Sztipanovits builds on IoT, Industrial Internet for the next tech revolution

Janos Sztipanovits, director of Vanderbilt University’s Institute for Software Integrated Systems.

Americans are well accustomed to the sight of Fitbit-adorned wrists, their wearers marching in place so that their smartphones can reward them with a celebratory message about hitting a step goal. That’s the Internet of Things.

And we’re starting to hear about intersections where the light changes to accommodate an approaching ambulance, or smart dryers turn on when electricity is inexpensive. That’s the Industrial Internet.

Both of those are precursors of the next technology revolution, the thing Janos Sztipanovits, director of Vanderbilt University’s Institute for Software Integrated Systems, and his colleagues are working on. The idea is for extending the use of the internet to create a deeply connected world where humans, their machines and the physical environment interact seamlessly, continuously and without mistakes and breakdowns that could lead to safety issues.

It’s a convoy of six trucks communicating with each other to move safely as traffic lights accommodate their progress. It’s a smart home that locks itself up, but senses that there’s still a person inside and opens doors if a smoke alarm goes off.

It’s technology called Cyber-Physical Systems, and it has been Sztipanovits’ passion for a long time.

“Cyber-Physical Systems is about designing these systems so that we’re living in a richly instrumented environment, where virtually everything is connected to computers through networking – enabling a lot of automation,” said Sztipanovits, who is also the E. Bronson Ingram Professor of Engineering. “The result is that many things start interacting with each other that never interacted before. How can you keep track of all these interactions so you don’t damage the safety of your home?

“The world is getting more connected. We need to understand what are the new engineering principles where you can create safety, security and stability.”

Through his participation, Vanderbilt was the first academic institution to join the Industrial Internet Consortium after the consortium was announced in March 2014. Technology giants AT&T, Cisco, GE, IBM and Intel founded the group, which now has more than 200 members supporting adoption of the Industrial Internet, integrating physical machinery with networked sensors and software.

Sztipanovits and the Vanderbilt Institute for Software Integrated Systems also are managing the Cyber-Physical Systems Virtual Organization for the National Science Foundation, linking together all of the organizations working on the topic, archiving and disseminating documents produced by research and offering collaboration platforms for thousands of CPS researchers.

To show how much interest there is in CPS research and the foundational technology beneath it, Sztipanovits likes to point to Gartner’s Hype Cycle for technology in 2014 that shows a long list of technologies belonging to Internet of Things, Industrial Internet and Cyber-Physical Systems. The general expectation is that technologies such as smart robots and autonomous vehicles, big data, mobile health monitoring and cloud computing are well on their way to make huge impact in the next 5-10 years.

Rethinking engineering for a new era comes with its challenges, Sztipanovits points out. The sheer number of platforms that must be addressed to make this level of interaction possible is daunting, plus there are large numbers of engineers contributing pieces to a vast system. The Internet of Things, Industrial Internet and Cyber-Physical Systems are all different perspectives of a major, ongoing technology shift.

Perhaps the best comparison, he says, is the old parable of the blind men describing an elephant – the legs, the trunk, the tusks. All are important, but in the end, the goal is to be able to understand the entire beast.

And what an amazing elephant it will be.


Heidi Hall, (615) 322-6614
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