'Creative collisions' lead to new Aerospace Ventures initiative at CU-Boulder

By: Lisa Dicksteen Wednesday April 29, 2015 0 comments Tags: Boulder, Aerospace V, Diane Dimeff, CU-Boulder, Tom Cech, Penina Axelrad


BOULDER -- Tom Cech, Nobel Laureate, director of the BioFrontiers Institute  and Distinguished Professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder, calls them “creative collisions.”

Someone less lettered might call them chance encounters or synchronicities. When people from different departments within a university meet and begin to chat, they often discover they’re working on different aspects of the same problem, frequently leading to a creative collaboration that would not have happened otherwise.

The ivory tower is a common metaphor for the way non-academics imagine how academics work without interference from or interest in the outside world. It is also an accurate picture of the way departments at most universities work in relation to each other.

But according to Penina Axelrad, professor and chair of CU-Boulder’s Aerospace Engineering Sciences Department and a founding member of the CU-Boulder AeroSpace Ventures (ASV) initiative, “CU Boulder is unique in that we’re not very stove-piped. There have always been grassroots collaborations between departments -- we just wanted to make it more deliberate.Penina_Axelrad_mugFIXED

“ASV is designed to encourage, foster, and nurture collaboration between departments,” and connect the work being done at the university with the needs of related industries, Axelrad said.

“CU- Boulder has some of the most preeminent aerospace-related academic departments in the world, however, often technologists and scientists work separately,” said Diane Dimeff, managing director of CU-Boulder Aerospace Ventures. “They could complement each other if they worked together. CU-Boulder’s is the first aerospace department to combine aerospace engineering and science – engineers and scientists working together.”

About seven or eight years ago, some at CU-Boulder began talking about a way to make this happen. According to Dimeff, “a template was developed for what ASV might look like” and a few years later she was brought in to help make it happen.

Dimeff invited the chairs of the relevant departments (Aerospace Engineering Sciences, Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences, Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences (ATOC), Computer Science, Electrical Computer and Energy Engineering, Physics, the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP), and the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES)) to participate and the response was swift and enthusiastic.

Collaboration welcomed

“All the different departments were more interested in collaborating than they have been in the past,” Dimeff said. “LASP and ATOC came in with great enthusiasm.”

Dimeff attributes this to timing, noting that “small satellites and drones used to be esoteric things, but now everyone knows what they are – this is just the right time for this type of initiative.”Diane_Dimeff1FIXED

The intention behind all this interdepartmental cooperation is “to develop new educational programs that integrate science and engineering to capture new research developed by scientists, engineers, and industry together,” said Dimeff. “Scientists can benefit from understanding the new technologies being developed to enable more efficient and effective measurements.”

ASV works in three areas in which CU-Boulder has “lots of leadership intellectually” and in which industry is also interested, creating what Dimeff calls “a great opportunity for collaboration.”

Those areas are small satellites, sensors, and unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), or drones. Sensors are exquisitely sensitive measuring devices, small satellites are tiny platforms on which sensors can be mounted to take measurements in space, and UASs are platforms on which sensors can be mounted to take measurements within Earth’s gravity.

For example, Jeff Thayer, CU-Boulder professor and director of the Colorado Center for Astrodynamics Research, recently received a patent for something called Shallow Water Lidar, which measures distance using laser illumination to determine the depth of shallow bodies of water on other planets.

This sensor can be attached to a small satellite (only 10cm x 10cm x 30cm), which could be part of the technology payload of a rocket, and which would release it once the rocket is outside of Earth’s atmosphere, allowing the small satellite to fly around in space and the sensor to send back information to scientists on Earth.

Or DataHawk, a small, safe, low-cost UAS designed by CU-Boulder Professor Dale Lawrence to be flown into environments into which it would be too dangerous to send manned aircraft, such as the centers of severe storms. Once the UAS is inside the storm, attached sensors can measure temperature, humidity, pressure, wind, and turbulence, enabling atmospheric scientists to understand more about how, when, and why different types of storm systems emerge.

ASV’s current industry partners are Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corporation, Blue Canyon Technologies, Braxton Technologies, Lockheed Martin’s Space Systems Company, Sierra Nevada Corporation, and Surrey Satellite Technology.CU-Boulder_logo

These companies sponsor student teams working on what Axelrad calls “real projects, things they are not already doing. Things that are innovative, risky – things they might not be ready to invest a lot of money in yet, but that they want to investigate to see how it might work because it could be a game-changer.”

Broad thinkers

Dimeff said this type of hands-on experience changes the way ASV graduates enter the business world by making them “broad thinkers.” Students need to concentrate on more than their individual area of specialization, so ASV deliberately puts electrical and mechanical engineers, computer scientists, aerospace engineers, and oceanic and atmospheric scientists into multidisciplinary groups where they learn to communicate, work, collaborate, and learn together because, as Dimeff says, “Despite the fact that everyone has a different learning style, everyone can learn by doing.”

The results include graduates who are prepared to work in the real world as well as technologies that can be transferred to industry and/or entirely new companies such as Black Swift Technologies. Created by several aerospace engineering PhDs, Black Swift makes very small unmanned aircraft and flight control systems -- just the type of innovation ASV was created to encourage.

With the first two years of its existence behind it, ASV is poised to continue to encourage engineers and scientists to work together to broaden their knowledge, increase the number of fruitful “creative collisions,” and encourage the development of new instruments, vehicles, systems, and methods of observing, measuring, and better understanding both Earth and space.

For more information on this program, go to http://www.colorado.edu/engineering/research/major-initiatives/aerospace.

Lisa Dicksteen

About the Author: Lisa Dicksteen

Lisa Napell Dicksteen has been a writer and editor for over 30 years, and has published on education, relationships, style, technology, theater, food, dance, literature, social action, religion, academic success, continuing education and more. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, For Women FIRST, Newsday, Bride's, and numerous other consumer and trade publications. In addition, she holds a Master’s degree in teaching secondary English. A native New Yorker, she has lived in Boulder since 2007.