The Engineer Who Solves Crises Before They Happen — Rob Hovsapian
About a decade ago, Rob Hovsapian bought a sailboat. He named it V’ger.
For non-Trekkies, V’ger was a probe sent into space by 20th century Earthlings in the first Star Trek movie. The probe’s task was to collect as much knowledge as possible. And it does. After amassing two centuries’ worth of data, the probe becomes a sentient being and changes its name from Voyager 6 to V’ger.
Hovsapian, a mechanical engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), donated his sailboat to the sailing club at his alma mater, Florida State University. But he will not entirely lose V’ger — at least not in spirit.
At NREL, he is building another massive, knowledge-gobbling machine, one that could help solve future crises — maybe not Star-Trek-level Earth-ending crises, but close. How can we build a reliable clean energy grid, for example? Or make it easier to evacuate from natural disasters? Or protect banks from quantum hackers?
“As a national lab, we need to be looking at the big picture,” Hovsapian said, “things that we can address five to 10 years down the road.”
Like the Star Trek crew, Hovsapian is an explorer, but his final frontier is the future. And his spaceship (V’ger light) is something called Advanced Research on Integrated Energy Systems, or ARIES for short. This sophisticated, one-of-a-kind research platform can emulate how our future technologies, including power plants, batteries, smart phones, electric vehicles, smart buildings, and more, would communicate (or fail to communicate) during an emergency.
Now, Hovsapian is adding new features to his spaceship. He is connecting NREL to other labs — including national laboratories and academic institutions — to build a SuperLab and study how the country could respond to a massive, national-scale crisis. And he is adding quantum computers to the ARIES platform to quickly identify patterns and improve emergency response.
“It’s our duty to start identifying these challenges and developing solutions,” Hovsapian said. “We don’t want to wait until a problem happens before figuring out how to solve it.”
In NREL’s latest Manufacturing Masterminds Q&A, Hovsapian shares why he stopped building fighter jets and army radios; what his kids think he builds now; and what kind of rare, national events the SuperLab might help solve.
How did you end up becoming an engineer?
I always wanted to be an engineer. From elementary school all the way to college, there was no doubt.
Wow. How were you so sure?
I just knew. I was taking things apart. I always took my toys apart because I wanted to know how they worked, right? I took the television and VCRs apart.
I’m sure your parents were thrilled with that. Then, why pick mechanical engineering as opposed to a different engineering niche?
I started my career as an aerospace engineer and then eventually, since I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, I got into mechanical engineering. It was more diverse, and controls was always my passion.
What does that mean, “controls”?
In robotics, controls refers to how you drive, say, your robotic arm to a specific location and, in real time, control its position and speed to manufacture a product.
Oh, cool! So, I know you went to the University of Alabama for your undergraduate studies. What did you do after that?
I read a book by Professor Krishna Karamcheti, who had written a lot of fluid mechanics books that I studied during my undergraduate years. When I saw he was a faculty member at Florida State University, I reached out, and he invited me to come and visit. I not only ended up admitted into the graduate school; he also gave me a job. But he made me promise to finish my doctorate and support other students. So, ever since then, I always have two or three doctoral students that I advise. That’s me keeping that promise.
Sounds like a pretty good deal. What job did he get you?
My first job was with General Dynamics, an aerospace and defense company. That was 1989. I worked on building a next-generation army radio, using robotics and manufacturing lines. After that, I went to work for the U.S. Air Force’s F-22 stealth fighter jet program. I automated the production of F-22 fighter jets, using an automotive manufacturing line, which was more cost-effective. Then, while I completed my doctorate, I worked as a program manager and board member for the United States Department of the Navy’s Office of Naval Research where I managed a research program focused on developing all-electric ships.
Yeah. My kids asked me, “What are you building now?” and I tell them I build PowerPoint presentations. From F-22 to army radios to all electrical ships to PowerPoints. That’s not true. I mean, I do a lot of PowerPoint presentations, but I was also part of the strategic planning that helped build the ARIES research platform.
Before we get to ARIES, how did you go from the U.S. Navy to NREL?
I was also a faculty member at Florida State University at that time. When I left my defense job and took my first job in academia, my salary dropped by 30%. Most people told me that I’m crazy doing that. But I don’t want to leave my career having built 400 F-22s or 10,000 army radios. I want to leave a legacy of something and make a difference in the community.
I spent two years supporting the U.S. Department of Energy’s Water Power Technologies Office, and then I went to Idaho National Laboratory for five years. When I heard NREL was building ARIES, that was my passion, so I dropped everything, and here I am.
Perfect transition. Now, let’s talk about ARIES. What is it?
ARIES integrates software and hardware to help us understand how clean energy technologies — like renewable energy devices, batteries, electric vehicles, hydrogen, and buildings — will work together in a future carbon-free grid. Nobody has done this before. Nobody has paired hundreds of devices. And here, we are talking about thousands of devices at scale.
Thousands! And what problems are you trying to solve with ARIES?
We’re trying to understand next-generation problems that we can’t solve through traditional classical computing or modeling.
For example, do we have enough power for electrical vehicles in case of an emergency? Today, we know where the gas stations are. I’m in Tallahassee, Florida, right now. If a hurricane comes in and there’s an evacuation mandate, people know how they are going to evacuate. If all of us are using electric vehicles, how is that going to work?
So, when rare events happen, how do we mitigate them? That requires a bit more integration between technologies, including cell phones, electrical vehicles, satellites, emergency response systems, and building management systems.
I also heard, to address even bigger, national-scale challenges, you’re building a SuperLab that might need to emulate communication between thousands of different devices, right?
The challenges that we’re facing as a nation are going to be much, much bigger than one or two labs can tackle. The SuperLab ties academic and national laboratories together, integrating not only people but also resources to answer those big questions. We already demonstrated connecting two laboratories — Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Idaho National Laboratory. Our goal is to connect seven laboratories and 10,000 devices to address a large national event. That’s called SuperLab 2.0.
Have you decided which national event you might address?
No. But it has to be a significant, rare event, like a Hurricane Katrina, the Maui wildfires, or the 2021 Texas freeze.
Our objective is to create a real-world event and environment, using actual hardware and various grid assets — like automation controls, energy storage systems, batteries, and wind turbines — which lets us explore how we can address those rare events.
Interesting. But this is the Manufacturing Masterminds series, so how does all this relate to manufacturing?
All these technologies are next-generation devices that we’re building today. We need to think about how to make cell phones that can talk to weather stations and broadcast communications. 5G is a good example. People outside the United States are developing better 5G technologies than we are. That’s a sign that our advanced manufacturing is not on par with what we need today.
Gotcha. Are there other ways the United States’ manufacturing industry could outpace competitors?
Everybody’s talking about quantum computing. Now, we’re tying quantum computing to our real-time simulation work that we’re doing at ARIES (called quantum in the loop). Hopefully, this will make it easier and faster for researchers to adopt quantum computing to solve next-generation power and energy system challenges.
So, would the quantum computers allow you to run faster simulations?
It would allow us to identify patterns much, much faster.
So, let’s say you look at the state of charge of electric vehicles during a hurricane. With quantum computing, you can quickly find potential bottlenecks. That way, you can issue more effective evacuation notices. You could direct people to different routes and tell some to wait for an hour or two or charge at home X number of times before they go, so you don’t have people stranded on the way with a hurricane coming in.
What advice would you give to those who might want to follow in your footsteps and help solve these future crises?
Absolutely do not follow in my footsteps. Just look at the big picture and see what you can do differently. It’s OK to be wrong, learn from mistakes, and do something better the next time.
By Caitlin McDermott-Murphy. Article from NREL.
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