From storm-chasing drones to fire-tracking satellites, Grand Challenge projects are boosting our understanding of an evolving planet

Brian ArgrowBrian Argrow
Professor of Aerospace Engineering Sciences and Director, Integrated Remote and In-Situ Sensing (IRISS)

Jennifer BalchJennifer Balch
Assistant Professor of Geography and Director, Earth Lab

Throughout this spring’s severe storm season, scientists from CU Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) caravanned across the plains of Colorado, Oklahoma and Kansas in search of brewing tornadoes. Once they spotted a churning supercell, they pulled over and launched a small yellow aircraft named TTwistor straight at it, enabling the state-of-the-art drone to gather data from places piloted aircraft can’t safely fly.

Researchers hope this data will lead to longer warning times and prevent some of the $5 billion in damage and 80 deaths tornadoes cause nationwide annually. “In order to understand these storms, you have to take measurements from inside them,” explains Eric Frew, associate director of technology for Integrated Remote and In-situ Sensing (IRISS) at CU Boulder. “That’s the type of capability we are providing scientists.”

Project Storm is just one of dozens of collaborative, tech-driven projects to grow out of CU Boulder’s Grand Challenge: Our Space. Our Future. Launched in September 2015, the endeavor was inspired by a speech from President Barack Obama, which called on companies, philanthropists and universities to leverage their human and financial assets for the common good.

“CU was among the first to take up that call,” says Emily CoBabe- Ammann, director of strategic projects for the Research and Innovation Office.

Acknowledging its strengths in earth, space and social sciences, the university pledged $4.5 million annually to a few select projects that promised to be catalysts for big-impact discoveries that benefit both planet and people.

The first large beneficiaries were IRISS and Earth Lab. Smaller grants funded a new space minor and Center for the Study of Origins this year. 

Project STORM team flies the IRISS TTwistor UAS toward a supercell with a tornado on the ground

Project STORM team flies the IRISS TTwistor UAS toward a supercell with a tornado on the ground.

IRISS, which helps design, develop and deploy novel sensing systems like drones and ground-based light detection and ranging (LiDAR), has since spawned seven projects. Among them: Project MAP, in which anthropologists use LiDAR to map ancient archaeological sites; Project Forest, which uses drones to study forest health; and Project Drought, which couples large-scale satellite observations with detailed soil moisture measurements from low-flying drones to improve drought prediction.

“Our Grand Challenge is about better understanding the dynamics of the earth and how it evolves,” Frew says. “IRISS provides fourdimensional sensing tools—3D plus time—that enable that.”

Another key pillar of the Grand Challenge is Earth Lab, the only data synthesis center of its kind in the nation.

“This is an amazing moment in the history of science. We potentially have the ability to answer so many questions we couldn’t answer before,” says Earth Lab founder Jennifer Balch. “But we have to break down the barriers to dealing with big data and teach researchers how to better access it.”

Earth Lab has grown to 30 people and developed several software tools that have been downloaded by earth scientists around the world. It has also partnered with satellite imagery specialist DigitalGlobe to better understand how and where wildfires occur (84 percent are human caused), and with Newmont Mining to develop ways to use aerial imagery to better identify minerals on the ground. It works closely with IRISS, helping crunch the data gathered from its sensing devices.

In July, Earth Lab became part of CU Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES), a longstanding leader in earth system research.

In August 2018, Earth Lab plans to roll out one of the first professional certificates in the nation to integrate data science and earth systems knowledge.

“We want to create a generation of students who can deal with big data and also understand what questions they should be asking about the future of our planet,” Balch says.

IRISS and Earth Lab are slowly becoming more self-sufficient, freeing up money to support the next wave of projects. Three were announced this summer.

Long term, CoBabe-Ammann hopes the capital investments made and relationships forged via Grand Challenge will be an engine for lasting campuswide change.

“For decades to come, we will be able to address societal challenges having to do with earth and space science in a way we couldn’t before.”

Grand Challenge Portfolio Expands with New Projects

The cross-campus Grand Challenge continues to extend its impact, on and off campus, through investments in new projects like Space Weather, CubeSats (miniaturized satellites), and the Nature, Environment, Science & Technology (NEST) Studio for the Arts.