CU-Boulder leads international UAS testing

By Emily Aasand | August 26, 2014

The University of Colorado Boulder conducted an international research effort, believed to be the first multiple, unmanned aircraft interception of a rush of cold air—known as a gust front—preceding a thunderstorm across the Pawnee National Grassland in Colorado.

A gust front is a boundary that separates a cold thunderstorm downdraft from warm, humid surface air, which is of interest to scientists because it can produce damaging wind speeds of up to 100 miles per hour.

The research effort, organized by CU-Boulder’s Research and Engineering Center for Unmanned Vehicles (RECUV), also included the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Texas Tech University, Colorado State University, the University of Tübingen in Germany and the Center for Severe Weather Research based in Boulder. RECUV is a university, government and industry partnership headquartered in the aerospace engineering sciences department.

“We believe this was the first time multiple unmanned aircraft systems were flown simultaneously to make coordinated measurements of the outflow from an evolving thunderstorm,” said CU-Boulder’s Jack Elston, who is the lead investigator and organizer of the National Science Foundation-sponsored Multi-sUAS Evaluation of Techniques for Measurement of Atmospheric Properties field experiment.

According to reports, as the gust front approached from the west at Pawnee National Grassland, three UAS teams spread out about a quarter of a mile from each other and launched three small unmanned aircraft, including a Datahawk and two Skywalkers—which were created by the university. The CU-Boulder UASs had wingspans of less than five feet.

“Our UAS are specifically used for science and engineering activities, and our interests lie in tackling some of the biggest science issues today, often in remote places where it is impossible or cost prohibitive to gather data using other methods,” said CU-Boulder aerospace engineering professor Brian Argrow. “I am really looking forward to getting back into the field for more supercell storm research with our meteorologist colleagues.”

Other CU-Boulder UAS projects have included monitoring seal populations in the Artic, charting sea ice changes near Greenland to intercepting storm cells associated with tornadoes in Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska, and measuring holes in Antarctic associated with offshore winds.