Carnegie Mellon University
July 15, 2014

Research Meets the Real World with Smart Infrastructure Technology

Research Meets the Real World with Smart Infrastructure Technology
-This year, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) published its “report card” on the current state of America’s public infrastructure. The grade it gave was a D+. Countries and communities are also now dealing with new concerns—increasing urbanization, increased demands from a variety of users, and climate change—that require more complex solutions. These needs are presenting themselves at the same time that reduced environmental and financial resources are making such issues harder to address. We are now paying the price as structures and buildings, pipelines, and electrical grids deteriorate or cannot keep up with the increased demand.  

It is within this climate that the Smart Infrastructure Institute (SII)—a Carnegie Mellon University College of Engineering-based institute—has been developing and testing intelligent technologies to address present and future needs for building, monitoring, and maintaining infrastructure. 

Co-directed by Paul Christiano Professor Burcu Akinci and Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Bruno Sinopoli, the SII has brought together interdisciplinary talent across the engineering and computer science fields. This cross section of talented researchers allows the SII to take a global approach to developing a myriad of technologies for different areas of infrastructure. At the same time, the institute has also been collaborating with industry and organizations to test technologies in real-world settings and to help these users directly and quickly address specific needs. 

“We don’t just exist in the ivory tower conducting our research,” says Akinci. “We are involved with research questions that address real needs in the world of infrastructure.”

This drive to collaborate and create test bed opportunities was particularly evident at the annual SII Symposium held this past May, which brought together leaders from academia, industry, and organizations to discuss successful and potential collaborations. Organizations represented included Bosch North America, the Department of Energy, Toshiba, Honeywell, the New York-Presbyterian Hospital, the Federal Highway Administration, and the Carnegie Mellon University Facilities Management Services. 

In particular, discussions at the symposium about test bedding opportunities illustrated the successful tradition of Carnegie Mellon researchers collaborating with industry to embed their emerging technologies into real-world situations—and even to create test beds within Carnegie Mellon’s own infrastructure

Test Bedding on a Highly Sensed Campus

The flagship program of smart infrastructure research at Carnegie Mellon has been and continues to be the Sensor Andrew project. Created in 2007, researchers designed and implemented a campus-wide test bed for new sensing technologies and applications. Employed in a variety of buildings throughout the university, this program has transformed campus into a “realistic playground to conduct research,” describes Sinopoli.

SII researchers have established a long-standing partnership with the university’s Facilities Management Services in which they have had the chance to test technologies in campus spaces. This union of research and the real world on campus is seen in the opportunity Akinci and her team were given to study in-depth the use of building information models (BIMs) in the construction process of the university’s Gates Center for Computer Science and the Hillman Center for Future-Generation Technologies, completed in 2009.

From these opportunities to sense campus heating and cooling, energy, and pipeline systems, SII researchers have developed a platform of data collection and analysis that employs a variety of sensor equipment and technologies for data collection, analysis, and storage. The data are gathered and analyzed through technology that allows for the 3D visualization of structures and uses a variety of sensors and signal processing techniques. In this way, the platform is easily adaptable to specific purposes.

In two current on-campus projects, researchers are addressing the use of energy in facilities. They are both using Scaife Hall—a university 40,000-square-foot building—as an open lab to test the network of more than 500 sensors placed strategically throughout the four-story building. 

With a three-year, $1.9 million grant from the Department of Energy, researchers Anthony Rowe—assistant research professor in electrical and computer engineering and CyLab—and Mario Berges—assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering—are developing sensor networks and an open-source software platform to measure and, ultimately, optimize energy use in buildings by using Scaife Hall as a test bed. 

"We are creating a control platform for building energy management that will help monitor and understand energy usage patterns over time," says Rowe.

The goal is to develop open-source software that helps building owners measure, monitor, and adjust lighting, HVAC, and plug-loads to save energy without compromising occupant comfort.

Another Scaife Hall project involving Berges, Akinci, Sinopoli, and Professor of Architecture Khee Poh Lam is partnering with Toshiba Corporation to also work on the data collection and analysis process of determining the current energy efficiency performance of the building and providing live data streaming for a number of sensing points in the building.

Test Bedding within Partnering Facilities

Collaborating with industry and organizations, SII researchers have also been successful in helping these partners solve real problems they are facing with their own infrastructure. By addressing specific issues, new technology processes are created that can then be applied more generally to the overall development of studying different domains of infrastructure.  

Researchers recently partnered with the Pittsburgh Airport Authority and Honeywell International to address facilities operations and management in an airport setting, using the Pittsburgh International Airport as a test bed. This research team including Akinci and Civil and Environmental Engineering Adjunct Semiha Ergan is working to develop a BIM that can be used for airport facilities operations. By using the airport as a test bed, this team is able to work through unique issues faced by airports, which include accommodating a large-scale structure that is operated and maintained over a sizeable space by working within the confines of a number of regulatory maintenance requirements that keeps the airport safe, secure, and comfortable for all stakeholders using the facility.

Another research team, led by Sinopoli, is working with Bombardier Transportation Systems in Pittsburgh, PA to develop an approach to allow the company to transition from the automated people movers’ existing reliance on a guideway to move and guide a vehicle along a track. The team is working and testing a self-directed, electronically-guided, onboard-powered vehicle, using sensor technology, to eliminate the signal rail, guidance beam, and power rail from the guideway. The technology developed on this project will allow Bombardier to focus on twenty-first century mass transit infrastructure needs.

The Future of Smart Infrastructure: Urban Systems

The interdisciplinary work being done in smart infrastructure is expanding in scope as SII researchers begin focusing on the development of technologies to address holistic urban systems. They are now exploring opportunities to collaborate with colleagues across campus in areas like policy, computer science, urban design, transportation, energy, and architecture. 

To lead this endeavor and to help foster collaborations among researchers, industry, and government partners is Distinguished Service Professor of Urban Systems Jurij Paraszczak. With affiliations in both the College of Engineering and the H. John Heinz III College, Paraszczak describes his role in helping cross-college researchers to focus on urban systems as a complete system, “whose intersections contain some of the thorniest problems that cities, regions, countries, and continents have to face.”

He recognizes the strength that researchers at Carnegie Mellon—like those in the SII—bring to developing new intelligent technologies for infrastructure: “Carnegie Mellon has been working in this area for many years and has developed leadership methods through ICES and across the campus to help understand everything from the state of sewers and water distribution systems to bridges, roads, and buildings.”

He continues: “It’s my role to help them connect with others doing work in these areas from different perspectives and to help them address these domains within a community’s infrastructure system.”


This article was originally published in the Spring 2014 ICES iNews Magazine and reprinted with permission.

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