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McLaughlin Plays Major Role in NSF Celebration of Engineering Research Centers

Lynn Preston & David McLaughlin

David 
McLaughlin &
Lynn Preston

On October 22, the College of Engineering’s Associate Dean for Student Affairs and Administration David McLaughlin was a featured speaker at a National Science Foundation (NSF) Capitol Hill event in Washington DC to celebrate 30 years of knowledge, innovation, and technology research created by the NSF Engineering Research Centers (ERC). McLaughlin is the former director of the $40-million NSF Engineering Research Center for Collaborative Adaptive Sensing of the Atmosphere (CASA), centered in our Electrical and Computer Engineering Department. NSF coverage of the Capitol Hill event

“Because Lynn Preston [former leader of the Engineering Research Centers program at NSF] is a big fan of CASA,” says McLaughlin, “I was asked to speak on behalf of all ERC directors at this 30th-anniversary event and describe the CASA project as an example of an ERC and also to speak about CASA’s ‘student-led test bed,’ which proved to be an effective model for empowering teams of students to think big about complex systems problems.”

As Preston recently told McLaughlin: "I can't think of a better example of an ERC engineered system than CASA.”  

Engineering Research Centers integrate engineering research and education with technological innovation to transform our economy, health, and security. Investments in 67 centers nationwide since the program's inception have led to more than 193 spin-off companies, more than 739 patents, and countless research outcomes enabling new technologies.

As McLaughlin told the assembled participants, “CASA’s vision was an engineered system that enables better warning and response to tornadoes and other weather hazards. Today, 80 percent of all tornado warnings are false alarms. We miss nearly 20 percent of all tornadoes, and when we do get a warning out, the average warning time is only 13 minutes.”  

In his speech McLaughlin recalled that in 2003 Preston and the NSF ERC program enabled a group of researchers spanning the disciplines of radar engineering, weather forecasting, computer networking, decision science, and sociology to come together and form CASA, thereby defining an entirely new way to observe and respond to weather. “CASA wanted to do with weather observing what cellular telephony did to communications: create and deploy a nationwide technology of networked radars and distributed computation and control that would provide accurate, reliable, actionable information to emergency managers, forecasters, school superintendents, and people in the streets with their smart phones.”  

Mclaughlin went on to tell his audience that the ERC program enabled CASA to create new hardware and software and information displays and to assemble and deploy all this technology in the field throughout the notorious “Tornado Alley” in Oklahoma.

“It took us nearly eight years to get the systems issues figured out and be able to prove our concept of better, more accurate storm tracks using dense radar networks,” he said. “And in 2011 our network helped local emergency managers coordinate evacuations and shelter people during a deadly tornado outbreak. Newcastle, Oklahoma, City Manager Nick Nazar told the local papers ‘The opportunity to use this advanced technology was very helpful and probably saved lives. It was literally up to the minute, and it made a difference.’”

According to McLaughlin, as CASA was nearing the end of its ERC funding decade, “Preston challenged us to financially sustain CASA going forward. This challenge led us to move our system from Oklahoma to Dallas/Fort Worth/Arlington, Texas. We did this because the local emergency management community in that busy metroplex wanted to use our network to improve local warnings. The North Central Texas Council of Governors stepped in and  coordinated efforts to secure funding from FEMA, the National Weather Service, NSF, and local businesses to operate the system on a continuing basis.”

In his speech, McLaughlin related that the ERC program also allowed CASA to create an entirely student-led test bed on the island of Puerto Rico. “We challenged a student team from Massachusetts, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Puerto Rico to create an advanced flood-forecasting system in Western Puerto Rico,” said McLaughlin, “since that region is prone to flooding from tropical storms and existing radar coverage there is inadequate.”

McLaughlin concluded that “What a job they did!” The students invented the concept of the “Off the Grid” radar network that derived its energy entirely from the sun and wasn’t vulnerable to outages when storms shut down the local power grid.

“The important point here,” McLaughlin emphasized, “is that the students – because we gave them control of their strategic planning – took CASA into a part of the design space where we wouldn’t have otherwise gone and they came up with a completely new take on the radar network problem…It’s a great example of how the NSF ERC program is driving next-generation technological innovation and powering the next generation of engineers and innovators.”

McLaughlin joined other distinguished speakers at the ERC celebration including NSF Director France Córdova; IEEE-USA President James A. Jeffries; U.S. Representatives Randy Hultgren  (14th Congressional District of Illinois);  Eddie Bernice Johnson (30th Congressional District of Texas); Paul Tonko (20th Congressional District of New York); and Dr. Mario Rotea, former professor and department head of  our Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department and current NSF Director of the Division of Engineering Education and Centers.

McLaughlin also served as one of four judges in the NSF’s national ERC Perfect Pitch Contest, in which undergraduate and graduate students from all the ERCs across the country competed locally by presenting 90-second “elevator pitches” describing new science and technology innovation ideas. Then each ERC sent a local winner to this national 30th-anniversary event to explain the research in the context of societal needs.

 “We judges then heard them all and chose the top three nationally,” McLaughlin explains, “which were then presented at this Capitol Hill event.” (November 2015)