Virginia Tech will invest $75 million over five years to build teaching and research capacity in areas where it is already a national leader, including smart design and construction, and autonomous vehicles across land, air, and water, university officials said today.

The initiative will provide learning opportunities for students and unite university and industry partners under the theme of “intelligent infrastructure for human-centered communities” — a critical domain that will fuel global development and enhance quality of life in a world teeming with challenges and opportunities because of changing trends in energy, transportation, and urbanization.

“The commitment across campus to create a unique and valuable living-learning experience for our students is extraordinary,” said Virginia Tech President Tim Sands. “We expect more than 2,000 students to be involved in intelligent infrastructure study and research by 2022.”

More than 80 faculty members from multiple colleges and institutes are involved in the initiative, as the university ties new assets into existing programs and research facilities across the Blacksburg campus to create an unparalleled educational experience.

“Virginia Tech is positioned to become the nation’s leader in intelligent infrastructure for the 21st century,” said Thanassis Rikakis, the university’s executive vice president and provost. “Our faculty expertise in all key components of intelligent infrastructure, our cross-cutting curriculum and research, and our network of research capabilities and partnerships throughout Virginia position us well to reach this goal. This effort over the next few years will embed intelligent infrastructure and ubiquitous mobility throughout the student and faculty experience at Virginia Tech, thus connecting daily experience to advanced training and research.”

Faculty from established units working in intelligent infrastructure from the College of Engineering, the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, and the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science will form the core of the effort. Faculty and students in all colleges will have the opportunity to connect with the initiative, particularly in related policy, social science, business, cyber-security and agricultural/forestry industry areas.

Connecting the campus

The university will build upon an existing network of facilities across Blacksburg.

Starting from the center of campus with the Joseph F. Ware Jr. Advanced Engineering Lab, a focal point for undergraduate design projects in the College of Engineering, students are steps away from the in-progress $45.5 million Intelligent Infrastructure and Construction Complex that includes two new interdisciplinary research and education buildings and smart dining facilities.

“For almost 20 years, our undergraduate students have been able to apply engineering principles in the Ware Lab with creative, hands-on experiential work,” said G. Don Taylor, the Charles O. Gordon Professor of Engineering and interim dean in the College of Engineering. “Being in close proximity to complementary world-class facilities will further enrich the students’ collegiate experience and prepare them to solve complex problems on a global scale.”

Nearby, a short walk across West Campus Drive, a $1 million Autonomy Study Park near the Duck Pond will provide a place for students to experiment with autonomous land vehicles and a caged facility for unmanned aircraft. In addition, the Duck Pond itself — already the testing ground for many Virginia Tech student experiments — could be employed to test above- and underwater autonomous crafts.

“Our role is to help provide the infrastructure and operational expertise that will create this immersive learning environment, and to connect students with faculty and industry,” said Stefan Duma, the Harry Wyatt Professor of Engineering in the College of Engineering and interim director of the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science. “Our existing research, especially in autonomous systems through Virginia Tech’s Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, will be a resource that students across campus can use on multiple levels — for fun, for senior design projects, for graduate research. We can provide the tools that will allow a landscape architecture student or a journalism student, for example, to learn how to fly an unmanned aircraft, and do it safely and legally.”

Continuing through the corridor

The developments on the western end of campus will connect with existing and planned research facilities on Plantation Road in Blacksburg. A $1 million Intelligent Infrastructure Corridor for students to perform automated vehicle experiments will develop along Duck Pond Drive to Plantation Road.

At that intersection, the university plans to locate a $9 million Smart Design and Construction Complex — a large, enclosed, hangar-like facility where faculty and students can  connect their basic research to practical applications in areas ranging from smart houses to smart energy.

“The College of Architecture and Urban studies faculty are poised and ready to continue our engagement in research in smart planning, design, and construction of the world's built environment,” said Jack Davis, the Reynolds Metals Professor of Architecture and dean of the college. “Additional resources will position our students to gain unique knowledge on advancements in intelligent infrastructure for human-centered communities. I know of no other comparable research-based academic ecosystem featuring this level of comprehensiveness in a learning environment." 

Continuing the outward push from central campus, a $2 million Intern Park Building will connect at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, a site where the university faculty and students routinely work with corporations, governments, and agencies. In this facility, students will work directly with industry leaders to drive innovation and entrepreneurship.

Also in the works, at the Virginia Transportation Institute, a $10 million Rural Smart Road project and a $3.5 million expansion of the Virginia Automation Park, along with existing smart road facilities, will result in a test bed for self-driving cars and unmanned aircraft systems to enhance research activities across Virginia Tech.

“The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute has a long history of working closely with the university and its myriad sponsors and partners — from government entities to auto manufacturers and suppliers — to create robust facilities that enhance testing capabilities across the board,” said Tom Dingus, director of the institute. “We are also devoted to providing students with first-hand knowledge gained through applied research, with more than 150 undergraduates and graduates supported annually at the institute. The intelligent infrastructure goal of transforming the overall student experience by immersing them in effecting real-world change provides us with a solid foundation upon which to build our research and student endeavors.”

 The intelligent infrastructure initiative includes metro areas, with a $3 million expansion at the Urban Living Lab in the National Capital Region, where Virginia Tech works closely with Arlington County on a number of projects, including sensor networks that would leverage the county’s fiber infrastructure.

Next steps

University sources, including the provost’s office, colleges, and institutes, will fund about half of the $75 million investment. The other half will come from external sources, including $25 million from private philanthropy, along with funding from industry and government partnerships.

Several major commitments of support have been made, including $5 million for the Intelligent Infrastructure and Construction Complex from the charitable foundation established by the Hitt family, whose company, HITT Contracting Inc., is one of the nation’s 100 largest general contractors. The addition of the Intelligent Infrastructure and Construction Complex will make it possible to dramatically increase enrollment in the Myers-Lawson School of Construction.

Students should begin to see differences on campus as soon as January at the Autonomy Study Park near the Duck Pond. The remaining projects will unfold over the next five years. The initiative is anticipated to add 25 new faculty positions to the university over the next five years.

Written by John Pastor.

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