Published: May 27, 2015

A consortium led by the University of Colorado Boulder has received permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to start flying drones over parts of Texas and Oklahoma this spring in the heart of Tornado Alley to conduct weather research.

The consortium, which includes CU-Boulder’s Research and Engineering Center for Unmanned Vehicles (RECUV) and researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) and Texas Tech University (TTU), received a Certificate of Authorization (COA) from the FAA to operate a Tempest drone over 54,000 square miles of the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles. The region is known for its extreme weather, including “supercell” storms that can spawn damaging winds, large hail and tornadoes.

The new “southern COA” complements the 48,000-square-mile “northern COA” previously granted by the FAA to the consortium that covers portions of Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska and Wyoming, said RECUV director and CU-Boulder aerospace engineering science Professor Eric Frew. The northern and southern COA’s together cover an area about the size of Colorado. The Tempest is an Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) with a wingspan of more than 10 feet developed at CU-Boulder to better understand the origin and development of severe storms by flying to their edges and measuring air pressure, temperature, relative humidity and wind velocities, he said.

Sponsored by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR), the first project in the southern COA will be the deployment of a Tempest UAS near Lubbock, Texas, during the last two weeks of June. The project will include the UAS team from CU-Boulder and UNL and the mobile Dopler radar team from TTU, all of which participated in the massive Vortex-2 Project in spring 2010.

VORTEX-2 involved more than 100 researchers and 40 support vehicles that chased severe storms from South Dakota to Texas in a project spearheaded by the National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

“The goal of this new three-year project is to expand the mission capabilities of the battery-powered Tempest UAS by enabling it to sense the local wind environment,” said Frew. “The UAS is designed to look for updrafts and wind shears which can be exploited to conserve energy stored in the battery,” said Frew, principal investigator on the effort.

While the Lubbock UAS activities this summer are designed to test new technologies, the team would likely fly the Tempest into developing storms if the opportunities present themselves, said CU-Boulder aerospace engineering sciences Professor Brian Argrow, a co-investigator on the project.

“The next step is to integrate the technology from this project into an unmanned aircraft system known as TTwistor, which is the successor to the Tempest,” said Argrow. TTwistor is being developed by RECUV with financial support from the Colorado Advanced Industries Accelerator Program and NOAA.

CU-Boulder’s RECUV is partnering with local companies UASUSA and Black Swift Technologies (BST) to develop the TTwistor. UASUSA is a company spun off from Skip Miller Models of Longmont, a company that began manufacturing and marketing the Tempest after the prototypes were developed and flown by RECUV in 2010. BST was founded in 2012 by several CU-Boulder graduates who helped to develop and deploy the Tempest while at the university.

“We are looking forward to future deployments of the TTwistor when we resume our severe-storm research with our partners from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln,” said Argrow. Last fall, CU-Boulder and UNL co-founded the Unmanned Aircraft Systems and Severe Storms Research Group, a consortium of public and private-sector collaborators from universities, the private sector and others that are using UAS to study severe storms.

In addition to intercepting storm cells associated with tornadoes in Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska, CU-Boulder faculty and students also have experience using UAS to monitor seal populations in the Arctic, chart sea-ice changes near Greenland and measure features in Antarctic sea ice associated with offshore winds.

Eric Frew, 303-735-1285
Brian Argrow, 303-492-5312
Jim Scott, CU-Boulder media relations, 303-492-3114

Former CU-Boulder graduate research assistant Kevin Rahauser launches the Tempest unmanned aircraft with an electric winch in 2013. (Photo courtesy University of Colorado)