Cadets Eli Garduno and Joe Silverio make adjustments to a telescope, part of the research program at the Air Force Academy’s observatory.

Uncertainty with the federal budget means the U.S. Air Force Academy is receiving fewer dollars from government agencies this year — but that isn’t halting progress at the cadet research and development centers.

From summer research programs that helped Wal-Mart improve its distribution facilities to designing a new unmanned target drone, cadets are involved in research projects in a variety of fields, the majority of which have practical applications.

The academy received nearly $60 million in research funding this year, lower than the $72 million in 2011 and the $60 million in 2010, said Col. Bob “Dash” Kraus, AFA chief scientist and head of research.

“There’s been a lot of uncertainty,” Kraus said. “Agencies aren’t sure what their budgets will be, so we saw a drop this year. But we’re on track to produce the same level of research papers and publications that we did last year.”

The research program gives cadets a chance to get in on the ground floor of groundbreaking technology, said AFA Superintendent Lt. Gen. Mike Gould.

“As new technologies emerge, cadets are given the opportunity to be on the cutting edge, quickly becoming familiar with some of the industries’ most advanced research tools and labs,” Gould said in the introduction to this year’s research report. “For example, cadets are conducting cutting-edge nanotechnology and meta-materials research in the Chemistry Research and Laser and Optic Research centers.”

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At most research institutions, projects are reserved for graduate students or Ph.D. candidates. The AFA is solely an undergraduate institution, and yet it has one of the most-active and highest-funded research programs in the nation. That’s one of the things that make the program so unusual.

“Because cadets are involved, there have to be grades,” he said. “So there has to be some evidence of progress, some publication. And they have to be ready to present their findings, answer questions — and that can be a tough crowd.”

Last year, AFA cadets and professors published more than 600 papers and journal articles about research ranging from researching parachutes for NASA’s Orion space exploration vehicle to developing ways to prevent malware attacks at Intel.

Cyber security and space surveillance are also on the list, and cadets get experience that many graduate-level students don’t. This summer, cadets and professors were able to field-test a photon sieve that will improve space-based telescopes, by deploying it on board a training plane where they experienced moments of weightlessness.

And the academy has received recognition for its research efforts. It’s one of the top 25 public institutions for research, according to the Center for Measuring University Performance, which annually rates top public and private institutions. The center ranks universities based on nine measures — and the Air Force Academy shows up on more than one of its top lists.

While the AFA gets national recognition, it’s still working on local-level partnerships with businesses. Every summer, cadets who have finished their third year can go on summer research programs, spending six weeks at major companies around the country providing research for their future courses, and occasionally, offering real world solutions.

“We had a cadet go to Wal-Mart in Bentonville, Ark., and they’re used to having interns for the summer,” Kraus said. “They really weren’t expecting much — just kids to come and hang out. They were very surprised when she made suggestions on how to make distribution lines run smoother and more efficiently. They tried it out — and it worked. They’re now 20 percent faster.”

Intel, too, raves about cadets who provide knowledge and suggestions — as well as technical help to prevent malware attacks and to maintain security over cyber networks, Kraus said.

“They get involved, and they do more than just watch, they help create solutions,” he said.

But while the summer research program is a national hit, he said they’re still working on partners in the Springs.

“It’s a great deal,” he said. “The company just has to pay for travel and per diem. The government pays the salary.”

Local program

The latest aspect of the academy’s research program is local — and is focused on future scientists. The academy started a regional Science, Technology, Engineering and Math outreach program to regional schools. Schools can invite an AFA professor to attend classes, or classes can tour one of the 20 research centers at the institution.

And cadets are getting in on the act. They’ve even created a cadet STEM club to go out and teach school kids about the fun aspects of high-tech degree areas.

But it’s not all about academic research. The cadets’ efforts have resulted in technology transfer to new and existing companies. For instance, their research and design for unmanned aerial drones for fighter pilots to use for target practice has now been turned over to a private company. The company is producing the target drones, but the design is all by AFA cadets, Kraus said.

“Air Force fighter pilots have to practice, but the fleet is getting older, and doesn’t represent the current threats in the sky,” he said. “The cadets came up with a design that will help them practice.”

NASA is benefiting from cadet research.

“We also created a design for the crew escape vehicle from the International Space Station,” he said. “They had to come up with a parachute that would deploy in those circumstances. So they used computer simulations and came up with a design.”

Kraus acknowledges that the funding environment is more challenging now that the federal government is facing the January 2013 “fiscal cliff” that includes tax increases and budget cuts.

However, he said, businesses could take advantage of relatively inexpensive cadet research to create technology transfer and new jobs. And, he added, the AFA would continue to produce graduates capable of performing that research.

“We send a fair number directly to grad school,” he said. “We just had our 37th Rhodes Scholar, for example. We’re training tomorrow’s leaders — and that’s important.”