Research Roundup: Cadet projects result in private, public-sector advancements

  • Published
  • By Jenn Kuster
  • Office of Research

Editor’s note: Cadet researchers have a longstanding history of teaming with faculty at the Air Force Academy and private and public partners to make scientific and academic advances.

This academic year, among numerous other projects, cadets researched harnessing power from microorganisms, decreasing concussions, refining remotely piloted aircraft, improving race relations and decreasing aircraft mishaps.  


‘Power Struggle’

Cadets and faculty researchers are manipulating microorganisms to increase the power of their recently developed fuel cells.

Melanie Grogger, genetic engineer at the Academy’s Life Sciences Research Center, and Cadet 1st Class Vicki Bittleston, inserted bacterial-electron-transfer genes into the microorganism’s cyanobacteria to increase the ability of their fuel cells to move electrons.

Cyanobacteria are photosynthetic -- they rely on sunlight to breakdown nutrients from carbon and water. Transfer genes assign genetic material.

“We suspect we can combine traits from different microorganisms to create additional power via enhanced electron support,” said Dr. Don Veverka, director of the LSRC. 

Bittleston said the research could result in a fuel cell that uses solar energy to maintain itself and efficiently transfer electrons for a prolonged period of time to power military equipment, such as communications and sensor devices.

“Theoretically, the combination should increase the rate at which electrons pass over an extracellular electron transfer chain, resulting in an increase in power,” she said.

The longest-lasting fuel cell created at the Academy kept its power for five weeks.

“The fuel cells are meant to be sustainable,” Veverka said.

‘Best Brain Care’

The Academy is involved in a widespread research initiative between the Defense Department and the National Collegiate Athletic Association to accurately diagnose, treat and prevent concussions among cadets, student-athletes, service members and the public. The Concussion Assessment, Research and Evaluation Consortium provide the scientific and operational framework for the collaboration, which includes 30 NCAA member institutions.

The study marks the most comprehensive investigation of sports-related concussions conducted to date, according to the CARE Consortium website.

The Athletic Department, 10th Medical Group and Behavioral Sciences and Leadership Department at the Academy teamed-up to collect concussion data and develop programs for the Academy. The team’s goal is to create better brain care for cadets by understanding the natural history of concussion recovery.

The NCAA and the DOD have lead the way in advancing the science of sport-related concussions over the past 20 years, supporting discoveries with a major influence on domestic and international guidelines for best practices in the evaluation and management of concussions.

Cadets suffer concussions from a variety of activities beyond intercollegiate athletics, such as physical education classes, military training and slips and falls. Academy researchers use this information to improve the treatment of concussion patients in the Cadet Clinic.    

Confusion about concussions has lead cadets to be indecisive about whether they may suffer from a concussion.

“We are learning it is athletes and cadets alike that believe concussion myths,” said Dr. Chris D’Lauro, a behavioral sciences assistant professor at the Academy. “It’s even more prevalent in cadets who want to be pilots.”

The Academy’s concussion-testing team educates cadets about the need for early self-reporting of concussion injuries. Early reporting creates a best case scenario for care from athletic trainers and medical staff, said Lt. Cmdr. Brian Johnson, a behavioral sciences assistant professor at the Academy

“We believe the Academy is the first institution to conduct exhaustive concussion baseline assessments on its entire student body,” he said. “We feel our cadets are getting the latest in brain care, largely due to our participation in this study.”

Every cadet participates in a series of baseline concussion assessments when they get to the Academy. This testing includes, but isn’t limited to, disclosure of brain injury and-or concussion history, symptom evaluations, cognitive assessments and balance evaluations.

“The great thing about baseline testing is medical and training staff already know a cadet’s average performance,” said Cadet 1st Class Kristen Chapman, biology major and concussion study researcher. “When a concussion does happen, a cadet may try to rush their recovery. However, the medical team gives them a post-injury test that shows the cadet where they are in the recovery process versus where they should be.” 

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, comparing post-injury test results can help health care professionals identify the effects of an injury and make informed decisions on when a student can and should return to school or other activities. This data is often the only tangible evidence coaches and medical professionals use to show a cadet the impact a concussion can have on their cognitive performance and abilities.

“The importance of the Academy is we have the right staff to research concussion data,” said Col. Darrin Campbell, chief of Sports Medicine and director of the Academy’s Concussion Clinic. “We can take that information to the rest of the Air Force or the rest of the DOD. The information we gather to use in the civilian community pushes research to catch up to public opinion.”

Under the CARE Consortium, researchers from the DOD and the NCAA collected more than 25 million data points from more than 16,000 student-athletes across the 30 participating institutions. This study allowed the Academy to improve how concussion injuries are reported and treated and play a key role in the way cadets view the importance of early reporting.

Black Dart

The Air Force sent cadets to participate in Black Dart 2016, the U.S. military’s largest live-fly, live-fire counter unmanned aircraft systems joint exercise.

Lt. Col. Kip Kiefer, director of the Academy’s Command and Control Laboratory, and Lt. Col. Paul Blue, director of the Small UASs’ Innovation Center, both of the Institute of Information Technology Applications, took 10 cadets from the Academy’s RPA Airmanship Program to Black Dart to discover the best mode of protection against small UAS and gain added operational UAS experience.

The annual event is run by the Joint Integrated Air and Missile Defense Organization and designed to test the best technologies and systems available from the military, government agencies and private companies protect against attacks using RPAs. NBC News cited it to be “a demonstration of the best countermeasures and capabilities available to counter drone attacks.” 

The U.S. has used RPAs in combat for decades, as early as World War II. With a camera mounted on the nose of an RPA, a pilot following several miles behind in a control plane could watch a target on a black and white screen, turn a dial and release the drone’s bomb. Made of wood, the RPAs were expendable and would often crash after accomplishing their mission. As technology advanced, so did the need for a more sophisticated RPA system.

No stranger to combat, the RQ-11B Raven was one of two small UASs Academy cadets brought to the event. The Raven is hand-launched, weighs less than 5 pounds and has an endurance of up to 80 minutes. Despite its small size, the Raven has proven itself in combat, supporting operations for military services in Iraq, Afghanistan and other areas of conflict.

Kiefer said cadets flew nine sorties with RQ-11B Raven fixed-wing small UASs and 13 sorties with DJI Inspire quadcopter small UASs on land and at sea. They engaged in missions as a red force team, the enemy team and as a blue force team, the friendly team.

As the red force team, cadets supported the navy destroyer, the USS Jason Dunham, testing its radar and tracking systems to determine the ranges and altitudes at which it detects and tracks small UASs. 

As the blue force team, cadets assisted in demonstrating government contractor capabilities to negate red force UASs operating in the same airspace.

The ability to see and participate in missions as attackers and defenders gave cadets a holistic view of cyberwarfare cadets may have not been able to gain from the classroom.  

Cadets’ contributions earned the Academy an invite to return to Black Dart this year, an opportunity that will allow them to receive real-world airmanship experience and serve as a valuable capstone event for cadets involved in the RPA Airmanship Program.

Ultimate Democracy

Dr. Greg Laski, assistant professor in the Academy’s English and Fine Arts Department, is the author of “Untimely Democracy: The Politics of Progress after Slavery.”

Laski’s theory of untimely democracy incorporates history, literature and philosophy to define and enhance the way Air Force leaders view democracy and encourages them to use innovative approaches to study future dilemmas.

In class, Laski poses the question “How, as a democratic nation, do we presently achieve racial progress?” Laski studies the time 10-20 years after the Civil War, often considered the lowest point of race relations in the U.S., when the excitement of freedom from slavery gave way to an increase in lynching attacks and policies enforcing separate-but-equal facilities.

In his book, Laski studied diverse publications from the late 19th century and how their insight into post-Civil War equality can advance modern race relations, cultivate American democracy and influence Academy cadets to use historical literature to inform their understanding of current political events.

The promise of equality for all men and women the Civil War represented did not materialize; however, the writers of Laski’s research have vibrant theories of fairness that inform modern understanding of democracy for Americans. Through fiction and non-fiction works, writers such as Frederick Douglass, Stephen Crane, W.E.B. Du Bois and Callie House, push for racial equality by remembering the foundation of democracy -- that all men and women are created equal. Laski shows how race relations at the time after the Civil War provided an abundance of profound thought and activism to progress the promise of equality.

“This group of writers offers what I call a theory of untimely democracy which is a version of democracy that can really achieve the kind of progress we want, but it has to do so by never forgetting the uglier parts of our past,” he said.

One of Laski’s courses, Representing Race: African American History on the Page and Screen examines the representation of race in American culture. Cadets watch modern films such as “12 Years a Slave,’ “Django Unchained” and “Lincoln,” as historical commentary on race relations. Laski leads discussions comparing 21st century and historical race representations to help cadets develop complex thinking about diverse relationships.

For Laski, discussing race representations in culture is not a one way conversation. His courses intentionally exchange ideas between professor and cadets. To incorporate multiple points of view in his classes, Laski brings his research into his teachings. Laski said cadets show an impressive maturity level to intelligently discuss race in culture and how it relates to democracy, influencing Laski’s thinking about his own writing.

As cadets prepare to graduate from the Academy and transition into the Air force, Laski mentors potential grad students. Using his own experience in publishing original research, he guides cadets to achieve their own goals of contributing to academia and becoming future decision-makers.

Through his research, publishing and teaching, Laski inspires cadets to explore public and political topics to increase awareness about current events and how historical literature can inform democratic progression.

“The writers I study are skeptical about arguments that appeal to a better future, when those appeals force us to forget the problematic past of racial slavery,” he said. “For them, the question is not about comparing past versus present to show what a difference there is, but rather to inquire about the similarities between past and present, to attend to historical legacies, repeated patterns of exclusion and ghosts of the past. Progress is the goal, but the term necessarily has a perpetual question mark accompanying it.”

Allowing cadets to engage in mature conversations about race relations and the influence that race relations have on modern politics gives cadets a lens to view the complexities they may encounter as officers serving in diverse locations, leading diverse populations of Airmen on a variety of missions.

Avoiding Aircraft Collisions

The Academy continues to develop and lead research efforts on technology proven to significantly reduce aircraft mishaps: the Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System. The Auto-GCAS was fielded into the Air Force F-16 Block 40-50 fleet in 2014, when it demonstrated its value to the warfighter during four real-world life-saving automatic recovery executions on F-16 fighter jets.

Auto GCAS provides an autonomous response that predicts imminent collisions, determines alternate flight paths and ultimately, reduces the number of mishaps resulting from controlled flight into terrain. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, CFIT is a leading cause of aviation fatalities and includes pilot mishaps such as spatial disorientation, target fixation and G-force induced loss of consciousness.

Spatial disorientation occurs when a person can’t determine their true body position, motion and altitude; target fixation is when an individual becomes so focused on an observed object or target they inadvertently increase their risk of colliding with that object. G-LOC describes excessive and sustained G-forces draining blood away from the brain, resulting in a loss of consciousness. Any of these phenomena can be fatal to a pilot, hence the need for an autonomous system that executes a ground-avoiding maneuver if the system detects an impending collision.

Seen as technology that can extend well beyond the F-16, the Air Force and NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center worked to develop automatic-collision avoidancetechnologies for nearly three decades. Currently, Academy research focuses on the expansion of the technology beyond the F-16 and the possibility of transferring the algorithm to heavy aircraft (known as Heavy Auto GCAS), such as the C-130 transport aircraft.

The Air Force Research Laboratory, NASA Armstrong, the Air Force Institute of Technology, and the Air Force Test Pilot School worked to transition this technology to other aircraft, resulting in a successful flight test of Auto GCAS on a Small UAV in 2013 at NASA Armstrong and a successful flight test of Heavy Auto GCAS on a Learjet in 2015 at Air Force TPS.

To prepare for the next flight test of Heavy Auto GCAS at TPS in 2018, cadets have been leading the Heavy Auto GCAS research and development since January 2016 as part of a senior independent research project pushing them to provide answers to the most complex problems the Defense Department faces. 

“If Heavy Auto GCAS prevents one mishap, then the technology pays for itself,” said Col. Angie Suplisson, director of the Academy’s UASystems Center.

Aeronautics major Cadet 1st Class Mary Kim Weidman said Academy researchers use pilot input to test Heavy Auto GCAS in real-life situations.

“Pilots want something that reacts the way a real pilot would in a potential ground collision situation and to make sure nuisance is reduced as much as possible,” she said.

To determine changes and costs necessary to utilize the technology on heavier aircraft, cadets review historical mishaps, analyze current collision avoidance systems and talk to operational pilots.  After calculations are refined, cadets can create a business-case analysis determining cost-effectiveness.

“In the Air Force, system development involves many moving parts, involving lots of different people and mission elements,” said Cadet 1st Class Andrew LeValley, a systems engineering major.

The current business-case analysis shows the average cost of a C-130 to be approximately $68 million. If one aircraft is saved by the execution of Heavy Auto GCAS, the technology would pay for itself.


“Management capstone cadets will revisit the idea of making changes to the Heavy Auto GCAS software or hardware for the C-130 or other mobility aircraft and determine if it makes financial sense to do so,” said Maj. Josh Wolfram, director of curriculum for the Management Department.