Thursday, March 29, 2018

The University of Iowa has long been an epicenter of groundbreaking research, scholarship, and creative work. From volcanology and astrophysics to engineering and the digital humanities, the UI is at the forefront of many fields. Our talented faculty pursue their findings while training undergraduate and graduate students who will, in time, take on the mantle themselves. This process is a critical function of a public university—an institution that is both a crucible in which tomorrow’s thinkers and leaders are formed and an engine of discovery that contributes to the public good.

Bruce Harreld portrait
J. Bruce Harreld

A conspicuous example is the College of Engineering’s Center for Computer Aided Design (CCAD). Founded in 1981, CCAD is home to a host of programs that train budding researchers and work to improve lives. Directed by Karim Abdel-Malek, professor of biomedical engineering, CCAD has bridged many departments and colleges on campus and expanded from 27 researchers to more than 160 in the last decade. Though CCAD encompasses seven excellent interdisciplinary programs, I’d like to highlight three that have attained national and international recognition and continue to push the envelope in simulation research.

The Operator Performance Laboratory (OPL)—founded and led by Tom Schnell, professor of industrial engineering—studies pilot responses, unmanned aircraft systems, the optimization of flight-training systems, and the development of information displays for pilots. OPL has worked on many important aircraft technologies over the years, including Synthetic Vision Systems (SVS), which allow pilots to safely navigate in low-visibility conditions. Through licensing agreements, SVS has been commercialized and is now flying on thousands of aircraft today. OPL has also been a pioneer in synthetic training environments, connecting live aircraft with virtual simulations—a research avenue widely seen as the next major advance in military aviation training systems.

Then there’s Virtual Soldier Research (VSR), founded and led by Abdel-Malek, a multidisciplinary program that has built the world’s most advanced human-simulation system. SANTOS is a virtual character that can test vehicles and weapons in the virtual world before they are produced. He and his counterpart, SOPHIA, were developed from the ground up at the UI and leverage the university’s strengths in engineering, medicine, and athletics. These human simulations are now being employed to predict injuries for both soldiers and athletes alike. Research products from VSR have been licensed to commercial entities such Santos Human Inc. and to the U.S. Marines and the U.S. Army, helping them conduct load analysis, evaluate new gear designs, and analyze protective armor.

Finally, there’s the National Advanced Driving Simulator (NADS), led by Dan McGehee, associate professor of industrial engineering. Over the last two decades, NADS has partnered with federal and state agencies, the auto industry, and various organizations to improve safety by researching the connections between drivers, motor vehicles, and road users. This includes researching technologies that detect impaired and distracted driving, helping prevent collisions. Virtually all crash-avoidance technologies available on 2018 cars have come through NADS, from electronic stability control to lane-keeping systems. Recently, NADS partnered with the Iowa DOT and Iowa City Area Development Group to successfully have the Iowa City/Cedar Rapids Corridor designated one of only 10 U.S. DOT Automated Vehicle Proving Grounds. This designation is expected to bring jobs, attract investment, provide opportunities in STEM education, and spur innovation in our local communities.

But UI research extends far beyond the local sphere. Hawkeye efforts have global reach and have a significant impact on the world economy. And CCAD has successfully transitioned research to a number of commercial entities; in fact, the center has successfully led to the formation of 11 distinct ventures. One example, RAMDO Solutions’ software package, called RAMDO, is a simulation-based tool for quantifying uncertainty-optimizing technological design. RAMDO was developed by K.K. Choi’s team at the UI over a 15-year period and supported by the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC). RAMDO Solutions has quickly established itself as a leader in its field and is working with Fiat-Chrysler, Hyundai, and Oshkosh, among others.

OPL, VSR, and NADS represent just a selection of CCAD’s successes. Many other researchers are hard at work on projects at the cutting edge of their fields—just as they are across the UI. It is thanks to the dedication of our talented faculty, staff, and students that the UI has been at the forefront of research, scholarship, and creative activities, and a fundamental pillar of economic development. The best way we can show our appreciation is to continue to support their work and to make sure the University of Iowa, long an important incubator for innovation  is constantly renewing its commitment to creativity, research, and discovery.