Closing the Research-Market Gap

June 06, 2012

K. Larry Head, Ph.D., is one University of Arizona researcher who knows how to close the gap between engineering research and real-world application.

“There’s a big gap between research and implementation,” says Head, a systems and industrial engineer. “I read (research) papers and think, ‘This is a nice idea, but it never could work.’”

Head, department head of the UA Department of Systems and Industrial Engineering, learned how to narrow that gap with his own experiences in academia and business.

Research Leads to Business

Since 1991, he has worked in the field of real-time traffic control systems in pursuit of technologies that optimize traffic flow and reduce traffic accidents.

As a result of his work, Head joined a colleague who founded a company that built intelligent traffic systems. It eventually was sold to Siemens, where Head became a senior vice president and led development in advanced traffic management systems.

“We did a lot of work on light rail projects for Salt Lake City, Houston and Phoenix,” he says.

Business Experience Informs Research

During that time, he figured out that “I really was an academic,” and returned to the UA in 2003 to further his research in the field. “I had this gnawing feeling about the industry,” he remembers. “There were no mathematical foundations for the things we did."

Since then, he has developed algorithms that can be applied to a variety of signal control applications.

One of those applications is under study in Anthem, Arizona, where signal lights and emergency vehicles have been fitted with a wireless communication system of digital short range communication, wi-fi, cell phone and Bluetooth technologies.

The SMARTDrive demonstration program, implemented in partnership with the Maricopa County Department of Transportation, allows traffic signals to coordinate with each other to give emergency vehicles priority signal lights through intersections. It also allows those vehicles to communicate each other’s location.

These strategies help avoid collisions when emergency vehicles are converging on a scene or an intersection, and allow for quicker response times.

Partnerships Optimize Strengths

Head appreciates the partnerships that turn this research and development into marketable products.

For instance, one of his research projects to develop a Multi-Modal Intelligent Traffic Signal System (MMITSS) that will include pedestrians, cars, buses and other vehicles, is funded by pooled funds from county, state and federal transportation departments. The research team includes experts at University of California at Berkeley.

Expertise in hardware and software for the project comes from business partners Econolite, Volvo Technology, Savari and Kapsch.

Although experienced in the business of intellectual property, Head admits he is not interested in patents. “There isn’t enough money in traffic control algorithms to get excited,” he says. “The commercial value is in the services associated with installing and operating systems.”

He’d rather develop the relationships that allow the private sector to gain from research in exchange for their participation in development.

“These companies make great partners when we write proposals,” says Head. They also provide jobs for UA graduates who have built their expertise working on viable cutting-edge projects.

This kind of backing allows Head to concentrate on what he likes most: research, teaching, lecturing, publishing and working with highly specialized companies in the small industry of traffic systems.

“For me, that’s the better contribution,” he says. 

To learn how to become involved in technology innovation, contact the UA Office of Corporate and Business Relations.