At the forefront of systems research since 1985
The Institute for Systems Research was founded in 1985 as the Systems Research Center (SRC) at the University of Maryland and Harvard University, and was established by a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant as one of the first six NSF Engineering Research Centers. You can read a history of the entire ERC program, written by Lynn Preston and Courtland Lewis (2020).
Professor John Baras was the first director. The driving motivation for the SRC was to advance the efficient design and control of complex large-scale, spatially distributed engineering systems. Such systems, operating at multiple time-scales and under multiple criteria, are needed to perform complex functions in high technology services and industry.
Progress in this direction could be achieved only through cross-disciplinary research and educational programs in academia pursued in collaboration with industry and government. Specifically, there was a need for integrating analytical and computational techniques of control and communication engineering with advances in computer hardware and software, using refined system-level design tools.
To this end, the research and educational programs of the SRC, during its first eight years, grew on a foundation of four interrelated thrust areas, each focusing on a particular domain of applied engineering systems: intelligent servomechanisms; chemical process systems; manufacturing systems; and communication and signal processing systems. A fifth thrust area of systems integration methodologies and tools served as a prime connecting link.
Facilitated by state-of-the-art constituent laboratories, SRC faculty, research scientists and students at Maryland and Harvard developed a cross-disciplinary approach to research and education, making many notable contributions. Research contributions included new algorithms and software for constrained optimization with guaranteed global convergence; fundamental results in the modeling and control of interconnected mechanical systems; novel techniques for the management and performance evaluation of communication networks; mapping and elucidation of the tonotopic organization of the auditory cortex; feedback control techniques for polymer reactors; and parallel algorithms for graph problems. Accompanying achievements included:
- The discovery of bifurcation and control of stall scenarios for axial compressor engines;
- Developing motion description languages in the Harvard Robotics Laboratory and the Intelligent Servosystems Laboratory;
- Designing and fabricating the modular dextrous hand;
- Improving the cellular decomposition of flexible production lines using group technology;
- Developing neural network models for the input-output behavior and model predictive control of chemical processes;
- Producing high-quality, joint source-channel coding of images and related modem technologies for voice and data;
- Devising protocols for mobile adhoc wireless networks; and
- Developing efficient algorithms and software for manufacturing process planning.
In the late 1980s, Baras had the foresight to start the process that would enable the SRC to become a permanent institute. He secured state funding, developed a plan of organization, and enabled the unit to become permanent regardless of its name.
In 1992, the SRC became the Institute for Systems Research (ISR), a permanent institute at the University of Maryland. ISR is funded by the State of Maryland on the same level as departments within the A. James Clark School of Engineering. ISR leaders proactively secured this status long before the ERC funding ceased. This achievement solidified ISR’s role in the college and university, assured long-term financial and administrative support for ISR pursuits, provided a stable basis for creating new centers and major programs, and won the confidence of outstanding ERC faculty.
During this time, Professor Steve Marcus was the ISR director. Over the next decade, ISR's programs, linking several departments at Maryland and Harvard, evolved to support its broader strategic plan for developing fundamental knowledge and technologies of integrated design. Foci of this effort included complex engineered systems with control, communication, and biological or biologically-inspired subsystems. The initial emphasis during this period was on three thrust areas linked by common systems concepts, methods and algorithms:
- Intelligent Control Systems: The design of robust control systems, particularly motion control systems, flight controllers for aerospace systems, and chemical processes and industrial control systems.
- Intelligent Signal Processing and Communication Systems: the modeling, design and control of wireless and high-speed communication networks, the integration of signal processing and signal understanding, and the integration of signal processing and communication for control.
- Systems Integration Methodology: the development of models for system complexity, architectures for control and communication systems, integration of symbolic and numeric computing, integration of continuous and discrete optimization with AI techniques, and computer-aided design of manufacturing resource planning systems.
Driven by emerging communication network technologies, ISR researchers foresaw the promise held by seamlessly connecting terrestrial and satellite systems. The Center for Satellite and Hybrid Communication Networks (CSHCN) was established by John Baras within ISR by NASA as one of its Centers for the Commercial Development of Space. Now known as the Maryland Hybrid Networks Center (HyNet), its primary focus is to develop hybrid networks that link satellite and wireless systems with telephone, cable and cellular systems and the Internet.
ISR also proceeded to develop key strengths in the area of semiconductor manufacturing processes which paved the way for the current emphasis on MEMS and Nanotechnologies. Close collaboration with industry and national consortia made for the effective transfer of ISR technologies. Furthermore, ISR initiated a broadening of its scope through reaching out to the biological sciences and operations research.
In the late 1990s, during the term of Director Gary Rubloff, ISR research evolved into the “federation of centers” model. NSF’s ERC investment in fundamental systems research themes had led to a federation of major programs and activities which reflected the initial systems engineering core. The research approaches at the time were sensor-actuator networks, media information systems, global communication systems, societal infrastructure systems and next-generation product realization systems. All were built on ISR’s systems strengths of control, communications, and computing; optimization and tradeoff analysis; modeling, simulation, databases; operations research; AI planning; and human factors.
ISR created centers of research collaboration with funding from NSF, DOD and NIH, to address challenging problems at the interface between system science and a variety of technology-oriented disciplines. Examples include the MURI Center on Smart Structures and NEXTOR, a multi-partner Federal Aviation Administration center headquartered in the ISR that is devoted to air traffic scheduling.
ISR has moved into new areas of research based on the interests of faculty, whether or not there is funding available. The institute does not enter areas just because there is funding in that area. Instead we try to build on strengths that are in the faculty, and hire faculty in areas that are starting to come to the fore. The funding will come if our people do a good job. We consider this a “bottom up” approach rather than a “top down” approach.
Some of ISR’s most active research areas today began in this manner. For example, ISR's current strong emphasis on neuroscience research crosses the disciplines of electrical and computer engineering, psychology, mechanical engineering, biology, aerospace engineering, bioengineering, and computer science. This research encompasses the domains of neural signal processing in the auditory cortex; brain development, plasticity, and function; neuromechanical systems, locomotion, and spinal regeneration; speech recognition, production and enhancement; neuromorphic-based control of robotics systems; neuromorphic VLSI design; computational neuroscience; biological cell-based sensor systems; and signal processing in biological systems.
ISR’s collegial, interdisciplinary atmosphere among existing faculty with an interest in the broad topic of neuroscience led to funding, which led to additional faculty being recruited in this area for joint appointments and affiliations, which led to further expanded research and the creation of a number of postdoctoral positions.
ISR’s focus in this area helps to attract both undergraduate and graduate students who have an interest in biology, in neuroscience in particular, and in career paths that are at the interface of these fields and electrical and computer engineering. Faculty members of this group are actively involved in the campus graduate program in Neuroscience and Cognitive Science (NACS).
ISR’s interest in micro and nanotechnology began in this way as well. ISR Director Gary Rubloff developed an interest in this area during his term and brought the fifth director, Reza Ghodssi—a MEMS specialist—to the university as a junior faculty member. After a number of years of increasing activity, several units within the university were interested in forming a center for micro and nanotechnology, which became the Maryland NanoCenter.
Professor Eyad Abed was ISR's fourth director during the 2000s. In this era, the Institute undertook many projects related to the federal government's increased emphasis on defense, cybersecurity and homeland security projects in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.
Professor Reza Ghodssi was ISR's fifth director, from 2009 to 2017. During this time ISR began several initiatives that came to benefit the Clark School of Engineering and the greater University of Maryland. The Maryland Robotics Center brought together robotics specialists scattered throughout the Clark School, the College of Computer and Natural Sciences, and other parts of the university. The Brain and Behavior Initiative did the same, on a wider scale, for neuroscientists, biologists, electrical engineers, speech and hearing researchers, psychologists, physiologists, medical researchers and specialists in the arts and humanities.
Professor William Regli, a 1995 alumnus of the University of Maryland's Department of Computer Science and ISR, served as ISR's sixth director, from January 2018 through June 2019. As a student, Regli was advised by Professor Dana Nau, one of ISR's original faculty members.
In July 2019, Professor Ankur Srivastava became ISR's seventh director. His primary research interests lie in the fields of high performance, low power and secure electronic systems and applications such as computer vision, data and storage centers and sensor networks.