Carnegie Mellon University

Two architectural renderings of AIS lab spaces: Science on display and PhD student office space

October 19, 2021

Reimagining Advanced Infrastructure Systems: Inside CEE’s New AIS Facilities

This fall, CEE students and faculty conducting research in Advanced Infrastructure Systems (AIS) are gaining access to a new, custom-built space. There, they will continue to develop and showcase novel solutions to today’s toughest problems involving the planning, design, construction, and operation of built facilities and infrastructure.

Combining sensing, artificial intelligence, system engineering, economics, public policy, and more to address challenges, the AIS group has for years been conducting, pioneering research utilizing several different lab facilities in Porter Hall and across campus. The new space inside Porter Hall consolidates these dispersed spaces into one location, providing an expansive home for AIS student and faculty research, collaboration, and project demonstration. 

“We’ve used the entire campus as a living lab, but we never had our own fully equipped private testing grounds. We wanted one single spot for AIS to be together,” says CEE professor Mario Bergés, who served as the liaison between the project architects and his fellow AIS faculty members advising on the facility design, including Burcu Akinci, Katherine Flanigan, and Pingbo Tang.

Supporting Leading Edge Research

ais-lab-inside.pngWithin the new AIS facilities, students, faculty, and visitors will discover three main areas. The largest is the Autonomous Infrastructure Systems Lab, featuring a clear glass wall that immediately captures your attention. Inside, visitors will see the team’s ongoing work, with large monitors prominently displaying research results and real-time data as it is collected. 

With an open layout and mobile furniture, the lab can be easily reconfigured to accommodate research needs, host presentations and meetings, and showcase the group’s innovative work. 

Among the projects visitors will see this fall is a residential electric water heater that Bergés and his students have retrofitted to serve as a virtual battery for the power grid. It can store excess energy generated from renewable resources and provide energy back to the grid when resources are limited.

Other AIS projects featured may explore areas like building information modeling, drone-based infrastructure inspections, transportation system modeling, the use of sensing to prioritize repairs to aging infrastructure, and predictive operations for airports and power plants. Whatever research is on display, the goal is to present it in a way that is as accessible and easy-to-understand as possible.

“Whoever is engaged in our research—students, local stakeholders, people from foundations supporting our research, community members— they can come in and get a very clean, direct look at what’s going on under the hood with our projects,” explains AIS professor Flanigan.

Connected to the Autonomous Infrastructure Systems Lab is the Sensing Lab, a place for hands-on research and prototype development, with all of the workbenches, equipment, and tools that the AIS group needs, including soldering machines, 3D printers, drones, various types of sensors, and more. 

“My research involves using a lot of tools and technologies from electrical engineering and computer science,” explains Flanigan, who applies wireless sensing, embedded systems, and other technology to make civil infrastructure and urban systems more intelligent and adaptable. “These things haven’t always been within the civil engineering space, but our department is incorporating many new technologies into our field. We think that those tools and skills should be learned and developed from within our own department.”

The third room in the new AIS facilities is a Visualization Lab, a closed-off room designed for the use of augmented and virtual reality technology in education and research. For educators, VR can be used for activities such as having students conduct VR-based infrastructure inspections. Such assignments give faculty an opportunity to not only assess a student’s knowledge but also gather data on things like common oversights or sequences of observation. Likewise, researchers can utilize these immersive 3D environments, combined with eye tracking equipment and other tools, to study how people interpret and react to different situations and information. 

Professor Tang, for example, is interested in optimizing the operation of air traffic control, nuclear power plants, water treatment plants and building systems. By placing participants in a simulated control room and allowing them to interact with a 3D environment in real-time, Tang can study the causes and frequency of an operator’s delayed reactions or mistakes. 

He may also learn what information is critical to ensuring safe, reliable operations. “Once you identify critical information, you can make sure computers show that information to people at the right time and in the right format,” says Tang. “The other application of my research is that if we are building a new control room, we want to design a workspace to be more convenient and natural for humans to observe data, make decisions, and take timely actions.”

By inviting industry professionals to participate in these simulations and explore the AIS facilities as a whole, Tang and other researchers hope to garner additional insight into current infrastructure challenges and acquire feedback on their work. “We might not realize that a particular problem exists, but people who are doing those jobs every day, they are going to tell us,” Tang asserts. “We have to know what’s happening in real life.”

In addition to the Autonomous Infrastructure Systems Lab space, the Sensing Lab, and Visualization Lab, renovated areas for student ideation and collaboration are located across the hall. This new office suite for AIS graduate students includes two modern conference rooms, inviting common spaces, and a layout that allows students to work either independently or in collaboration.

Demonstrating What’s Possible 

Beyond AIS faculty and graduate students, many others stand to benefit from the new facilities. CEE students involved in undergraduate research or design projects may use the AIS space, and, with the department’s focus on incorporating sensing and machine learning across the curriculum at all levels, the new lab will help instructors to drive home the possibilities these technologies allow. 

“Our undergrads are learning new skills that maybe they didn’t originally think were part of our field,” says Flanigan, who is teaching the sophomore design course this year. “We can take students over to this open, state-of-the-art lab where they can see how what they’re learning translates to research and the real world. Having PhD students show them demonstrations and data, streaming live on our screens, will help students to see themselves as users and leaders of this technology.” 

Similarly, the new facilities give AIS researchers a chance to educate high school students and other community members on what engineering is and how it relates to their daily life. “That’s part of our mission as civil engineers,” says Tang. “We need to enable people outside of the university to understand what we are doing and how we can be connected to the community.”

Whoever they’re talking to or partnering with—the community, industry, or local and national government—AIS students and faculty inside the Porter Hall facilities now have the tools, technology, and workspace they need to tackle more challenges, expand their impact, and shine a spotlight on their efforts to create smarter infrastructure and more connected communities.

“The research that we do is very rooted in real-world problems, and our new space makes this work a lot more visible,” reflects Bergés. “Now that we’re in one of the main corridors to enter campus, we get to show everyone what we’re doing as we’re doing it. I expect this to lead to a lot more cross-pollination and collaboration, not just within the department but from outside of it, too.”