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An Interview with Sam Coogan

April 14, 2020

You received your bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Georgia Tech in 2010. What brought you back to Georgia Tech as a faculty member?

After my undergraduate degree, I moved to the University of California, Berkeley where I got my M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Electrical Engineering. From there, I went to UCLA from 2015 to 2017 and worked as an assistant professor.

There were a number of factors that lead me back to Georgia Tech, but I think I think first and foremost, it was the opportunity to be in such a collaborative environment between electrical engineering and civil engineering. It was clear from my visits here that there were plenty of opportunities to do new things in the space of transportation and in the area of robotics.

Tell us about your research.

My research is broadly in the area of autonomy. I'm interested in understanding how to analyze and control autonomous network systems broadly, and then in particular for transportation systems. We want to do it in a way that is efficient, but also safe. So we want to make sure that these systems, which can be very large and distributed, behave as the system designer intended with as little user input as possible.

What are some practical applications for your research?

For example, we have some work where we're studying autonomous vehicles in ride sharing networks. Think of Uber and Lyft. Today all of the drivers in these networks are human drivers, but tomorrow, some of them might be self-driving cars and even further in the future, they may all be self-driving.

We've been asking questions about if a ride sharing platform is going to do this, how should we expect them to distribute these vehicles and do it in a way that maximizes profits?

Another problem we're looking at is in the space of urban air mobility, which is kind of what it sounds like…

Flying cars?

That's right, flying cars. Initially these may be in the form of small personal helicopters. So let's say you have a bunch of what are called vertiport or heliports. You have lots of locations where these vehicles can land, but they're in an urban environment. If one of these vehicles is in the sky, it has to be able to get to a landing spot within a certain amount of time. Unlike cars where they can just pull to the side of the road, if you have a vehicle in the sky, you have to have a parking spot available for it before it runs out of fuel.

This opens up a lot of questions about how you would actually schedule these things in a way where you're being as efficient and safe as possible. We're definitely a more theoretically-oriented group, so we're trying to ask some of the underlying theory questions here. We are interested in the applications, but we're also interested the fundamental math and physics underneath these things.

You were awarded the Demetrius T. Paris Junior Professorship last year. What has that meant for your research?

It has definitely given me enough flexibility to think about some of these more “out there” questions—like the urban air mobility problem that I mentioned. We're thinking of this is as a future direction that we want to go, but we need to get some fundamental results before we can sell this to sponsors. It helps look at these problems from a new perspective in ways that aren’t constrained by parameters set forth in a grant, for instance.

The other big thing that I used the Demetrius T. Paris Professorship for is to found and organize the Southeast Controls Conference. The purpose of the Conference was to foster the controls theory community in the Southeast. It’s the first of its kind in our region of the US and the funding from the Professorship made it free to attend for the 100 attendees.

So what is next for you and your research team?

We have a couple of interesting projects that we are working on with other departments. One involves electric vehicles in emergency or disaster scenarios and the unique strains they could make on both the transportation and electric infrastructure. Another project we're thinking about also involves the coupling between transportation and electric infrastructure. In this case, we're trying to understand how electric vehicle charging is going to impact the grid--how we should expect users to pay for electric charging without overloading the grid.

Our research allows us to collaborate with other departments like Industrial and Systems Engineering, Civil Engineering, and even Public Policy. I expect there will be more of that in the future as the questions we are trying to answer are essentially cross-disciplinary. Finding these connections is important and the potential for these types of collaborations is one of the reasons I came back to Georgia Tech.

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