Academy professors double as high-tech entrepreneurs

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The academy’s Dr. John Wilkes is working on a way to harness, store and safely use hydrogen as an energy source.

The academy’s Dr. John Wilkes is working on a way to harness, store and safely use hydrogen as an energy source.

The Air Force Academy doesn’t keep its research — or its cadets — to itself.

The academy’s research professors can be brought in to conduct research and help get a product from the idea stage to the commercial market. Currently, there are 90 such agreements — with companies such Ball Aerospace in Boulder as well as NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories.

The collaboration allows professors to focus on the science behind the idea, develop the research, perform experiments and test the product. The business side — accounting, human resources and marketing — is taken care of by the company.

Some professors prefer to create their own companies, like Neumann Systems, operated by former academy physics professor John Neumann. Others, however, prefer to stay focused on the science.

Dr. John Wilkes is in this camp and has helped create batteries for unmanned aerial vehicles and for electric cars through a partnership with American Electric Vehicles, based in Monument, Colo.

But corporations can benefit from the academy in another way — through its cadets. About 180 cadets routinely participate in what amounts to an internship program, available between their junior and senior years in college.

The school allows cadets to spend summer break working on specific research projects for major corporations. Boeing, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin routinely take advantage of these cadet programs.

“Of course, they have to give up their summer leave,” said John Van Winkle, public affairs officer. “But for many of them it’s worth it. They have a problem to solve, and they usually solve it. It’s real-world, hands-on research.”

Cadets must perform a “capstone project” before they graduate, and frequently, these partnerships help them create that project, which is then defended before academy professors and industry experts.

“They do things like work to develop patents for specific products,” he said. “For instance, one cadet helped crate a new metallic element coating for Navy combat ships.”

Other cadets worked on research projects that developed a manned exploration vehicle, he said.

“A cadet recently worked on designing a low-cost, persistent remotely piloted aircraft,” he said. “This isn’t something many undergraduates get the chance to do.”