Smart Infrastructure

The U.S. northeast blackout of 2003 caused at least 55 million people to live without power for several days and more than 508 generating units at 265 power plants to shut down. One of the primary causes of the blackout was a software bug in the alarm system at a control room of the FirstEnergy Corporation in Ohio. Apparently, operators were unaware of the need to re-distribute power after overloaded transmission lines hit untrimmed trees. What could have been a manageable local power outage cascaded into widespread failures in the electrical grid. Collateral damages spilt into other infrastructures such as water supply, transportation, and communication. It was the most widespread blackout in the U.S. history. We witnessed a similar blackout in India in 2012, the largest power outage in human history. 620 million people lost power for several days.

In both disasters, nature elements acted as triggers. In some other cases, nature itself causes disasters. For instance, Hurricane Katrina was the deadliest and most destructive tropical storm of 2005. Such storms impose great challenges on urban infrastructures: Hurricane Katrina caused at least 1833 deaths and $81 billion worth of damage. A more recent example was the “Superstorm” Sandy which caused some 286 deaths and $68 billion worth of damage.

In the summer of 2011, floods in Thailand disrupted local production and supply chains at first. Companies like Western Digital and Honda Motor were forced to suspend production. Factories were closed due to disruptions to local supply chains. However, the contagion spread globally through the tightly coupled supply chain networks. The loss was estimated to be around $2.2 billion. 

Even without natural triggers or threats, we saw infrastructure failures in events like 2010 Johnson & Johnson children’s medicine recall. On April 30, over 43 OTC children’s medicines were voluntarily recalled, affecting at least 12 countries. Caused by serious production problems in the subsidiary McNeil Consumer Healthcare, coupled with insufficient quality control and surveillance, products that did not meet federal regulations had entered the market which had to be recalled. 

At CMSR, our faculty are working on projects that are focused on improving our understanding the underlying mechanisms and modes of such systemic failures. The goal is to develop models and software packages that can improve the design, control and optimization of smart infrastructures. 


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