Published: Feb. 18, 2022 By

The National Academy of Engineering is recognizing Brian Argrow as a new member for 2022.

The distinction is one of the highest an engineer can receive in their career.

As a professor and chair of the Ann and H.J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder, Argrow has conducted major research to advance uncrewed aerial systems to increase our understanding of supercell thunderstorms that can spawn tornados.

“It’s an honor, and it highlights our entire team. I’m just one person, but our work in uncrewed aerial systems is a team effort. It’s an interdisciplinary research area, with additional faculty here, professors at other universities and students. I’m getting credit, but there are a lot of contributors,” Argrow said.

Argrow joined CU Boulder in 1992 and was originally focused primarily on computational fluid dynamics, particularly for potential hypersonic vehicles. It is still an ongoing area for his research, but at the time, the field was quite small and the aerospace department leadership was eager to have more research in applied aerodynamics, particularly autonomous systems or drones.

Because he had a personal interest in meteorology from a childhood growing up in rural Oklahoma, where tornadoes are a fact of life, Argrow saw potential to use drones to study storms. He decided to branch out into the subject.

To begin his work in the area, Argrow needed a drone. Although quad copters are now widely available, drones were far harder to come by in 1994. He got in touch with a professor at his alma mater, the University of Oklahoma.

Argrow knew OU researchers had built a small fixed-wing drone, and he hoped to join in the research they were doing. Instead, he learned the drone had flown only a handful of times before the project was abandoned.

“We were able to bring it to CU Boulder and tinkered around with it, but realized it wasn’t what we needed and we had to start from scratch,” Argrow said. “The culmination of that is we developed the capability of flying into supercells, which we continue to refine.”

The team’s work since then has been extraordinary.

They have developed multiple generations of UAVs and advanced the science of weather sensor technology. They also have special authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly higher and in areas other small aircraft are not allowed to go.

Typically, the team spends part of each spring out in the field, traveling across the Great Plains pursuing supercell storms.

Their most recent field campaign, the TORUS Project, was conducted in 2019. Work in 2020 and 2021 was halted by the pandemic, but he is hopeful to be out again this year.

“We’re getting as many sensors onto a small aircraft as possible to maximize every flight we make into a storm. We want to increase the data to get at what is the recipe to making a tornado in order to develop better warning systems,” Argrow said.

The data they capture will eventually be released publicly online so other scientists and engineers can study it. Although there are many researchers who are interested in analyzing tornadoes, none have the ability to collect field data from the air like Argrow’s team.

“We all stand on the shoulders of people who came before us. I didn’t invent calculus, Newton did. But I can use that knowledge,” Argrow said. “These data can help everyone.”

With gigabytes of information already collected on supercell storms, Argrow is hoping to expand his research into a related area: hail. His engineering team is part of a larger science team pursuing National Science Foundation funding for a project called ICECHIP that would use existing drones to study storms that produce hail.

“Many of those will also be supercells, not always. Like with our tornado work, it’s about learning the mechanism behind them. We want to develop more advanced warning, but if you know what forms them, maybe you can also prevent them,” Argrow said. “That’s kind of pie in the sky. It’s a ways off, and perhaps I won’t be here for that, but someone will.”

Argrow will be officially inducted into the NAE during the organization’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 2.