UNL leading group studying severe weather with drones

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UNL leading group studying severe weather with drones

Adam Houston

Seeking to remain at the leading edge of severe storm research using drones, scientists at UNL and the University of Colorado Boulder have formed a consortium among their research collaborators.

The Unmanned Aircraft System and Severe Storms Research Group, or USSRG, builds upon a research partnership first formed in 2006, when UNL atmospheric scientist Adam Houston began working with CU’s Brian Argrow and Eric Frew, aerospace engineers with expertise in unmanned aircraft systems.

Houston and Argrow are co-directors of the new consortium. Its aim, Houston said, is to raise the profile of the research effort, creating a more structured working relationship among a growing number of research partners as well as supporting others interested in the field. It could serve as a preliminary step to establishing a full-fledged research center.

“Our interest is in reaching out further to those interested in this kind of work,” Houston said. “We’re out there, we’ve done this. We have the intellectual capital and experience to help others with an interest in this.”

Houston’s, Frew’s and Argrow’s past work led to the first direct sampling of a thunderstorm system by an unmanned aircraft in 2009 via the Collaborative Colorado-Nebraska UAS Experiment; the first intercept of a super cell thunderstorm by a UAS in May 2010, during the second Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiment, or VORTEX2; and the first simultaneous samplings of thunderstorm outflow by multiple unmanned aircraft earlier this year.

More partners have been drawn into the research, including Texas Tech University, the Center for Severe Weather Research and the National Severe Storms Laboratory.

“We’ve been collaborating for a number of years, and there are a number of projects we’re working on,” Houston said. “We decided it would be a good idea to formalize our relationship, to take this work to the next level.”

The 13-member consortium also includes BlackSwift Technologies, the Colorado Department of Transportation, the University of Nebraska Public Policy Center, the Jonathan Merage Foundation, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, Colorado State University, manufacturer UAS USA, and the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at CU.

An ongoing project, funded through a grant from the U.S. Air Force, demonstrates the interdisciplinary nature of the research, Houston said. Scientists are researching how to use kinetic energy in the atmosphere to increase the length of time unmanned aircraft can fly. Weather researchers are interested because they want to get more observations during storms, while the Air Force is interesting in improving surveillance uses of the unmanned aircraft.

One of the consortium’s assets is a well-established working relationship with the FAA. Houston said he and his research partners worked with the Federal Aviation Administration at the outset to gain approval for their use of drones in weather research.

“One of our biggest accomplishments was getting that authorization,” he 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.”

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