Brian Argrow and Eric Frew: Placing CU on the Forefront of Unmanned Vehicle Research


Founded in 2004, the Research and Engineering Center for Unmanned Vehicles (RECUV) stemmed from a desire to expand CU’s aeronautics research and to capitalize on its faculty expertise in unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). Since then, RECUV has placed CU at the national forefront of unmanned vehicle research.

When it first formed, RECUV was ahead of its time. Dr. Eric Frew, RECUV Director, explains:

“Unmanned air systems are a growing topic in the aerospace community. CU was leading-edge by r​ecognizing unmanned air systems in the form of a designated research area over 10 years ago.”


Conducting testing in Lubbock, TX on the EA-DDDAS system.

Today, unmanned vehicles are central to the aerospace community, with applications ranging from crop surveillance to storm chasing. Though the field of autonomous vehicle research is broad, RECUV has found its niche. Frew explains:


“We specialize in using unmanned aircraft to study atmospheric and weather science. With NCAR and NOAA in Boulder, it would be foolish for us not to pursue those relationships. [Along with collecting scientific data], we are just as interested in making the autonomy technology safer, more efficient, and more affordable.”

Deciphering the secrets and science behind atmospheric phenomenon requires a team effort; since its inception, RECUV has collaborated with universities and institutions across the country to gain insight into weather science.

In 2010, RECUV participated in one of its most notable collaboration efforts, VORTEX2. Bringing together over 100 scientists and 40 support vehicles from across the world, VORTEX2 shed light on the nature of tornados, including their formation, structure, and lifespan, to improve tornado forecasting. CU contributed the unmanned aircraft portion of the project by designing and engineering the “Tempest” drone.

RECUV’s VORTEX2 involvement naturally evolved into other research endeavors. Dr. Brian Argrow, RECUV Director Emeritus, explains:

“Right now, Dr. Frew and I are collaborating with the Air Force Office of Scientific Research on an extension of VORTEX2, [known as EA-DDDAS]. Instead of focusing on weather this time, we are focusing on making an aircraft that is smart enough to do autonomous path planning. This vehicle would ideally take advantage of natural phenomenon, such as updrafts and thermals, to conserve energy.”

The Tempest

The Tempest drone in flight.

Along with numerous other projects, RECUV is working on TTwistor, a new version of the Tempest that is specifically designed to carry more instruments.

Closely integrated into the academic UAS community, RECUV is also intimately connected to industry through its participation in the Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (CUAS). CUAS is an industry/university cooperative research group that is aimed at “addressing the issues common to the UAS industry that limit widespread application across military, civil, and commercial domains.”

Through CUAS, RECUV has collaborated with institutions including (but not limited to) the Air Force Research Laboratory, NOAA and Boeing on topics spanning UAS human interfaces to UAS integration into the U.S. National Airspace System.

On the entrepreneurial side, RECUV technology has seeded the growth of several companies, including UAS-USA (which produces the Tempest and TTwistor drones) and Black Swift Technologies (which was founded by 3 RECUV Ph.D. students and produces the SwiftPilot autopilot).

Since becoming director in 2012, Dr. Frew has focused on promoting multidisciplinary efforts within the RECUV community:

“Unmanned systems and robotics don’t just belong to the AES department. I wanted to give RECUV more visibility across the university, and nation-wide, by allowing it to grow across the College of Engineering. New RECUV faculty members have included Jason Marden from Electrical Engineering who has been working on cooperative algorithms with known properties and Gabe Sibley from Computer Science who  investigates self-driving vehicles and perception.”


Conducting field testing in Lubbock, TX on the EA-DDDAS system.

Drawing upon this multidisciplinary foundation, Frew describes his vision for RECUV’s future research:

“Atmospheric science will remain a core component of what we are all about. My vision is that we will try to couple our unmanned aircraft with other complementary sensing instruments, such as satellites.”

As drone technology and regulations continue to evolve, Dr. Argrow foresees widespread societal impacts of UAS technology:

“Drones bring a unique capability for emergency response, data collection [when conditions are too dangerous for manned aircraft systems], enhanced security and law enforcement, surveying crops, even power line inspection. Applications will only grow with time.”

A group of RECUV researchers were down in Lubbock, TX conducting field testing on the EA-DDDAS system in June 2015. Check out a video of their drone deployments below:

-Written By: Ari Sandberg, Intern