Gator Engineer to help design disaster resilient infrastructure

In News, Research & Innovation by Jen Ambrose

In 2003, fifty-five million people in the northeastern United States were affected by a widespread power outage and subsequent cellular service overload, attributed to some untrimmed foliage and a faulty alarm. A few weeks later, a storm took out a single powerline in Italy and another fifty-five million people lost electricity and train service. This year, a lone train in Hong Kong hit an overhead wire and thousands of people were stranded as the region’s entire transportation network collapsed.

These are all examples of the ways modern infrastructure systems can be hazardously interdependent, where a single failure can cascade into a widespread catastrophe. In order to find innovative ways to bolster the resilience of the electrical grid, water systems and other lifelines and services, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded nearly $17 million to a new research area: Resilient Interdependent Infrastructure Processes and Systems (RIPS).

Along with Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Georgia Tech and Carnegie Mellon, the University of Florida was selected to help with this research. My T. Thai, a professor of Computer & Information Science & Engineering at UF, will receive nearly $1.1 million of RIPS funding to research optimization and algorithmic mathematics, analyzing interdependent networks vulnerability. Her project “Vulnerability Assessment and Resilient Design of Interdependent Infrastructures” will include collaboration with three of her UF colleagues: Vladimir Boginski is an assistant professor in the Department of Industrial & Systems Engineering and Yafeng Yin is an associate professor in the Engineering School of Sustainable Infrastructure and Environment. Christopher McCarty is an associate professor College of Public Health and Health Professions and is the director of both the UF Survey Research Center and the UF Bureau of Economic and Business Research.

“This research requires expertise in many domains, crossing several disciplines, in order to comprehensively investigate vulnerability and resilience issues in interdependent systems,” said Thai. “This award from NSF will help us to coordinate and conduct that multi-disciplinary research.”

Thai, who received the Provost’s Excellence Award for Assistant Professors at UF in 2011, will be quantifying the breadth and depth of cascading failures, identifying critical links and nodes, finding adaptive control strategies that can quickly react to cascading behaviors, establishing metrics for human vulnerability and integrating them into mathematical models. She and her team will apply new algorithms to real-world interdependent networks – in Florida – that consist of power grids, communication networks, and transportation networks.

“We envision that this research will help build a more resilient infrastructure, protecting the most critical and vulnerable nodes, thereby halting the cascading failures as soon as possible and minimizing the damage caused to the system and society,” said Thai. “Hopefully, we’ll have no more widespread blackouts in the future.”

Pramod Khargonekar served as UF’s dean of the College of Engineering from 2001-2009. He is now the assistant director for Engineering at the NSF. In the official press release announcing the RIPS projects on the NSF website, he said:

“Conceptualizing multiple infrastructures as cyber-physical interdependent systems and processes–as opposed to discrete components of bridges, rails, power plants and so forth–offers an exciting new paradigm for exploration that will lead to very important new knowledge for the design of resilient infrastructures. We look forward to the creation of a multidisciplinary new research community that can revolutionize the infrastructures of the future.”

The findings of the research are expected to provide timely support for public and private agencies, so that they can develop policies to enhance the resilience of the interdependent infrastructure systems.

Share