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Tech Tour Day Eight: Western’s Got Wings!

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Captain Dave Powell, dean of Western Michigan Univeristy's College of Aviation, and GLITR Editor Matt Roush check out the Sky Broncos' cool new aircraft.

Captain Dave Powell, dean of Western Michigan Univeristy’s College of Aviation, and GLITR Editor Matt Roush check out the Sky Broncos’ cool new aircraft.

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KALAMAZOO — Okay, let’s start with full disclosure: My son, brother and two nephews went to Western Michigan University. So it’s hard for me to be entirely objective about the home of the Broncos.

But heck, even a Central Michigan Chippewa would be impressed by what I saw Thursday as the Great Lakes Innovation and Technology Report’s 2012 Fall Tech Tour stopped in southwest Michigan.

My day began with breakfast at the best breakfast place arguably on, oh, THE ENTIRE PLANET, Rykse’s on Stadium Drive, with Cheryl Roland, WMU executive director of university relations, and Dan Litynski, WMU vice president for research.

Litynski said the university is about a year into a project to bring focus groups of university staff together to identify areas where WMU could pursue more research dollars. The university currently does about $29 million a year in sponsored research, out of about $100 million in applications. An effort is also afoot to boost the approval rate, Litynski said.

The big news now at Western is that its Parkview Campus, also known as the Business Technology and Research Park, is within seven acres of filling its 183-acre site. An adjacent strip of land between Parkview Drive, US-131, Drake Road and Stadium Drive is being considered for a BTR Park expansion.

Western’s also building a medical school that plans to open in August 2014 with an initial class of 50. Its home will be in downtown Kalamazoo, a 330,000-square-foot, seven-story former Upjohn Co. building with plenty of laboratory space. No less than 300 people in the Kalamazoo community have been involved in planning committees for the med school.

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After a world-class omelet it was off to WMU’s Parkview Campus to the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, to visit a true engineering renaissance man, John Patten, chair of WMU’s manufacturing engineering department.

Patten and a recent WMU Ph.D. graduate, Deepak Ravindra, have developed a method to machine extremely hard and brittle materials that previously couldn’t be machined. They take a powerful laser and shine it through an optically transparent cutting tool. The diamond cutting tool focuses the laser’s power, softening the material so the diamond can cut it. Ravindra said the technology concentrates gigawatts of power on a tiny spot out of a 100-watt laser.

Micro-Laser Assisted Machining Technologies LLC was formed in June 2011, licensing the technology from the university. It’s received a federal Small Business Innovation Research grant to further develop the technology and has an office in the engineering building.

Patten said he’s been interested in the technology since 1985 and spent over a decade researching the science behind it — how the process works — before attempting to commercialize it.

“People cut with diamonds, people cut with lasers, we merged the two into a hybrid device,” Patten said. “We knew the science behind it and we were able to take advantage of that. We’re working on machining very hard, brittle materials — silicon for the semiconductor industry, silicon carbide and glass.”

Ravindra said the technology could replace the current method for making silicon carbide smooth — a lengthy and expensive polishing process. The technology could revolutionize the processing of brittle materials, dramatically reducing the time and cost to manufacture everything from complex semiconductors to optical mirrors.

Patten and Ravindra also attended a federal Innovation Corps boot camp with their business idea, in which they had to interview a minimum of 100 potential customers, and they’re convinced they’ll quickly have customers in what Ravindra said is a $90 billion potential market. Acceptance into I-Corps came with a $50,000 grant. The company is also a semifinalist in the Accelerate Michigan business plan competition.

Ravindra, who earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in mechanical engineering from WMU, is the entrepreneurial lead, while Tom Gross, a senior entrepreneur and CEO of another university startup, is the team’s business mentor.

They’re already talking to potential investors, including the Grand Angels in Grand Rapids, about investments to keep the company moving forward when the SBIR runs out next year.

“We’d like the machine tool companies to market this is an accessory,” Patten said.

And that’s not Patten’s only research area, either. A longtime Toyota Prius driver who modified his car to become a plug-in hybrid before Toyota made them, Patten and his students are now experimenting on electric heating on a 2012 Prius. Patten said the engineering department is now home to four electric vehicles, which are charged by a wind turbine he had installed in front of the school.

He said he’d like to have a larger turbine installed as a demonstration project. It’s certainly a highly visible location — 50,000 cars go by the engineering campus each day on US-131.

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From the engineering campus it was back to Wood Hall in the heart of main campus and a visit with Charles “Jay” Emerson, an associate professor of geography who joined Western in 1999.

Emerson and colleague Robert Anemone, an anthropologist with a deep knowledge of paleontology, are developing a method to use satellite photography, spectral analysis, geological maps and elevation models to predict where scientists are likely to find fossils in Wyoming’s Great Divide Basin.

That’s a huge step, because the current method is straight out of Indiana Jones.

“Traditionally, you’ll have a team of cars driving for miles and miles… and if they see a rock formation that looks kind of promising, they’ll hop out and crawl the area, looking for fossils,” Emerson said.

In that area, they’re looking for fossils from the Eocene, around 55 million years ago, where you find fossils of early mammals — early ancestors of horses, rodents, and primates, the latter of which evolved into that flower of creation, homo sapiens — us.

That long ago, however, our great-times-practically-infinity grandma was “a pre-lemur, a little shrew-like creature. And these fossils are incredibly tiny. The gold standard is finding a jawbone.”

Searching for stuff that small based on scientific intuition is “a very tedious and time consuming thing.” But Emerson’s and Anemone’s method, published in the scholarly journal Evolutionary Anthropology, takes some of the guesswork out.

Using imagery from the Landsat 7 satellite, the two researchers trained an artificial neural netowrk to recognize the spectral signature of promising fossil sites along with four other types of land — wetlands, barren soil, forest and scrubland.

The computer searches the basin and picks out areas that are most similar to known fossil find areas. Since the researchers used 75 of their 100 known fossil sites to train the neural net, they tested the model on the remaining 25 sites, and found it to be 90 percent accurate.

Anemone and Emerson have now received a $180,000 grant to look at the technology in more detail, which will allow them to hire more researchers. And they’re now using a more precise private satellite for imagery. The Landsat’s images’ pixels were about 14 meters in size, while the pixels of the private WorldView II are as small s half a meter.

The technology also has potential applications in monitoring crops, forestry and mining.

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My final stop of the day was Western’s College of Aviation, housed in the former passenger terminal of the Battle Creek Airport about 20 miles east of Kalamazoo.

There, Western trains about 700 students — around 450 flight students, 130 in airframe and powerplant maintenance and another 120 in aviation science and administration (which means running airlines, airports and air traffic control operations).

Captain Dave Powell, a former Air Force fighter pilot and 18-year veteran of United Air Lines, is dean of the school. He and associate dean Ray Thompson, a longtime aviation educator at Purdue University and in the United Arab Emirates, have successfully made Western part of PEGASAS, the Partnership to Enhance General Aviation Safety, Accessibility and Sustainability.

General aviation covers a broad spectrum, from business jets flying executives to hobbyists who build and fly their own kit aircraft. PEGASAS aims to make general aviation safer — while also making it more accessible to more people, meaning improvements in aircraft and in air traffic flow. And the effort aims to boost sustainability, through efforts to reduce aircraft noise and emissions.

Western is one of 12 schools that are part of the effort, which is led by Purdue. Western’s role in the program will emphasize its longtime leadership in aircraft safety research, human factors research, crew training and pilot training. Western’s engineering college will also assist in the effort.

WMU is also leading an effort to replace pilot flight bags with iPads.

That might sound simple and intuitive, but it’s a huge step. Today’s pilots carry suitcase-like bags full of technical manuals for the aircraft they’re flying, plus air charts and maps of everyplace they might fly. And those charts — which show everything from obstructions on the ground to restricted airspace around airports — have to be updated every 56 days.

Powell said it’s much easier to put those maps of highways in the sky onto an iPad.

As part of the initiative, the college has entered into an educational licensing agreement with ForeFlight LLC, a leader in the development of mobile apps for pilots. ForeFlight’s app offers weather maps, instrument procedures and more.

The tool costs $725, and $50 a year to keep updated.

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Well, that wrapped up my visit to Western. Impressive, huh? Some day, I’m going to get to the aviation college with enough spare time to let Capt. Powell take me up in one of the school’s high-tech Cirrus four-seat aircraft. Until then, keep ‘em flying, WMU!

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