Back to the Future

Tenley Rooney
Aviation innovator Austin Meyer '88 shares insights with students

A compact robot reminiscent of R2-D2 sits on a shelf inside the Kwok Engineering Center. The cube full of wires and power panels with a retractable arm is the finished product of Austin Meyer ’88’s Independent Study Project (ISP) from years before. During a visit to Millville earlier this month, Meyer recalled how his adviser quipped, “You’ll pass your ISP if it can deliver me a cup of coffee.”
 
Meyer took another approach. He programmed a voice synthesizer, and the robot responded to the adviser, “You can get your own coffee.” That project was the first of many programming adventures for Meyer. By age 19, while an undergraduate student at Carnegie Mellon University, he began writing code for what would become X-Plane, a professional-grade flight simulator used by flight enthusiasts all over the world. But Meyer admits that when he made Hero, his ISP robot, he had no idea he was capable of accomplishing such things.
 
“I thought it was too big a job,” reflected Meyer. "It is a huge job. X-Plane is hundreds of thousands of lines of code, but the thing about computer software is you can start small; you don't have to start with the final product. That lets anyone start their business and build it up. That's what I did."
 
The creation of X-Plane helped Meyer launch Laminar Research, a software company that designs products for aviation. He and his wife, Lane, are also the benefactors of the Meyer Scholarship, which covers the cost of attendance to St. Paul’s School for promising students from their home state of South Carolina. In his visit to the School, Meyer shared his experiences in entrepreneurship and innovation with students in Engineering Honors and Intro to Computer Programming classes. "The fact that Austin is here in a classroom dedicated to creating ideas that solve problems, where he's done it – and he's done it a number of times – is inspiring for the kids, and it's informative. It helps them understand what's possible," explained Terry Wardrop ’73, co-director of the Engineering Honors program.
 
Meyer, who flew into Concord aboard his self-built plane, NX844X, discussed aeronautics with students and addressed “patent trolls.” It is a topic with added significance for students pursuing independent research through their work in Engineering Honors and ISP projects. Patent trolls are people who file patents to profit from litigation on intellectual property infringement. It’s something Meyer experienced first-hand. A troll targeted him for an application he was developing, but Meyer was able to overturn the troll’s claims following a lengthy legal process. Meyer has since traveled the country to interview other victims in his documentary, The Patent Scam.
 
“His interactions with the patent industry are really interesting for the kids to learn about,” added Wardrop. “It gives them a sense of what it is like out there; the next stages after they come up with a great idea and try to implement it.”

Engineering Honors student Landon Smith '18 has found himself at that juncture. "As I've progressed with my research this fall, protecting my intellectual property has become one of my biggest concerns," said Smith, who is researching antibiotic resistance. "While it is frightening to know that there are patent trolls out there looking to exploit the system and threaten vulnerable businesses, an understanding of their methods and limits is the surest way to protect oneself. It was inspiring to hear the story of someone who has successfully defended his work, and it has given me more confidence to do the same."
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