Skip to main content Skip to navigation
Washington State University
WSU Research Smart Systems

Smart systems

Harnessing technology to improve quality of life

The challenge

The “Internet of Things” is coming of age. This network of objects embedded with sensors, electronics, software, and connectivity promises to generate mountains of data. New approaches in data science and analytics will be needed to convert the data into actionable information.

When it comes to using that information to improve quality of life, the possibilities are endless. Digital devices working together as smart systems can sense, act upon, and communicate about a situation. They can recognize patterns, make predictions, and support human decision-making. Smart systems can optimize the use of dwindling natural resources. They can enable self-sufficiency for those who need extra assistance in their daily lives. They can provide energy security across the nation.

WSU’s role in the solution

The University unites experts across disciplines—materials science, computational sciences, design disciplines, and social sciences—to develop smart systems that anticipate tomorrow’s needs.

Smart grid

In partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy, WSU leads the nation’s efforts to increase the reliability and efficiency of America’s 100+-year-old “grid,” or electric power infrastructure. New technologies promise to dramatically raise energy efficiency, incorporate renewably generated power, heighten security, and help prevent blackouts.

To demonstrate, WSU power engineers converted the city of Pullman into the region’s first Smart Grid community. Working in collaboration with Battelle, the U.S. Department of Energy, and local and national industry leaders, engineers automated many parts of the city’s electric distribution system. The project proved that smart grid technology can deliver energy more efficiently, as well as more safely, securely, and reliably.

Smart homes

WSU researchers are designing smart environments that automatically monitor health and assist older adults and people with disabilities. Their innovations could help elderly loved ones stay in their homes longer. But that’s just the start.

Smart environments will allow individuals to be more productive and self-sufficient. They could make buildings more energy efficient. They could build new connections within and among communities. Infrastructures could become more sustainable and secure.

Smart resources

The Composite Materials and Engineering Center develops new building materials and innovative structural systems from sustainable resources. Its innovations advance resource conservation and solve critical problems at the same time.

For example, the Center’s scientists are working to improve the performance and manufacturing process of cross-laminated timber or CLT, which alternates layers of stress-rated lumber to form thick, sturdy plates. CLT’s strength and fire resistance make it a suitable alternative to steel and concrete. Its advantages include carbon sequestration and reduced construction times.

Within this Grand Challenge, scholars address several research themes, touching on issues like these:

Smart and sustainable systems

  • Next generation smart and sustainable buildings
  • Transforming the U.S. power grid
  • Enhancing performance and well-being in cities via digital technologies
  • The Internet of Things

More about smart and sustainable systems

  • Power workers up on a light pole Designing cities for the future

    Measuring urban air quality is one step towards healthier, more sustainable cities

    By 2050, 66 percent of the world’s population is projected to live in urban areas. Growing cities strain food, water and energy systems, which in turn has a negative impact on economic, social and environmental sustainability and wellbeing.

    To address these challenges, regional governments, companies and universities are coming together to develop the technology and proposed system changes needed for “smarter” cities. An initiative in Spokane called Urbanova is one of the innovators in this movement, and Washington State University is a founding partner.

    Urbanova is a living laboratory in Spokane’s University District … » More …

    Read Story
  • A photo of solar panels Transforming the U.S. power grid

    Automating electricity transfer across the state based on need

    To harness renewable resources and mitigate power outages, America needs to evolve the “Smart Grid,” the computer-automated network that distributes electricity nationwide. WSU’s Energy System Innovation Center is answering the challenge.

    The Center is part of the first regional effort to collect renewable energy and share it among buildings across the state. Development of energy-sharing capability will make power distribution more flexible and cost effective.

    Smart distribution of electricity

    The regional initiative demonstrates “transactive technology,” which uses a network of sensors, battery systems, and software to automatically adjust energy loads. Decisions to adjust are based on … » More …

    Read Story

Foundational and emergent materials

  • Multifunctional, multiphysics, and smart materials
  • Sensors and wide bandgap semiconductors
  • Bio-based materials and green manufacturing
  • Computational materials science

More about foundational and emergent materials

  • Mike Kessler and student in lab Shape-shifting material advances the Internet of Things

    Scientist develop the first material with multiple responsive behaviors

    Imagine airplanes and roads that self-heal after exterior damage. Imagine wearing clothes that monitor your health needs. Innovations like these require smart materials, which not only capture and analyze data, but change in response to findings.

    Smart materials are the building blocks of the Internet of Things—a network of objects embedded with electronics, software, and connectivity. This network produces enormous volumes of actionable data.

    While there are barriers to overcome before smart materials hit the mainstream, a recent discovery made at WSU will accelerate their advancement.

    New kind of smart material

    A team led by Mike … » More …

    Read Story
  • A closeup of a wooden building Creating jobs through sustainable building technologies

    Cross-laminated timber could invigorate the regional economy

    Buildings stand among the nation’s leading producers of greenhouse gases. To blame is the energy used to operate them and the carbon-heavy materials required to construct them. With populations increasingly shifting toward urban centers, construction will only continue. Reducing emissions created by urban growth will require rethinking our built environment.

    Much of that rethinking is happening at WSU, where architecture and engineering scholars are designing future skylines made of wood. Not often used in today’s urban infrastructures, wood is a renewable resource. It can be sustainably forested and manufactured into panels that have high-performance properties comparable to those of … » More …

    Read Story

Computing, data, and information

  • Data-driven decision making
  • Systems analytics
  • Computational design

More about computing and data

  • A image of graphic numbers and a closeup of a laptop being used in the background Fending off quantum computer cyberattacks

    Mathematician creates a hack-proof online security system

    In April, 2015, an IBM researcher leading the company’s effort to build a quantum computer wrote, “We’re entering what will come to be seen as the golden age of quantum computing research.” If and when a practical quantum computer becomes reality, it will both revolutionize digital technology and create a tool of phenomenal hacking power.

    Internet security is no match for a quantum computer, which can quickly factor the large numbers used in computer encryption to protect email and online transactions. But using high-level number theory and cryptography, Washington State University mathematician Nathan Hamlin has reworked a famous … » More …

    Read Story

Technology and society

  • Public policy
  • Communications
  • Economic models and impacts
  • Ethics

More about technology and society

  • A photo of engineers working on a machine in a lab First-of-its-kind research capability

    Revealing secrets of material behavior at extreme conditions

    While exposing a sample of silicon to extreme dynamic compression–due to the impact of a nearly 12,000 mph plastic projectile–WSU scientists documented the transformation from its common cubic diamond structure to a simple hexagonal structure. At one point, they could see both structures as the shock wave traveled through the sample in less than half a millionth of a second.

    WSU led the development of this experimental capability, which allows scientists to watch atomic-level changes unfold in the composition and behavior of materials under extreme conditions. Experiments take place in a facility called the Dynamic Compression Sector … » More …

    Read Story
  • A closeup of Diane Cook Helping the elderly stay independent longer

    Homes outfitted with artificial intelligence keep a watchful eye on residents

    By the year 2020, more than 70 million Americans will be at least 60 years old. Almost all of them will prefer to live in their homes, living independently as long as possible. This creates a host of challenges as older people can struggle with daily tasks, have safety concerns, and have difficulty taking care of daily needs without assistance.

    Diane Cook, director of the Smart Homes Project in the Center for Advanced Studies in Adaptive Systems, is working to meet these challenges by designing homes that, in effect, think.

    As Cook pointed out … » More …

    Read Story


Public and private funding supports WSU’s smart systems research, helping to make important discoveries possible. A sampling of the university’s key collaborators includes:

Affiliated institutes, centers, and programs

Center for Bioplastics and Biocomposites

Promoting industry-wide acceptance of bioplastics and increase the use of sustainable materials

Center for Civic Engagement

Offers WSU students, faculty, campus departments and community partners opportunities to share knowledge, skills and resources for the benefit of student learning and the wellbeing of our communities

Center for Materials Research

Finding interdisciplinary answers to advanced materials science problems. The clean room offers microelectronics fabrication facilities to develop and test materials and sensors.

Center for Precision Agriculture

Working to develop a world-preeminent and Washington-relevant research and educational program in the areas of agricultural automation and precision farming

Composite Materials & Engineering Center

Develops new building materials from recycled and virgin resources, as well as innovative structural systems

Computational Mechanics and Materials Science Laboratory

Working on the thermo-mechanical behavior of solids. Addressing engineering and scientific phenomena spanning the length scale from nanometer to macrometer, and occurring under extreme loading and environmental conditions, with emphasis on damage, fracture and material instabilities

Energy Systems Innovation Center

Uniting research faculty, business leaders, and governmental organizations to address the demand for clean, reliable energy, including using Smart Grid technology to make the power system more efficient, responsive, and secure

Franceschi Microscopy and Imaging Center

A research and educational facility for the imaging and ultrastructural study of biological and non-biological materials. Available to all WSU researchers and students, the Center provides electron microscopy and light microscopy equipment for observation and analysis of a diverse array of specimens.

Freight Policy Transportation Institute

Addressing the need for improved intermodal freight transportation, as well as policies and actions that can be implemented to lower operating costs, increase safety, and reduce environmental impacts

Initiative for Global Innovation Studies (IGIS)

Promoting interdisciplinary research and education that foster health and well-being in sustainable and culturally relevant ways. Helping to establish WSU as a leader in the development of integrated solutions to the global spread of human and animal diseases and the health effects of poverty, pollution, and poor nutrition.

Institute for Nuclear Science and Technology (INST)

Serving as a hub for multidisciplinary research, education, and innovation in nuclear science and technology.  Addressing societal challenges in global security, human health, energy, and the maintenance and restoration of environmental quality.

Institute for Sustainable Design

Uniting faculty, students, design professionals, manufacturers, and suppliers to solve societal problems of sustainability

Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) in smart technologies

An IGERT to support health care was recently concluded.

Modeling, Motion, and Medical Robotics Laboratory (M3 Robotics Lab)

Developing robotic systems that can switch between being highly compliant and offering rigidity as they interact with their environment, including human operators

National Institutes of Health-funded undergraduate training program

The program supports Interdisciplinary training in gerontechnology. Recently received GAANN, or Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need, funding will continue graduate training in this area.

Research Experiences for Undergraduates

Among several programs is one that focuses specifically on smart environments.

Smart Environments Research Center

Making the environments in which we live and work safer, healthier and more productive through advanced data analytics and adaptive systems

Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service

Supporting public affairs education, engaging students in public service, and supporting academic research on public policy and democratic institutions

Further information

Find out more about the University’s research pertaining to smart systems.

Smart Systems (pdf)