UAS part of University of Colorado-Boulder's Grand Challenge

By Ann Bailey | October 01, 2015

Unmanned aerial systems will play a part in the University of Colorado-Boulder’s campus-wide challenge called “Our Space, Our Future.”

The challenge was issued to build on the university’s strengths in aerospace-enabled science to address some of the world’s most pressing problems, according to a CU-Boulder news release. Through its Grand Challenge, the university, which has been a leader in the earth and space sciences for half a century, according to the school, will expand its expertise in earth, space and social sciences, said Philip P. DiStefano, CU-Boulder chancellor.

Stefano has invited local, regional and state committees and industry partners to join the university in the Grand Challenge venture. The university will invest $4 million this year into two core research initiatives, including Earth Lab and the Integrated Remote and InSitu Sensing Initiative or IRISS which focus on space and Earth exploration in education and training, philosophy arts and the media.

Brian Argrow, a CU-Boulder aerospace engineering sciences professor will lead the multi-disciplinary IRISS team which will use UAS to improve its data collection from the ground, in the atmosphere and in space.

The goal of the IRISS team is to fill in the gap between ground and space observations, Argrow said.

“Our vision to truly enable observations in four dimensions,” he said, noting that three of the dimensions are space and the other is time.

Already, the team is improving drought prediction in Colorado by compiling large-scale satellite observations with high-precision measurements of soil moisture content collected from UAS.  UAS not only can gather data in a timelier manner than satellites which only make passes every two or three days, it can be targeted to a specific location, Argrow said.

That is especially helpful when there is a localized weather event such as a rainstorm that drops a lot of moisture.

“That’s where the targeted mobility of UAS comes into play. You might be able to dispatch to respond sooner and at a better position,” Argrow said.

Besides using UAS to monitor soil moisture levels, the team also can use it to collect on-site atmospheric data before tornado supercells form and during tornado formation. The long-term goal is to contribute to the national effort to significantly increase tornado warning time and accuracy, Argrow said.

Earth Lab will take big data observations of Earth from space and integrate them to answer questions about the pace and pattern of environmental change. Earth Lab's primary focus is the development of an analytics hub which will be a state-of-the-art computing facility leveraging existing cyber infrastructure investments with analytics specialists. The specialists will help researchers and students with the project.