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New facilities, programs, and partnerships will enable Virginia Tech to lead the nation in intelligent infrastructure

May 30, 2016

Photograph of Virginia Tech's FutureHAUS prototype home
Virginia Tech's intelligent infrastructure projects include FutureHAUS, a prototype residence full of of cutting-edge home technologies.

Virginia Tech is adding new facilities, creating a new major, and leveraging partnerships with industry and government to expand teaching and research on how to integrate emerging technologies – such as smart vehicles and intelligent buildings – into daily life in ways that are beneficial, human-centered, and resilient.

“We are uniquely suited to lead the nation in intelligent infrastructure for the 21st century,” university Executive Vice President and Provost Thanassis Rikakis said, citing the university’s faculty expertise in all key components of intelligent infrastructure, its cross-cutting curriculum, and its network of research capabilities and partnerships throughout Virginia.

“Addressing this complex but critical topic requires a systems approach that integrates, in tight iterative loops, world-class expertise in engineering, design, construction, data analysis, public policy, and many other areas” Rikakis added. “It furthermore requires a significant range of facilities, and partnerships with industry and government, so that the full scale of the topic can be explored and implemented in real-life situations. We are already doing innovative and leading work in this area, and are making substantial investments in order to do even more.”

Major new facilities in development

Preliminary plans for new facilities include an Intelligent Infrastructure and Construction Complex that will support teaching, collaborations, and prototyping work, further connecting top-ranked programs in engineering and architecture, and allowing the doubling of enrollment in the university's Myers-Lawson School of Construction. The two-building complex will be built in the North Academic Precinct, near Bishop-Favrao Hall, the Classroom Building now under construction, and the Undergraduate Sciences Laboratory building and Multi-Modal Transit Facility, both of which are in planning stages.

Also in the works is the Intelligent Infrastructure Corridor, to be developed along the western end of campus, providing a connection between the Intelligent Infrastructure and Construction Complex and research facilities on Plantation Road. The corridor will combine large-scale smart construction, smart transportation, smart materials, and smart energy facilities with high-technology, smart residences for students. These facilities will be connected by smart roads utilized by autonomous vehicles and other autonomous mobility components, such as unmanned aerial vehicles. 

While significant private fundraising for the intelligent Infrastructure and Construction Complex is ongoing, several major commitments in support of that project have been made. These include $5 million from the charitable foundation controlled by the Hitt family, whose company, HITT Contracting Inc., is one of the nation’s 100 largest general contractors.

“The skill and talent that comes out of Virginia Tech is exceptional,” said the company’s chairman, Russell Hitt. “I know that because we’ve had a lot of Hokies on our team over the years. It’s an honor to give back to a university that not only develops capable, passionate minds, but that values the partnership between industry and higher education.”

The university’s focus on cutting-edge technology in construction, and intelligent infrastructure in general, was also appealing, said Brett Hitt, the company’s co-president.

“Technology continues to drive the evolution of our industry,” he said. “We’re moving towards building smart spaces. As construction professionals, we need to consider the impact a space will have on the community it’s built in and the people who will live or work there.”

Photograph of Russell Hitt, chairman of HITT Contracting Inc.,  and Tim Sands, president of Virginia Tech
Russell Hitt, chairman of HITT Contracting Inc., and Tim Sands, president of Virginia Tech

Virginia Tech President Tim Sands credited the Hitts and other donors with helping make the Intelligent infrastructure and Construction Complex feasible.

“The generosity of the Hitt family and other leading construction executives is allowing us to make an immediate, substantial push in this key area,” he said. “We’re extremely grateful, and look forward to adding facilities that will help to encourage cross-discipline connections between faculty and students, as well as large-scale partnerships with industry.”

The site earmarked for the complex can accommodate two buildings totaling about 85,000 square feet combined. One building, which pending Board of Visitors approval is expected to be named Hitt Hall, will allow hundreds more students to pursue degrees such as construction engineering and management or building construction.

“We have very high demand for our students from a construction industry that’s growing," said the Myers-Lawson School's director, Brian Kleiner, who also is the Ralph H. Bogle Jr. Professor in Industrial and Systems Engineering. “Hitt Hall, by allowing us to expand, will give the industry more professionals.”

The other planned structure in the complex is known as the Intelligent Infrastructure Building for now. It will contain labs, interdisciplinary spaces, and a dining hall, all of which will bring together students from numerous programs related to the Intelligent Infrastructure for Human-Centered Communities Destination Area, one of five initial such areas of strategic, interdisciplinary focus at Virginia Tech.

Eventually, the Intelligent Infrastructure Building is likely to be used by students from multiple colleges within Virginia Tech. They will be able to earn an intelligent infrastructure major within degrees ranging from engineering and physical sciences to design, business, and the social sciences. The building also is likely to bring together faculty from different fields who share an interest in intelligent infrastructure, making it easier to span traditional boundaries between academic disciplines.

A robust network for intelligent infrastructure teaching and research

“When complete, the Intelligent Infrastructure and Construction Complex will join a strong collection of Virginia Tech resources that are already being used for major work in this area, including our Urban Living Lab in the National Capital Region and the network of smart and connected roadways operated by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute,” Virginia Tech Vice President for Research and Innovation Theresa Mayer said.

Sanjay Raman, Virginia Tech’s associate vice president for the National Capital Region and a professor of electrical and computer engineering, said the university’s MetroLab Network partnership with Arlington County provides an exciting, new opportunity to test and collect data from intelligent-infrastructure-related technology in a real-world, urban setting.

Research related to autonomous and intelligent vehicles, and intelligent roadways, already is going on, both in Blacksburg and the National Capital Region, through a partnership between the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, commonly called VTTI, and the Virginia Department of Transportation, widely known as VDOT.

In the capital region, as part of the Virginia Connected Corridors and Virginia Automated Corridors projects, dozens of dedicated-short-range-communications radios have been deployed along a stretch of Interstate 66 and sections of U.S. Routes 50 and 29, in order to send and receive information to a test fleet of specially equipped vehicles. In addition, testing of automated vehicles is taking place on the Interstate 95 and Interstate 495 express lanes during off-peak hours through an additional partnership with Transurban, the express lane operator.

Among the ultimate aims of these partnerships are relieving traffic congestion and reducing crashes by alerting drivers and cars to traffic and road conditions in time for them to take action, or for the vehicles to brake automatically. The project started with 12 vehicles. Fifty more will be added soon, said Tom Dingus, the institute's director.

“One great thing about our partnership with Virginia Tech is they have a such a great facility in the Virginia Smart Road at VTTI, in Blacksburg, where we can do first-wave testing before we roll technology out onto the real roadways,” said Cathy McGhee, associate director of the Virginia Transportation Research Council, which is VDOT’s research division.

Professor of Architecture Joe Wheeler was one of three lead faculty on LumenHAUS, Virginia Tech’s award winning Solar Decathlon house project. In collaboration with the College of Engineering’s Department of Computer Science, he’s now working on a prototype home – FutureHAUS – comprised of digitally connected, modular units. Accessibility features include a sink that rises and lowers to accommodate different people. Extensive instrumentation throughout the home lets residents monitor energy usage in detail. High-tech conveniences include a bathtub that can be programmed to have water ready at a certain temperature and time, and a coffeemaker that knows to turn on when the shower starts running in the morning.

“Intelligent housing is the future,” Wheeler said. “Millennials will eventually become the buyers in the housing market, and they’re going to want homes to be like their phones and their cars in terms of being networked – in terms of being smart.”

The increasingly intelligent, networked nature of our surroundings is certain to alter how we will live, work, and travel in the years to come. It will transform industries, prompt new public policies, and open up tremendous opportunities.

“The implications of being able to take a systems approach to the intelligent infrastructure that will surround us – from vehicles, to roads, bridges, and buildings cannot be overstated,” Rikakis said. “Our expertise in this area is not just an opportunity for Virginia Tech, but for our entire state to become known as the national leader in this area.”

Video: What if your car could drive itself?

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Federal and state officials received hands-on experience with “hands-off” automated and connected driving as they traveled a 10-mile stretch of an interstate highway in Northern Virginia in cars sporting the latest automated- and connected-vehicle technology.

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