Research & Innovation

Stevens Professor Receives NSF Grant for Collective Design in Systems Engineering

In profile: Dr. Paul Grogan’s use of game theory models is key to his research into aerospace and defense systems

"Orbital Federates" is an interactive board game which models space system operations. It was developed by Stevens Professor Paul Grogan for aerospace and defense systems research.

Dr. Paul Grogan, assistant professor of systems engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology, has been awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) Systems Science grant which may have broad impacts on the design and management of large scale systems. The $120,000 award is funded under the EAGER (Early-concept Grants for Exploratory Research) program, which is a special program for high-risk, high potential reward research.

A member of the research faculty at the Stevens School of Systems and Enterprises (SSE), Grogan is focused on researching and developing information-based tools for engineering design in domains with distributed system architectures such as aerospace and defense. Now in its tenth year, SSE aims to address complexity in modern systems, one of the most pressing issues in an increasingly connected global society.

The purpose of Grogan’s new project is to research a systems design approach centered on value. The way most systems engineering projects are managed, it starts with a set of requirements that a customer or key stakeholder defines. These requirements are the high-level needs that the design must satisfy. Historically, this approach has worked very well, but there are downsides according to Grogan.

“By setting up very clear requirements, you prevent yourself from exploring possible designs that may do better in certain dimensions,” he explains. “Over the last 10 years there has been an initiative growing out of different organizations to transition from a requirements driven design approach to a value-driven design approach.”

Stevens Professor Paul Grogan
Dr. Paul Grogan, assistant professor of systems engineering at SSE

The aim of the value-driven design process is to essentially maximize value rather than minimizing costs or meeting certain requirements. Instead of stating main requirements, characteristics that provide value on the system become the driving force behind the design process.

Building on a game theory model of systems design, the project will develop a mathematical framework to characterize a multi-actor system design problem as a set of decisions and value flows contributing to strategic behavior.

“It’s really exciting to be able to pursue this idea that I’ve been developing for the past couple of years with support of the NSF,” says Grogan, who often uses gaming approaches in his research and when teaching Stevens students to demonstrate technical simulation models inside a social decision-making activity.

From gaming to game theory

When he’s not conducting research on complex modern systems, Grogan enjoys watching college football, and of course, gaming. Admittedly, he has spent more time following gaming news rather than actually playing games as his research has kept him busy of late. But he is quick to bring out a board game in a moment’s notice.

From among of the books in the shelves of his office, located in the Lawrence T. Babbio, Jr. Center on Stevens’ Hoboken, N.J. campus, Grogan pulls out a box: an interactive board game called Orbital Federates. If the name of the game rings unfamiliar, it’s because he specifically developed it several years ago for his research in aerospace and defense systems, so it won’t be found on the shelves of any popular toy store or book store.

“The game models space system operations where players design a spacecraft outfitted with different instruments – communications links, sensing instruments, and even data storage – then they have the opportunity to put it into orbit and operate it,” explains Grogan. “Players even earn money throughout the course of this game by taking on contracts.”

Dr. Grogan’s research into aerospace and defense systems has evolved since he developed the game, and from his time as a doctoral student at MIT. But he sees a clear connection in his research between then and now.

“There were a lot of the questions that I didn’t answer during my dissertation,” states Grogan, who was recently notified that his doctoral work at MIT was selected as the 2014 winner of the Daniel and Eva Roos Socio-technical Systems Dissertation Prize. The prize recognizes MIT doctoral graduates whose dissertation has made the greatest contribution of original scholarship to the engineering systems field of study. Grogan will join winners from 2015 – 2017 at MIT this coming fall to participate in a symposium.

In comparing his research as a doctoral student with his current research, he says, “I’ve found the right way of formulating those questions, formalizing relationships between actors and understanding how results in game theory can inform the outcome of the activity.”

He aims to generate results during this one-year project to launch into future research opportunities for Stevens. While working on this project, Professor Grogan will also continue to work on a NASA funded research project which investigates the role of a Knowledge Base (KB) as a new component in the Tradespace Analysis Tool for Constellations (TAT-C).

“This NSF award is a big signal that this type of research is of great importance both in the academic community, which is a big part of NSF funding, but also in the federal level, particularly elements that can be transferred to key areas of applied research in aerospace and defense,” he says.