• Q&A with Peter Fuhr

    Peter Fuhr
    Peter Fuhr

    Please provide us with some general information about yourself, such as your current job position and degree of ISA involvement.

    I am a Distinguished Scientist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), which is a lab within the US Department of Energy. I have a strong interest and expertise in sensors and secure communications and their intersection in advanced instrumentation. I am the former Director of ISA’s Communications Division (ComDiv) and an ISA course developer and instructor. I’ve also been involved with ISA standards development.

    Tell us about your current role and function—both in terms of your career and your involvement in ISA.

    My current role at ORNL allows me to be involved with a wide array of technologies that have application in energy and industry.  My emphasis is on advancing activities in wireless communications and all sorts of sensors and instrumentation, including an area known as the Internet of Things (IoT).  I continue to have a role at ISA within ComDiv, in addition to being an ISA course developer and instructor.  Along with some of my ISA colleagues, I am in the initial stages of potentially establishing standards development activity involving the Internet of Things for Automation (IoT-A).  I am also quite fortunate to be able to be involved with a number of ISA conferences and workshops as an organizer, moderator, and presenter.

    Please give us an overview of your educational background and how and why you became interested in a career in automation.

    Regarding my educational background, I attended the largest high school in the US, Arsenal Technical High School in Indianapolis (more than 10,000 students) eons ago. I then chose a college, Beloit College in Wisconsin, that was significantly smaller. There, I received a bachelor of science degree in physics and a bachelor of science degree in mathematics.

    After working a stint as a government contractor—designing, wire wrapping and programming PDP-11/VAX computer boards to control a high-powered laser and associated telescope—I went on to become a civil servant working for NASA at Goddard Space Flight Center. While working at NASA, I attended graduate school at Johns Hopkins University where I received a master of science in engineering degree and a doctorate degree in electrical engineering.  My emphasis was on inter-satellite optical communications using phased array laser diodes. This was a wonderful experience that resulted in a number of sensors and systems that were and are still being deployed in orbit. It also pointed me towards the interplay of software, hardware, and real-world (as well as out-of-this-world) system constraints.

    I left NASA and became a university professor (in electrical engineering and material science) and spent the next 19 years working on a variety of sensors and communications projects, typically with a more engineering-(versus science-) based application.  This newfangled thing called (at the time) the “information superhighway” was being developed where research sponsorship (through both public- and private-sector funding) allowed me to work on sensors and systems to be installed in large civil structures.  This led to the logical integration of the sensors and their communications backbone into building control systems, SCADA systems, and in larger arenas, distributed control systems.  The communications component emphasized wireless development in the industrial sector, where a number of friends, colleagues, and collaborators suggested that I become involved in.  What came out of this was my introduction to the world of automation. This is where ISA entered the picture.  Over time I migrated away from academia, tried my hand in the start-up world, and wound up at ORNL.

    How would you say ISA has benefited you?

    Well, I gave some explanation when I covered how my career path developed.  The reason for that was to show that it was a logical evolutionary path that brought me to the world of automation (in general) and ISA (in particular).  Over the many years of my involvement, I have learned so much from other ISA members.  While I may be sitting over in this little corner of secure communications, I am being introduced to and educated on the real world of deployment and utilization of that (and related) technology and to really complicated systems and installations.  Rarely is the time when I am not able to learn something most interesting and valuable from a discussion with an automation professional. 

    What advice would you give to other young professionals entering the automation profession?

    I recently gave a presentation to a fairly large group of high school, undergraduate, and graduate students regarding application-based technology—with  a bent towards cybersecurity, cyberphysical systems (CPS), and instrumentation.  This is a wild intersection, one foretold by countless experts, of software (think IT), mathematics (think encryption, etc.), and sensors and systems used for monitoring and control (think planes, trains, and automobiles).  Bring these technologies and intertwined applications together and you arrive at the automation profession circa 2015. My advice to young professionals is to expand beyond the boundaries of your educational and practical training to embrace the world of systems engineering.  You don’t need to be the expert in all of the intricate details associated with this really broad area, but determine where the experts are (or who they are).  It’s an increasingly interdisciplinary world out there in Automation Land.