GTRI at 75: The Georgia Tech Research Institute Celebrates 75 Years of Problem-Solving – and Looks Ahead to the Next 75 Years

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In 2009, the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI), Georgia Tech’s applied research organization, celebrated 75 years of solving difficult research problems for government and industry.

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In 2009, the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI), Georgia Tech’s applied research organization, celebrated 75 years of solving difficult research problems for government and industry. From humble beginnings as Georgia’s engineering experiment station, GTRI has grown into a $200-million enterprise with nearly 1,500 faculty and staff. GTRI’s research relies on four underlying competencies developed over the course of those 75 years:

  • Sensor technologies
  • Systems engineering
  • Information and communications technologies
  • Test and evaluation

This cover section of Research Horizons focuses on GTRI’s present and future, and includes an interview with its director, Stephen E. Cross. A longer section on GTRI’s history is available: (


GTRI researchers Lora Weiss and Rusty Roberts pose with examples of unmanned systems. Shown are a Dragon Eye unmanned aerial vehicle and an iRobot ATRV unmanned ground vehicle. Both have been modified by Georgia Tech. (Click for high-resolution image. Credit: Gary Meek)

Applied research. The Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) doesn’t mince words in describing its job – it’s the applied research unit of the Georgia Institute of Technology. Its purpose is to use science and engineering to solve real-world problems.

In the 75 years since it opened its doors, GTRI has become the largest research unit at Georgia Tech, and one of the largest university-based research organizations in the nation.

“We’re extremely proud to be Georgia Tech’s applied-research arm,” said Stephen E. Cross, vice president of Georgia Tech and director of GTRI. “I’d like to think that if the great innovator Thomas Edison were alive today, he would have created GTRI.”

Yet the Georgia Tech Research Institute, Cross acknowledges, differs from the Edison approach in some critical ways. Unlike Edison’s isolated invention factory, GTRI makes a point of working closely with others – especially Georgia Tech’s academic colleges. It’s a collaboration that fosters a research depth capable of dealing with the most challenging problems.

While numerous U.S. research universities have spun off their applied-research functions into separate organizations, Cross said, GTRI has become ever more tightly integrated with Georgia Tech’s academic units. Collaboration between the academic and the applied sides has been a conscious direction for Georgia Tech since it was founded; its 1885 charter mandated an approach to technological education that would directly support the state’s economic growth.

Speaking at the GTRI 75th Anniversary Technology Symposium, Georgia Tech President G.P. “Bud” Peterson remarked that as Georgia Tech looks ahead, “clearly it’s important that we continue to expand the collaboration between GTRI and the academic units. As universities are increasingly called upon to become drivers of innovation and high-end economic development, the importance of the role of GTRI and organizations like it will continue to grow.”

Consistent Growth

The Research Institute that began in 1934 as the State Engineering Experiment Station (EES) employs nearly 1,500 people today, including some 700 researchers. Of those, more than 40 GTRI faculty members also have appointments in the academic colleges and perform teaching roles along with their research.

Today’s GTRI has seven laboratories and 13 field offices located throughout the United States and in Ireland. It also has numerous facilities on the Georgia Tech campus and a secure 55-acre research facility in Cobb County north of Atlanta.

After several years of particularly strong growth, GTRI’s research awards for fiscal 2009 topped $200 million, a total that is up 63 percent in the past three years. GTRI is the largest single contributor to Georgia Tech’s total research budget of about $500 million.

The Research Institute has hired 120 new research staff in the past year, and plans to hire an additional 100 research staff in the near term. The number of Georgia Tech graduate and undergraduate students currently working as co-op students at GTRI now stands at more than 350; it’s a workforce that’s an important plus for research flexibility and creativity.

GTRI’s customers include a who’s who of U.S. federal agencies, U.S. and overseas corporations, U.S. allies, and state and local governments. Among GTRI’s major sponsors are the Department of Defense agencies, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the state of Georgia, major U.S. defense contractors, and many other governmental and commercial entities.

“We’ve shown pretty good progress for an organization that was authorized by the state legislature in 1919 but couldn’t get funded until 1934 – and which started out in the basement of Georgia Tech’s Old Shop Building,” Cross said.

Capabilities and Collaboration

GTRI performs research and development in dozens of areas, from radar to robotics, from electronic defense to energy, from product testing to food processing. It also provides a wide range of services, from analyzing indoor environments to teaching workplace safety.

The vast majority of the Institute’s work relies on four underlying competencies developed over many decades, said Tom McDermott, GTRI’s director of research. They are sensor technologies, systems engineering, information and communications technologies, and test and evaluation.

“You could argue that sensor technology is our core strength,” he said. “GTRI probably has the broadest capability in terms of different sensing technologies of any research body in the world.”

GTRI, he explained, provides research and development in a vast array of sensor technologies. It has broad sensing capabilities that began with World War II radar research. That work led to pioneering, internationally recognized work in millimeter-wave radar technology.

Today GTRI’s sensor capabilities cover every bandwidth of the electromagnetic spectrum used for defense and communication, as well as chemical sensors vital to numerous defense and industry applications.

But, McDermott added, even the most advanced sensors have little utility without the other collaborating capabilities – systems engineering, information and communications technology, and test and evaluation.

For example, GTRI today tackles challenging multi-sensor problems. Yet the task of fusing data from a variety of sensor sources would be next to impossible without sophisticated computing and networking. Just as important, successful design of a complex sensor-based system would be hard to achieve without systems engineering expertise. Equally useful are the advanced modeling capabilities of the test and evaluation disciplines that help guide the system-design process.

“Part of why GTRI is strong in systems engineering is because we’re non-profit and independent – we can choose the best solution from a variety of options,” McDermott said. “And part of it is that we have long-time subject-matter experts who are able to grow a very broad view of problems within their technical areas over time.”

Another key is the collaboration that takes place at GTRI across the disciplines, said Terry Tibbitts, director of the Electronic Systems Laboratory (ELSYS), GTRI’s largest lab with roots going back to the Engineering Experiment Station’s work in radar and signal processing. Tibbitts pointed to a recent high priority project that added vitally needed missile protection to the A-10 attack aircraft, an Air Force workhorse. To deal with the vulnerability, GTRI mounted an urgent effort, the A-10 Infrared Countermeasures Program. The work mobilized researchers and technicians from across the Research Institute, including ELSYS and several other GTRI labs.

In 200 days – a brief period by most defense-project standards – the team went from program-concept meetings to a successful flight test. Today, the entire U.S. A-10 fleet is protected by the countermeasure technology GTRI developed.

“Programs like this one show GTRI’s greatest strengths – we’re small enough to move very quickly, but big enough to have the deep capabilities needed to handle an entire program for a sponsor,” Tibbitts said. “We’re also good at collaborating across disciplines – we know each other’s strengths, and we work well together.”

Gisele Bennett is director of the Electro-Optical Systems Laboratory (EOSL), a major contributor to GTRI’s sensor capability. She noted that GTRI’s identity as a multi-disciplinary organization has been the product of many decades of effort.

“GTRI has evolved slowly and deliberately from a research institute with a narrow range of technical expertise to one that has a very broad and deep range of technical expertise,” she said. “I’m personally confident we can maintain our technical pre-eminence in our core areas, while also branching out by applying core expertise gained over the decades to other disciplines.”

The Economic Imperative

Like Georgia Tech, GTRI was founded with a mandate to contribute to the economy of the state of Georgia and the surrounding region. The Research Institute pursues that critical assignment on several levels.

One effort involves direct support of the economy through research on tough challenges facing Georgia industry. To that end, GTRI has performed important research and problem-solving for many important industries, including food processing, carpet manufacturing, paper and others.

The Georgia Tech Research Institute maintains an extensive on-campus facility, the Food Processing Technology Building, to support Georgia’s vast poultry processing industry, among others. GTRI’s support for the food industry has included many innovations, including one of the first computer-vision systems for improving quality in poultry processing.

“Food processing is a very good example of where GTRI is able to take the sensor, robotics, computer-vision and manufacturing technologies that we’ve developed – largely with defense funding – and apply them to an industry that’s important to the economy,” said GTRI director Cross.

The Research Institute also provides services that directly support the state’s employers and their workforce. The Occupational Safety and Health Program, located in GTRI’s Human Systems Integration Division, helps businesses keep workplaces safe by complying with the requirements of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

The program offers free on-site safety consultations to smaller Georgia companies. It also teaches a large number of OSHA safety and health courses, mainly through Georgia Tech Distance Learning and Professional Education.

GTRI plays an important role in advancing the technical knowledge of U.S. defense professionals, both in the military and in industry. Through Georgia Tech’s Defense Technology Professional Education Program, engineers, scientists and faculty from GTRI and Georgia Tech’s College of Engineering teach nine certificate programs and some 80 courses at eight U.S. sites, as well as via video-conferencing and online video.

The New Company Connection

Scientific Atlanta, one of Atlanta's oldest technology companies, was purchased recently by Cisco. Engineering Experiment Station personnel helped found the company in 1952.

An important GTRI role involves assisting the development of new high technology companies in Georgia. Its first startup was Scientific Atlanta, founded in 1952 by several EES personnel. The venture prospered, becoming internationally known for satellite Earth stations and cable TV equipment, and was acquired by Cisco Systems, Inc. in 2006.

GTRI works with Georgia Tech’s business assistance and economic development unit, the Enterprise Innovation Institute (EI²), to offer technical support for new technology companies.

EI² is widely known as home to Georgia Tech’s successful startup-company accelerator, the Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC), which has graduated more than 120 startups since 1980. GTRI works directly with the Strategic Partners Office within EI² to connect companies to Georgia Tech resources and promote broadly based development initiatives in Georgia.

One result of that collaboration is the FutureMediasm initiative, directed by Renu Kulkarni, which is aimed at helping to make Georgia a global leader in the burgeoning fields of digital, social and multi media.

“There’s a great deal of interaction between GTRI and EI² now,” said research director McDermott. “We’ve been able to work with some of the startup companies that are incubating there, and we believe there will be plenty of collaboration in the future.”

The Georgia Tech Research Institute also works with EI²’s Industry Services division, an outreach program that provides support to Georgia manufacturers, including direct technical, engineering and other assistance. Industry Services personnel can connect companies that have specific manufacturing challenges to GTRI engineers, scientists and technicians.

Not the least of GTRI’s contributions is the economic impact of the salaries of its nearly 1,500 employees, a number that includes some 700 degreed research engineers and scientists, said Tom Horton, GTRI’s chief of staff and director of government relations.

By the most conservative of economic multipliers, GTRI’s contribution to Georgia’s economy last year was about $450 million, Horton said. That number includes the impact of salaries, as well as direct and indirect GTRI expenditures among Georgia businesses for everything from pencils and paper to computers and sophisticated research equipment.

“Of course, we are a non-profit organization,” Horton said. “But if it were a business, GTRI’s revenues and number of employees would place us within the top 15 corporations in Georgia.”

Horton noted that GTRI and Georgia Tech contribute to Georgia’s attractiveness as a home for national and international corporations. He cited the NCR Corporation’s recent decision to move its worldwide headquarters to Duluth, Ga., and CEO Bill Nuti’s comment that “working in partnership with the world-class academic institutions in Georgia” was part of the attraction.

Cross argues that GTRI’s unique blend of capability, commitment and organizational agility developed naturally over the decades. The Institute has dealt successfully with many challenges, and a positive mentality developed as a result.

“Interdisciplinary collaboration and the willingness to accept a tough challenge are among our greatest assets,” he said. “I’m proud of the people of GTRI. They can take great Georgia Tech research – some of it done here, much of it done in the colleges – bring it together and apply it to solve real world problems.”


The GTRI of the future will likely look much like the GTRI of today, but with broadly expanded capabilities in cutting-edge technologies and more collaboration with Georgia Tech’s academic colleges.

During its 75-year journey, Georgia Tech’s applied-research institute has chosen its growth areas carefully. GTRI has never tried to be all things to all sponsors; it extends its research into areas that appear to offer promise – as well as the expected tough challenges.

“There are phrases we should outlaw as researchers, such as ‘it can’t be done’ or ‘it’s never been done that way before,’ “ said Stephen E. Cross, GTRI’s director. “We should never be overly concerned about risk. We want to take calculated risks, but we should never use risk as a reason for not tackling something.”

GTRI has used its four core competencies – sensor technologies, systems engineering, information and communications technologies, and test and evaluation – to develop internationally known specialties in radar, electronic warfare, antennas and communications technologies, among numerous others.

Today the Research Institute is bringing those core skills to bear on new areas of expertise. An active recruitment effort has brought to GTRI a cadre of new researchers who are accomplished in several critical focus areas.

The concepts of open and disruptive innovation have been useful in directing development paths, GTRI leaders explain. In open innovation, an organization uses both internal and external ideas to advance technology. Disruptive innovations are those that create unexpected change; they’re often problematic because they compete with time-honored approaches, yet they present unique opportunities to a research organization.

“At GTRI, we’ve found that open- and disruptive-innovation concepts are very helpful in guiding our understanding of how to recognize future opportunities – and how to pursue them,” said Tom McDermott, GTRI’s director of research.

The object, of course, is to expand GTRI’s problem-solving capacity in a number of crucial 21st century technology arenas – which will in turn support and facilitate research throughout the Research Institute.

Digital Media

GTRI leadership believes that Georgia, already quite active in several media areas, can become a global leader in the exploding fields of digital, social and multi media. The FutureMediasm Initiative, directed by former Motorola executive Renu Kulkarni, is a broad-based Georgia Tech program aimed at leveraging the efforts of Georgia universities, corporations, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and government to make the state a digital-media powerhouse.

Georgia Tech initiated an October 2009 FutureMediasm conference in Atlanta that brought together 260 academics, officials and executives from as far away as Singapore and South Korea to discuss Georgia’s media future. GTRI, the Georgia Tech Research Network Operations Center, Georgia Tech’s GVU Center and the Georgia Electronic Design Center were among many Georgia Tech groups that presented scores of technology demonstrations to conference participants.

“We want to create an open-innovation ecosystem that will make Georgia a global pioneer in this field,” Kulkarni said, “and provide a model not only for what we do in future digital media, but also in how we do it.”

Autonomous Systems and Robotics

GTRI is pursuing a number of high stakes programs in an arena that will clearly play an extensive role in humanity’s future. This work includes the Micro Autonomous Systems and Technology (MAST) program, a multi-year initiative sponsored by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory. GTRI is working with Georgia Tech’s College of Computing and the College of Engineering, as well more than a dozen universities and companies, to develop small, intelligent mobile robots capable of collaboration as well as advanced locomotion.

In related work, a GTRI team is developing unmanned underwater vehicles that can function both autonomously and collaboratively to carry out a range of undersea missions. In another program, GTRI researchers are supporting development of a road map to improve the testing and evaluation of unmanned and autonomous systems, and are also investigating common control technology for unmanned systems.

Energy and Environment

GTRI investigators, collaborating with Georgia Tech’s College of Engineering and the College of Sciences, are extensively involved in the fields of fuel cells, solar energy, batteries, wind turbines, supercapacitors and biofuels. The Research Institute is an active participant in Georgia

Tech’s Center for Innovative Fuel Cell and Battery Technologies and its mission to help turn the fuel-cell promise into reality.

At the fuel-cell center – directed by GTRI’s Tom Fuller, who also has an appointment in the Georgia Tech School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering – GTRI researchers are addressing the systems engineering issues surrounding compact fuel cells for soldiers, as well as the larger systems needed for transportation and distributed power generation.

GTRI is also conducting a broad range of research in energy modeling, utilizing its established expertise in information technology, communications and networking. Research includes development of modeling and simulation tools that enable the evaluation of different energy strategies. Other GTRI projects are developing technologies to reduce the environmental impact of energy and water usage, and investigating the health and environmental benefits of green technologies.

Cyber Warfare

At GTRI, information operations (IO) is an area of particular focus. Researchers are pursuing a broad range of projects related to the role of intelligence technologies in national defense. This work involves close collaboration with the Georgia Tech Internet Security Center (GTISC).

The cyber battlefield is of special importance. This high-priority area, involving defensive and offensive use of computers and the Internet, is a rapidly growing research area. GTRI’s Center of Excellence for Emerging Information Technologies is investigating security issues involving both current and emerging digital technologies. The aim is to better protect U.S. military, government and other information systems, ensuring that the element of technology surprise remains a U.S. asset.

GTRI is active in more than a dozen IO/cyber-related projects sponsored by a variety of government agencies. Researchers are conducting several new initiatives to build cyber-intelligence capabilities in emerging technologies, including techniques that simulate hostile intrusion attempts into networks and other critical areas. They are also pursuing the development of enhanced security for novel architectures, and construction of a $200,000-plus IO laboratory that will support research ranging from cloud computing to converged infrastructures.

Systems Engineering Expertise

Supporting U.S. systems engineering capabilities, in both government agencies and in industry, is a growing focus at GTRI. In fall 2009, the Research Institute helped launch a new Professional Master’s Degree in Applied Systems Engineering (PMASE). This College of Engineering degree is aimed at mid-career engineers in government and corporations who manage complex systems and want to expand their systems-engineering knowledge.

The program combines traditional teaching with group learning, distance education and face-to-face interactions, and is aimed at filling a significant gap in higher education offerings for working engineers. Graduates are expected to be proficient in methods and practices of systems engineering, and to develop awareness of cutting-edge research shaping the future of the discipline. A unique aspect of the degree is an experiential component based on pioneering work in systems analysis tools and methods developed by the Aerospace Systems Design Laboratory in the Georgia Tech School of Aerospace Engineering.

International Cooperation

GTRI is also emphasizing expanded international research partnerships and collaboration. GTRI continues to ramp up its GT-Ireland initiative, which is focused on collaboration in radio-frequency identification technology. Georgia Tech, supported by GTRI, is also involved in educational and research collaborations in France, Singapore and China.

“The international strategy for Georgia Tech and GTRI involves a rapidly growing number of nations around the globe,” said director Cross, who is also a Georgia Tech vice president. “We have to consider the uniqueness of each country and its goals, and we also want to consider the benefit of these affiliations to the Atlanta campus and to Georgia.”

Security Research

The GTRI of the future will focus its research and development efforts wherever the U.S. needs advanced investigation and innovation.

In one homeland-security field, GTRI is helping protect shipping containers, which have been long identified as an area of vulnerability that terrorists could exploit. GTRI has developed a container security device that monitors whether container doors have been opened in route by an unauthorized user, explained Gisele Bennett, director of GTRI’s Electro-Optical Systems Laboratory (EOSL).

“We’ve used GTRI’s sensor expertise, built up over many decades, to develop a device that works well and has been successfully tested. This technology will move into a pilot phase very soon,” she said. GTRI sensor experts are also designing a wall intrusion detection system for composite containers. This research, performed in collaboration with Georgia Tech’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, could detect any breaching of a shipping container’s walls.

GTRI researchers Kevin Massey, Vince Camp and Burt Jennings (left to right) pose with the ULTRA II test article as it was set up for evaluation at the Aberdeen Test Center in Maryland. (Click image for high-resolution version. Credit Aberdeen Test Center)

Cross noted that in one especially high priority area, GTRI is tackling the deadly problem of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in war zones around the world. For example, the ULTRA II design concept is aimed at producing military vehicles with a new type of protected personnel compartment. The concept uses a sacrificial “blast wedge” to absorb energy from IEDs and improve occupant safety in future light armored patrol vehicles.

In years to come as in the past, Cross added, GTRI’s core research and applications will help support innovations that can aid U.S. business and economic growth.

“A large part of our future strategy,” Cross said, “is to take the defense technology that we create – and the problem-solving expertise we develop – and move it into other market areas to benefit commercial industry and result in more jobs here in Georgia.”

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Winter 2010 Issue
  • Created By: Claire Labanz
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  • Created On: Nov 5, 2014 - 11:35am
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