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Ohio University computer science duo wins $2,000 as finalists at national collegiate inventors competition

By Kaitor Kposowa

Athens, Ohio (November 19, 2012) - Two Ph.D. students at Ohio University's Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ College of Engineering and Technology were awarded $1,000 each at the annual Collegiate Inventors Competition (CIC) last week in Washington D.C. They also met with top brass on the White House grounds, as well as ground-breaking inventors.

Scott Nykl and Chad Mourning, both computer science doctoral candidates, comprised one of seven graduate finalist teams in the national competition, which has both undergraduate and graduate divisions.

Nykl and Mourning's invention in aircraft wake-avoidance technology is a visual aid that helps pilots avoid dangerous wake vortices - essentially invisible, horizontal tornadoes - caused by planes landing ahead of them.

“This competition exemplifies the creativity of some of the nation's brightest young minds,” said David Chelberg, their doctoral adviser, who accompanied them. “It also gives the competitors the unique opportunity to interact with each other. Scott and Chad were able to share with their peers the challenges they encountered developing their invention, while probing for details of the creative process experienced by other finalists,” he noted.

The pair were required to present their invention to a panel of judges, including notable inventors of the microprocessor, implantable defibrillator, digital camera and laser printer. The evening before the awards ceremony, they attended a banquet with the judges.

“At the dinner, it really hit me how big of a deal this was,” Mourning said. “I don't think I've ever been in the same room with so many important people. It is definitely the high point of my career thus far.”

Another highlight: After the ceremony, the pair traveled to the White House grounds to meet with President Barack Obama's science director, John Holdren, to discuss entrepreneurship and scientific advancement. They were then joined by the White House's chief technology officer, Todd Park, who discussed the role of technology in health care.

“This experience has been both affirming and humbling,” Nykl said. “Affirming, in that I can be competitive against some of the best research minds and institutions in the world, and humbling in that witnessing the broad reach of one person's achievements can truly benefit humanity.”

Mike DiBenedetto, director of the Avionics Engineering Center, where the duo has performed research on several projects, said the two personify the Russ College's identity of creating for good.

“I've personally observed their impressive technical skills, leadership, personal integrity and passion regarding the research they conduct,” he said, noting that their work has included developing a computer tool that shows how GPS signal reception is affected by aircraft banking,. “It's far from unusual to find them in their Avionics office well into the evening. I routinely stop by to get an enthusiasm 'booster shot.'”

Nykl and Mourning also recently started a business, Affine Technologies, to commercialize a related technology that creates visual navigation systems for unmanned aerial vehicles at lower cost. The company was one of five regional startups to receive $20,000 in seed funding and extensive business coaching as part of the summer 2012 Innovation Engine Accelerator program. The program was sponsored by various university units, including the Russ College, as well as public and private partners.

“The underlying platform software technology that we've created this business around is what powers our wake aware altimeter invention, as well as our other products that are currently in development,” Nykl explained.

Next up for Nykl and Mourning is a trip to a Society of Automotive Engineers conference in Florida, where they'll work on how their instrument can be best designed to optimize information retrieval and retention by pilots and air traffic control operators when quickly glancing at the instrument.

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