Infographic of infrastructure projects

Photos by Noah Berger; graphics courtesy the researchers.

Smart moves: California's next-gen infrastructure

Mention infrastructure and what comes to mind are the physical components that hold a society together, the roads, bridges and dams, power lines, railroad tracks, cell-phone towers and all the rest. But soon the word will mean something much bigger and much smaller: a resilient infrastructure that can manage the energy, water, transportation and other human needs on scales from individual homes to whole cities and entire states. The infrastructure will be everywhere — and right at our fingertips.

Ask Berkeley Engineering researchers to characterize next-generation infrastructure, and they’ll tell you about communication: artificial intelligence; machine learning and data stored in the omnipresent cloud; affable robots and other material objects threaded with electromagnetic waves, sounds and images; a continuous flow of information and response. Not to mention the Internet of Things — make that the Internet of Everything.

“What’s enabling these infrastructure changes is our ability to compute faster, to share information faster and to provide that information to users very quickly,” says electrical engineering and computer sciences (EECS) professor Claire Tomlin. The result is a kind of dual-identity infrastructure, a field of physical matter permeated with interactive intelligence. 

“How can we inject sensing and control technologies into our communications, roads, energy grids and other infrastructures while protecting the security and privacy of the public?”

– Shankar Sastry, Dean and Roy W. Carlson Professor of Engineering

It’s the stuff of science fiction, with ideas coming fast. EECS professor Costas Spanos predicts self-monitoring buildings so smart they band together and form bargaining alliances. He says, “It is entirely possible for intelligent buildings to coordinate with other buildings and act as a single agent in negotiating with electric power companies.”

Imagine a robot taxi, “your autonomous valet,” as Scott Moura, professor of civil and environmental engineering (CEE), calls it. It’s not just a vehicle of convenience. After your valet drops you off, it goes and parks where it can plug itself into the grid, helping store electrical energy.

If the valet happens to be a flying taxi in a sky full of drones, it will be part of an urban traffic challenge that air traffic control expert Tomlin is already grappling with. One solution she’s studying: lanes like those in a swimming pool, except in 3-D, using altitude as well as surface maps. The lanes separate drones that deliver packages, say, from others reserved for passengers or police and paramedics.

Closer at hand is the time when a physical structure, embedded with sensors and a means of processing the input, communicates with users about its aches and pains. Recent headlines teem with avoidable situations. A bridge in Big Sur could have sent urgent warnings about too much rain before storm damage cut off the coastal highway.

Like creative thinkers everywhere, Berkeley researchers well understand the limits of imagination — that whatever they dream up now is just the beginning of an unpredictable reality. What’s different is that within a very short time, this infrastructure will literally have a mind of its own.

Berkeley Engineer asked a dozen researchers to name the visionary infrastructures they would like to see developed to improve the lives of Californians. The ideas range from far-out moonshots to shovel-ready (or keyboard-ready, or soldering-iron-ready) projects, not to mention some fixes that have gone begging for years. Brace yourself for a launch into the future.

Costas SpanosCOSTAS SPANOS leads a Singapore-based project to optimize energy efficiency in buildings.Built environment

Super-smart buildings

Buildings consume 70 percent of the world’s electricity. Smart buildings designed with advanced technologies, like translucent concrete or sensor networks that can track occupancy and monitor usage, can dramatically reduce power consumption and lower costs. Using a testbed in Singapore, Spanos and colleagues have found up to a 46 percent energy savings with such new methods. To retrofit older buildings, they have designed simple and inexpensive approaches like the “Building in a Briefcase,” a kit of self-powered sensors and software.

Repairing dams and levees

Storms, rising seas and earthquakes threaten California’s water infrastructure, from the nation’s tallest dam, Oroville, to 1,115 miles of levees in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Like many water systems, these are aging; the earthen dam approaching 50 years, the levees 150, yet cities as far south as Los Angeles depend on both. The possible price of failure: thousands of lives lost, tens of millions of people without water. Advanced-sensor monitoring that makes dams and levees smart is an essential first step, but safety requires more. CEE professor Mark Stacey, who probes mismatches among agencies grappling with neglected water infrastructure, says, “the barriers lie on the socio-economic and political side, not the technology.”


The Hyperloop

Planes, trains or cars can’t get you from San Francisco to Los Angeles in half an hour, but maybe the Hyperloop can. Elon Musk’s idea for propelling passengers through a 350-mile-long tube at near sound speed inspired a Berkeley student team who built the Berkeley Hyperloop (“bLoop”) pod with technological advances in levitation and acceleration. In January, they took the pod to the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition in Hawthorne, California, described by faculty advisor Tony Keaveny as “an incredible three-day learning opportunity for the team, inspiring continued competition and work toward a better future for transport.”

Claire TomlinCLAIRE TOMLIN is devising ways for fleets of drones to avoid midair mishaps.Drone expressways

In a future when even small cities have thousands of delivery drones in the air, control theorist Tomlin’s EECS research team envisions “rail-to-drone” expressways, converting railroad rights-of-way to aerial corridors where closely-spaced fleets of drones travel safely. Amazon and Google are developing avoidance technologies and working with the FAA on air traffic control strategies, such as reserving airspace from 200 to 400 feet for high-speed transit. Tomlin seeks to integrate control theory with machine learning so drones can react quickly and flexibly to unexpected encounters.

Automated truck platooning

Slipstreaming truck platoons cut fuel consumption and pollution by reducing drag; closely-spaced convoys ease congestion. But how will motorists react to a string of 18-wheelers a few car lengths apart barreling down the
highway? Research engineers Steven Shladover and Xiao-Yun have studied truck automation for California PATH (Partners for Advanced Transportation Technology) for close to 20 years; their modeling and full-scale experiments show how platoons can smooth out traffic flow disturbances. Recent tests at Canada’s motor vehicle test center demonstrate that platooning can reduce truck fuel consumption significantly and is bringing the dream of fast, safe, efficient cargo transport to nascent reality. 

Susan ShaheenSUSAN SHAHEEN works with San Francisco transit agencies to develop public-private partnerships designed to improve mobility.

Street smarts

Driverless shuttles, smart on-demand ride services and traffic control systems that respond to changing conditions on the street — these are a few of the ideas Berkeley researchers are pursuing in partnership with the City of San Francisco and private companies to improve urban transportation. The challenge is to reduce congestion, speed the flow of traffic on main arteries and reduce fatalities. Says Susan Shaheen, co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center, “San Francisco is a hotbed for innovation,” the perfect place to test new ideas, experiment and get feedback.


Small-scale membrane bioreactors

Sometimes the answer is to go smaller, not bigger. CEE professor and Water 4.0 author David Sedlak envisions reducing our dependence on centralized urban water treatment systems with on-site water recycling systems for housing complexes or neighborhoods. With technologies like reverse osmosis and electrochemistry, miniaturized bioreactors could turn sewage or greywater into clean water and reduce a city’s water needs. Energy recovered from heat and the breakdown of organic compounds in wastewater could power homes. Nutrients and metals in wastewater could also be recovered. “Household-scale systems for reusing water already exist, but they’re expensive,” says Sedlak. “We need to accelerate research and development.”

Sierra snowpack sensors

Two-thirds of California’s water arrives as snow in the Sierra Nevada. Each winter, wireless networks of sensors, deployed by CEE professor Steven Glaser and his colleagues at UC Water, gather snow depth, soil moisture and other data atop the American River watershed; the information beams to Berkeley via cell and satellite. Glaser’s goal for this intelligent infrastructure is to determine “the amount of water in the state, where it is and what it’s doing.” Water for farms and cities isn’t the only question. Glaser’s team works with hydroelectric operators for the most effective use of dams and reservoirs in supplying the grid and controlling flooding.

Scott Moura and Caroline Le FlochSCOTT MOURA and doctoral student CAROLINE LE FLOCH investigate how electric cars can save and store energy.Energy

A movable grid

What if thousands of electric cars and hybrids could return stored energy to the electrical grid? Like most personal cars in the United States, they’re on the road only 4 percent of the time. Moura says, “Plug-in electric vehicles represent a flexible charging load that could smooth out demand fluctuations,” increasing grid stability by making it easier to incorporate renewable sources like wind and solar, providing their owners personal blackout insurance, “and maybe make them money.” Moura and CEE doctoral student Caroline Le Floch plan ways that coalitions of up to a million cars could optimize charging schedules around the clock, without sacrificing individual mobility.

Solar panels for all

Solar panels are essential for households that aim to produce as much energy as they consume. A team led by EECS professor Constance Chang-Hasnain has made key advances toward the manufacture of highly efficient but low-cost solar cells by growing nanoscale whiskery “forests” of expensive photovoltaics on cheap, widely available silicon substrates. Meanwhile, with a rebounding housing market, California’s New Solar Homes Project offers financial incentives to builders and owners who incorporate solar systems in new homes; on both fronts, the goal of zero-net-energy homes is within reach.


Data savvy

Data scientists swim in rivers of information, their aim to sift gold from digital dross, write flexible and versatile algorithms, ask the right questions and deliver the best real-time answers. Data science is essential to integrate human choices with machine learning, develop new services, protect privacy and thwart cyberattacks. Already vital in complex infrastructure design, next-generation data management will be part of the infrastructure itself. Berkeley’s large and diverse undergraduate Data Science Education Program prepares the way, says its co-founder and EECS professor David Culler, who also co-directs the Berkeley Institute for Data Science, “equipping students not just to consume data but to produce insight.”

Nicole PanditiMechanical engineering student Nicole Panditi (Class of ’18) co-founded the 3-D Printer Filament Reclamation Project to create a closed loop of printer waste on campus.Disruptive technology

Whatever it is, you can print it in 3-D

As 3-D printers get bigger and faster, they are able to mix and assemble different feedstocks to make things harder, softer, squishier or wigglier. Berkeley researchers crafted a prosthetic hand for Sophie, an active eight-year-old; in Europe, custom-fitted, 3-D-printed hearing aids almost outnumber the handmade kind. Says Björn Hartmann, faculty director of the Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation, “We don’t ask, ‘Can we make it?’ any more. We ask, ‘What can we make that’s worthwhile?’” New prosthetics combine plastic scaffolding with living cells to replace bone or soft tissue, and artificial organs aren’t far behind. Whole buildings are made with 3-D printers; whole cities may be next.

In their visionary prognostications of the new kinds of infrastructure to come, our contributors were well aware of the world we live in now, where economic, political and social concerns are the major determinants of what can happen and how fast.  

Spanos notes that “in competitive industries like semiconductors, if you demonstrate something convincingly, the industry picks it up.” Not true in construction, where incentives or policy mandates are essential. As a consequence, engineers and designers present policy drafts to appropriate government bodies, says Spanos, and “if they adopt it, it becomes a requirement.” It’s hoped that smart buildings and zero-net-energy homes will soon follow.

On the other hand, autonomous vehicles may be here soon — so soon, Tomlin admits, that “sometimes it feels like the mavericks out there are pushing things.”

Industry leadership can be all to the good, she says, but there are caveats. “Changing the physical infrastructure, the concrete, is expensive. Changing the information is cheap. In designing the information, we need experts who have studied the dynamics of the physical layer and know the implications of what control decisions might do.” Companies selling drones and robot cars may not be the best at making these decisions. “Government has to be there to regulate.” 

For humans, the challenge is different for each of us. We have to learn to relate — no, it’s more than that — to integrate ourselves with smart objects, from smartphones to smart buildings, from a melting snow bank to the drone that delivers the newest bestseller. The next generation’s infrastructure will take many forms. It’s high time we got ready for them all.

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