A refurbished Building 31 for autonomous systems, Gas Turbine Lab, Beaver Works

Jon How in Building 31's new Kresa Center For Autonomous Systems
September 21, 2017

$52M rehab offers new labs, equipment, and massive indoor flying space

by Mark Veligor

In a stunning renovation of one of MIT's oldest reasearch facilities, 90-year-old Building 31 has been transformed from a motley collection of outmoded workshops and machinery pits into a gleaming, state-of-the art center for cutting-edge autonomous systems and gas turbine research.

Reopening in September 2017 following a $52 million top-to-bottom reconstruction, the project represents a renewal of more than 50 percent of AeroAstro’s campus research space. Features include indoor and outdoor space for autonomous systems testing, laboratories for junior faculty, and workshops devoted to Beaver Works, the joint research and educational program with MIT Lincoln Laboratory.

Aeronautics and Astronautics Department head, Professor Jaime Peraire, praised MIT alumni, friends, and senior administration for their support. “It was the generosity and enthusiasm of our extended MIT family that made this vision a reality,” Peraire said. "Generations of researchers and students will use this greatly improved space to conduct research that will benefit the world.”

The Sloan Laboratories for Aircraft and Automotive Engines, as the building is officially known, originally opened in 1928 as a single-story home for MIT’s internal combustion engine research, funded by General Motors CEO and MIT alumnus Alfred P. Sloan Jr. (1895). A two-story east wing was added in 1940 to relieve testing floor congestion, and a three-story west wing was added in 1944 to aid MIT’s increased contribution to the war effort. The building had remained largely unchanged in the 70 years since.

The Gas Turbine Lab has been an anchor tenant of Building 31 since 1947. GTL director Professor Zoltán Spakovszky (SM’99 PhD’01) said of the old, worn building, “When I arrived as a grad student in 1996, my first reaction to Building 31 was 'This can't be MIT.' The new space will improve our daily activities, and the refurbished engine test cells and upgraded motor drive system for our de Laval wind tunnel and air system will greatly support our research. We're all excited to move back in.”

In the center of the building is the new Kresa Center for Autonomous Systems, an indoor high-bay facility enabled by a gift from Joyce and Kent Kresa (’59, SM’61, ENG/EAA ’66), former chairman and CEO of Northrop Grumman and General Motors. The 80-foot-long, 40-foot-wide, 25-foot-high space will facilitate autonomous systems research focusing on a variety of systems including rotor and fixed-wing aircraft.

AeroAstro Professor Jonathan How, director of the Aerospace Controls Lab, said, “The high-bay facility is one of the largest, custom-designed, dedicated spaces for robotics research that I am aware of in academia. Large spaces such as these are often located off the main campus, which tends to reduce their overall utility. Ours is in the heart of the campus, making it unique and particularly useful.”

The project also renovated much of the east wing of the building, offering new office and laboratory space for MIT’s Mechanical Engineering Department including the Sloan Automotive Laboratory, Gear Lab, and Electrochemical Energy Lab.

Overall, the renovation adds nearly 7,000 square feet of new space, and more than doubles Building 31's capacity for faculty, students, and researchers. The result is a modern space honoring the Building 31’s strong tradition as a home for engine, power, and propulsion research, while bringing a new energy ready to inspire the next generation of engineering leaders.

Mark Veligor is the MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ senior leadership giving officer. He may be reached at mveligor@mit.edu.


High Bay flying room

Building 31 exterior several weeks before renovations were completed. (William Litant photo)