By Published: Sept. 1, 2017

brian argrow

Dr. Drone 

Brian Argrow, the new chair of CU Boulder’s Ann and H.J. Smead Aerospace Engineering Sciences department, talks Mars, drones, integrity and why he always books a window seat.

If you could visit any planet in our solar system, which would you pick?

Mars, of course. When I see images from the surface, they often remind me of places I’ve visited in the American Southwest, and I have so many memories from reading sci-fi books such as Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. It would be fascinating to see just how accurate my youthful imagination was.

You’re an expert in unmanned aircraft systems (drones). Do you think they’ll become part of everyday life in America?

If you consider the battlefield, tactical and strategic missions of the U.S. military for the past 20 years or so, drones have already been an indispensable part of the lives of many Americans — but only recently in America. The introduction of the FAA’s “Part 107” regulation last year finally gave a relatively straightforward path for legitimate drone uses for flights in the U.S. below 400-ft. altitude and away from airports.

I use “legitimate” to separate those who intend to observe the current regulations from the “rogues” who have no intention to abide by the regulations.

NASA also is focused on developing an air-traffic management system in anticipation of the continued proliferation of small drones.

How soon and for what uses?

Small drones have become ubiquitous enough to barely be noticeable. You might have seen News Channel 4 in Denver advertising their “Drone 4,” which is just a little DJI Phantom-4 quadrotor.

A partial list of CU’s recent drone applications and missions includes atmospheric measurements and profiling, an aerial photogrammetry survey of Chimney Rock National Monument, delivery of real-time pre-storm weather data to the National Weather Service and intercepting supercell thunderstorms in the Great Plains.

A multitude of civilian applications includes search and rescue; powerline, railroad, bridge and river inspection; estuary surveys; large aquatic mammal counts; anti-poaching; and blood and plasma delivery.

What aerospace endeavor that you’re aware of seems to offer the greatest promise for humankind?

As much as I see drones changing the world, I suppose if I had to say what holds the greatest promise to humanity, it would have to be spacecraft with the potential to spread humankind to other planets. Of course, Mars is the first target.

CU Boulder’s aerospace program ranks among America’s best. How would you like to see it change or grow?

Once, innovation was primarily within specific, well-defined disciplines. Today’s innovation is mostly at their intersections.

For example, today’s drone technologies are emerging from aeronautics, robotics, intelligent systems and spacecraft (GPS) technologies, with increasingly autonomous technologies starting to emerge in spacecraft, air traffic control and ground-based systems, such as cars.

Our aerospace program continues to grow because of our diversity in disciplines and research, our willingness to collaborate and innovate at intersections and our desire to be leaders in all aspects of engineering education.

What qualities make for a first-rate aerospace engineer?

Curiosity and integrity. Curiosity drives the imaginations at the foundation of engineering design. Integrity because, if we are to entrust our lives to the technologies of aerospace engineers, we must first have trust in the people that are the engineers.

What first drew you to aerospace engineering?

My first love was astronomy, as far back as I can remember. The Gemini and Apollo programs absolutely captured my imagination. I was 8, about to be 9, for the first moon landing. I was similarly fascinated by the NASA X-plane program, especially the X-15. If it had anything to do with astronomy, and if it involved craft that flew fast or high — preferably fast and high — then it had my undivided attention.

When you travel by air: Aisle or window, and how do you pass the time?

Window seat. When I first started traveling as a professor, I thought it was important for me to have an aisle seat, since I was fancying myself as a businessman. It only took a few trips and I was back in the window seat where I belonged — where I had a clear view of the wings and engines, and great views of things on the ground. Even though I spend most of my time working on my computer, I still look out and down often.

Condensed and edited by Eric Gershon

Photo by Glenn Asakawa