauffeurs" for regular people.

"I am so looking forward to the day when I can set the full cruise control in my car, take my hands off the wheel and go cross country without having to drive," said Rybski, 37. "I think it will happen in my lifetime."

Article Courtesy of Pittsburgh Tribune-Review