BLACKSBURG — Virginia Tech is replacing cattle in its front yard with driverless cars.
University officials envision a new corridor that will be located just off U.S. 460 at the Southgate Drive entrance to campus. Fields once home to cows will now house drone testing sites, driverless cars and labs for putting the infrastructure of the future to the test as a part of Virginia Tech’s new “smart village.”
It will change the feel and look of the university at its prime traffic artery, which will also include a previously announced new interchange slated to open in late 2018, said Tech Provost Thanassis Rikakis.
“You will know you’ve arrived at a university that’s at the forefront of technology,” Rikakis said.
Tech’s building boom — many details of which have been announced — began several years ago and will continue for some time to come as university officials look to raise enrollment by as many as 5,000 students.
The push for the new smart village is the freshest development for Tech as it continues to flesh out its “destination areas.” The smart village and two new buildings, on the northern edge of campus near Bishop-Favrao Hall, are the first physical homes to a destination area. The official name of the area is the “Intelligent Infrastructure for Human-centered Communities.”
Destination areas are a voluntary educational path in which students can take core classes but also pursue cross-disciplinary opportunities that allow them to major in something like intelligent infrastructure along with a more traditional degree, such as engineering or English.
Infrastructure ideas will be born in laboratories in the two buildings on campus and field-tested in a more real-world environment at the smart village.
The academic programs within the infrastructure destination area are the first to have building proposals and plans on Tech’s Blacksburg campus. University officials anticipate folks in the destination area will look at research questions related to smart construction, autonomous vehicles, urban planning and transportation infrastructure.
The approximately 300-acre smart village will be a space that stretches across U.S. 460 along Plantation Road. It will be a place where Tech — along with industry partners — can test important pieces of infrastructure for the future. The smart village will also be linked to the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute located near the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Smart Road.
The village will consist of a multitude of buildings and roads spread over a large area along Plantation Road to the southwest of U.S. 460 and along Southgate Drive on the opposite side of the highway.
“It will be a playground of opportunity,” Tech assistant vice president for university planning Jason Soileau said.
Some research buildings already along Plantation Road will become a part of the smart village, Soileau said. The university doesn’t want to have too many firm plans in place in hopes that students, faculty and industry partners can dream up cutting edge infrastructure and buildings for the smart village.
“We don’t want to lock ourselves in buildings when we might be able to dream up better ones down the road,” Soileau said.
Rikakis said that, like in the Roanoke venture, private partnerships will be key to the success of the smart village and that the university is already in talks with about 20 companies that are interested in investing and using the smart village.
“Our hope is we’ll create industry jobs outside of academe,” Rikakis said.
The university has a goal of raising $100 million for the first phase of the intelligent infrastructure destination area. University officials hope half of that money will be raised through private partnerships.
The project got its first infusion of funding with a $5 million commitment from Northern Virginia builders Hitt Contracting. Rikakis said no members of the Hitt family are Tech grads, but the company hires several Virginia Tech alumni each year. Hitt Contracting does not currently have any proposals in for contracting work with Virginia Tech and has not been paid for university work in the past, according to online records and school officials.
The buildings will be adjacent to Bishop-Favrao Hall, where the Myers-Lawson School of Construction is based.
One of the first buildings will be Hitt Hall, named after the contracting family. It will house classrooms and laboratory space. The other building will be about the same size and will have many of the same features, but will also have a dining hall that Soileau said would be environmentally friendly.
Souileau declined to say when construction on the buildings would begin; however, he did say Virginia Tech officials hope construction will start in the next year.
Much of the lab and class space will be used by Tech’s construction school, said Brian Kleiner, the school’s director.
The buildings will offer large areas for interdisciplinary projects, and lab space will be the birthplace of infrastructure experiments that will be field tested in the smart village, Kleiner said.
The school of construction, which has programs in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies and the College of Engineering, offers crosscutting degrees like construction engineering and management. It is the ideal leader for the development of the first destination area to lay down Hokie stone in Blacksburg.
“The school of construction is really a prototype for destination areas,” he said.
Kleiner estimated that the destination area would have a big impact on the school as Tech continues to swell its student body in President Timothy Sands’ pursuit of adding the 5,000 students in the next five to seven years.
Rikakis said he hopes that by 2022, there will be 3,000 students, faculty and industry partners working in the intelligent infrastructure destination area.
Students can already get a construction minor associated with the destination area, Kleiner said.
According to Rikakis, the university is shoring up the majors now to get approved in the near future. It’s likely students will be able to get a major in the intelligent infrastructure destination area by the fall of 2017, he said.