Building on years of collaboration using unmanned aircraft to fly into the storms that create the massive tornadoes that rip across the Midwest, scientists at the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln have formed a new research consortium.
The Unmanned Aircraft System and Severe Storms Research Group (USSRG) builds upon a partnership first formed in 2006, when CU-Boulder’s Brian Argrow and Eric Frew, both aerospace engineers with expertise in unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), began working with UNL atmospheric scientist Adam Houston.
“For most of the past decade, CU-Boulder’s UAS research group has collaborated closely with Dr. Houston and his UNL severe-storm research group,” said Argrow, who will co-direct the new venture with Houston. “Our creation of the new consortium establishes a forum to productively engage current and future collaborators with whom we will work to use UAS to better understand the origins and evolution of severe storms, and to potentially revolutionize severe-storm forecasting and warning systems.”
Argrow is the founding director of the Research and Engineering Center for Unmanned Vehicles (RECUV) in CU-Boulder’s College of Engineering and Applied Science. Frew is RECUV’s current director.
Past collaboration between CU-Boulder and UNL led to the first direct sampling of a thunderstorm system by a small unmanned aircraft in 2009 via the Collaborative Colorado-Nebraska UAS Experiment. The research team also was the first to intercept a supercell thunderstorm using a UAS in May 2010, during the second Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiment, or VORTEX2, and the first to obtain simultaneous samplings of thunderstorm outflow by multiple unmanned aircraft earlier this year.
The consortium also includes the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, a joint institute of CU-Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Other members are the Center for Severe Weather Research, the National Severe Storms Laboratory, Texas Tech University, NOAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Program, BlackSwift Technologies, the Colorado Department of Transportation, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the University of Nebraska Public Policy Center, the Jonathan Merage Foundation, Colorado State University, and UASUSA.
One of the consortium's assets is a well-established working relationship with the Federal Aviation Administration, the researchers said. CU-Boulder and UNL worked with the FAA at the outset to gain approval for their use of unmanned aircraft in weather research.
“One of our biggest accomplishments was getting that authorization,” Houston said. “We have legal authorization to fly over a very large area in northeast Colorado, southwest Nebraska, northwest Kansas and southeast Wyoming and we’re making progress to get authorization to fly over the Texas Panhandle and western Oklahoma. Most people don’t have the ability to fly unmanned aircraft legally over such a large area and that’s one reason why we’re on the front line of this research.”
Cover and inset photo by Mike Coniglio, NSSL