IRI Intros: 5 Questions with Bob McGrath
You’ve probably heard that Georgia Tech has a number of Interdisciplinary Research Institutes (IRIs) – but do you know much about them?
This article is one in a series of Q&As to introduce the Tech community to the nine IRIs and their leaders. In this installment, Senior Vice President and Director of the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) Bob McGrath answers questions about GTRI and also talks about its primary field of research, national security.
Q: What is GTRI and what are its core research areas?
A: Founded as the Engineering Experiment Station in 1934, GTRI has grown to become a highly regarded applied R&D organization, serving as a reliable and trusted partner for defense agencies, national security organizations, and a variety of industry sponsors. Of Georgia Tech’s $655 million in sponsored research awards in Fiscal Year 2013, GTRI generated $305 million.
GTRI’s team of more than 1,700 employees (including several hundred undergraduate and graduate students) tackles our customers’ most complex challenges in electronics, electro-optics, antennas, radars, sensors, signal processing and other electromagnetic systems; in cybersecurity, information and communications technologies; in robotics, unmanned vehicles, and autonomous systems; in system testing and evaluation, modeling and simulation, and systems engineering; and in advanced technologies for education, health systems, and agriculture.
Q: What is unique about the defense and national security communities at Georgia Tech?
A: Georgia Tech has a long tradition of providing timely and cost-effective solutions to complex technological and information security problems facing our country. We are a world-recognized leader in radar systems and electronic warfare technologies for the Air Force, the Navy, Marine Corps, and Army. For example, as aircraft age, GTRI serves as a resource the U.S. military can depend on to develop and deploy upgrades to existing avionics systems. Our approach to these and all of our missions is very unique in that GTRI partners across Georgia Tech, working closely with the Colleges of Engineering, Science, Computing, Business, Architecture, and the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts. Together, we have realized successful results that have contributed to important missions for defense, energy, manufacturing, national security, education, and associated public policies.
Q: How is GTRI furthering Georgia Tech’s academic mission?
A: During the course of the year, GTRI employs about 450 students. These students aren’t getting coffee and making copies. They are undergraduate interns, part-time employees, or graduate students conducting master’s or Ph.D. thesis work. They contribute in meaningful ways to our sponsored R&D projects, along the way gaining valuable real-world experience while defraying the overall costs of their college education.
GTRI researchers also teach basic and advanced courses within many of the colleges and serve as instructional faculty for Georgia Tech Professional Education certificate programs, short courses, and for the newly established Professional Master’s in Systems Engineering.
Finally, GTRI contributes in significant ways to the K-12 STEM educational initiatives in Georgia. For example, our Direct-to-Discovery program, funded by the State of Georgia, uses high-bandwidth Internet connections to put Tech’s faculty and researchers in classrooms all across Georgia while virtually transporting middle and high school students to some of Tech’s most sophisticated laboratories.
Q: There has been a lot of discussion around the impact of sequestration on Department of Defense and other federal agency budgets. Can you address the trends and how they might affect GTRI?
A: It’s no secret that the mandatory federal spending cuts known as sequestration are impacting U.S. government funding for R&D. At times like these, we are very well served by Georgia Tech’s reputation for technical excellence and GTRI’s reputation for providing reliable, cost-effective solutions.
Within the Department of Defense, while continued downward pressure on overall funding is expected, the complexity and scope of defense and national security mission requirements will continue to increase. Consequently, the Department of Defense will likely need to extend lifetimes and expand capabilities of existing aircraft, ships, and vehicles, and GTRI is exceptionally well positioned to assist with those missions. So while it’s only prudent that we make contingency plans in case of a decrease in funding, we have, so far, been able to maintain, and even continue to develop, our sponsored R&D programs and our associated research workforce.
Q: What’s next for GTRI’s applied and national security-related research programs?
A: Our country’s future prosperity is directly related to the security of our information and communications networks and our core infrastructures for transportation, energy distribution, the banking industry, etc. Consequently, we are experiencing tremendous interest in our extensive cybersecurity capabilities. Working in cooperation with the Georgia Tech Information Security Center within the College of Computing, GTRI’s Cyber Technology and Information Security Laboratory is being called on more and more to provide cyber solutions for the Department of Defense, as well as to help protect private sector networks and infrastructures.
We are also seeing an increased demand for our expertise in robotics and in unmanned and autonomous systems. In the future, damage to power lines caused by severe storms and hurricanes will be quickly assessed using autonomous ground, aerial, and underwater vehicles, and crops will be regularly monitored and treated for infestations and blights using highly specialized sensors mounted on similar autonomously operated craft.
Additionally, our other technologies are serving to interconnect everything from our grocery stores and custom coffee preferences, to everything within our homes, offices, cars, and cellphones. GTRI is working with Georgia Tech’s Institute for People and Technology to develop innovative uses for these extensive machine-to-machine interconnections and their interfaces with each of us.
GTRI is building on its well-earned reputation for integrity, innovation, and excellence, and we look forward to facing the challenges of the 21st century and beyond. As Tech undergraduate student Nick Selby recently stated, “We can do that!”