System of Systems (SoS)

SoS connects the seemingly different parts with the whole to solve large-scale problems.

It’s the enigmatic signature area that takes some explaining. To truly wrap your mind around System of Systems (SoS), you could begin by looking skyward and thinking of air travel.

An airplane is an example of a large-scale, complex system. Many systems, operate various parts of the plane, but the plane flies when all its systems work in tandem and doesn’t fly if the systems work independently of each other.

An airport is another complex system; however, the airport involves aircraft, support trucks, baggage-handling equipment, and many other systems that can and do operate independently of each other. For the airport to function, it needs to have the right mix of these independent systems, and these systems need to cooperate with each other. Air traffic control is another example combining aircraft, control centers, airports, satellites, radars, and so on. All of travel—from the time you leave your home until you arrive at your destination—can be considered a system of systems as you use a car, a taxi, a shuttle bus, the airplane, etc.

This emerging system-of-systems concept describes the large-scale integration of many independent, self-contained systems in order to satisfy a global need. From air traffic control to constellations of satellites, these complex multi-systems are very interdependent. In other words, each affects the other. The synthesis of these very large systems often results in different problems than those presented by the design of a single, but complex, system usually addressed by engineers. Examining how these individual systems can be brought together and coordinated as part of a bigger picture provides an exciting new area for research and discovery at Purdue that could have many applications across many disciplines.

SoS is inherently multidisciplinary

While specific problems will require specific expertise, the principle premise here is that common characteristics of all these large, complex problems can lead to general tools and methodologies to support them.

Research outside of the Schools of Engineering will draw in experts in game theory and uncertainty. Correspondingly, this new area will be beneficial to schools and departments across campus, including mathematics, economics, and management.

Shape Design Moment: Ganesh Subbarayan, a professor in mechanical engineering, takes complex systems and looks for ways to design them by piecing together their elements. In this particular study, he is trying to determine the optimal orientation of a hole in a plate that leads to the smallest stress.

Projects can be as varied as imagining future combat systems for the Department of Defense, redesigning the port system in Boston, and reducing the costs of spy satellites. The cross-disciplinary work will address internet-related problems and large-scale construction projects like the “Big Dig” in Boston, as well as how to rebuild oil pipelines in Iraq, or simulate emergency responses to natural disasters or terrorist attacks.

Corporate interest

The Boeing Corporation has expressed great interest in Purdue’s SoS effort, and business strategists at Lockheed-Martin, Northrop-Grumman, Raytheon, and elsewhere are looking into this big-picture problem solving as well. There are also opportunities to affect supply chain management, public construction, and homeland security.

The opportunity for graduate students is also large. By bringing together a diverse group, techniques and methods lacking in some areas can be approached with new skills sets. Students will gain real-world experience running the gamut of cybernetics, control theory, object-oriented programming, chaos theory, artificial intelligence, mathematical genetics, evolutionary biology, economics, group dynamics, and sociology. While still being trained as engineers, they’ll benefit from training that builds on the traditional foundation. Ultimately, this new way of thinking, this system of systems, will make these students highly desirable in today’s complex marketplace.