Published: Sept. 30, 2015

The University of Colorado Boulder is the lead institution on a $1.9 million federal grant to develop autonomous aerial robotic systems that will enable new atmospheric science applications, including observing and better understanding the behavior of severe storms.

The three-year grant from from the National Science Foundation is part of the National Robotics Initiative, launched by President Obama in 2011 to accelerate the development and use of research robots to work beside or cooperatively with people.

The project is being led by CU-Boulder’s interdisciplinary Research and Engineering Center for Unmanned Vehicles (RECUV), a university, government and industry partnership formed to design, develop and implement new technologies to collect high-quality data in remote and hazardous environments where flying manned vehicles is difficult.

The new research project team includes project principal investigator and Associate Professor Eric Frew and Professor Brian Argrow of aerospace engineering sciences. Collaborating universities include the University of Nebraska Lincoln, Texas Tech University, the University of Minnesota and Texas A&M.

Known as “Severe-storm Targeted Observation and Robotic Monitoring” (STORM), the project will help close significant gaps in conventional unmanned aircraft systems’ abilities to collect the data necessary to answer a wide range of scientific questions, said Frew. Combining autonomous airborne sensors with environmental models will enable the collection of information essential for a better understanding of the fundamental behavior of atmospheric phenomena.

At the end of the three-year research effort, the research team will bring together several unmanned aircraft vehicle systems from CU-Boulder, two mobile, high-frequency Doppler radar systems from Texas Tech and contributions from the other partner institutions to carry out a real-time sampling of severe storms, said Frew. The testing is expected to take place in Tornado Alley in the Great Plains region, which includes parts of Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle and western Iowa.

While the STORM project has been undertaken to significantly improve the accuracy and lead-time of tornado warnings, there are other benefits, said Frew. The effort also should help the team better understand thunderstorm “outflows” and other atmospheric phenomena; make better predictions on the timing and locations of hurricane landfalls; make improvements on firefighting forecasts and mitigation techniques; and better monitor and predict pollution dispersion from toxic spills and other environmental problems.

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

Associate Professor Eric Frew of aerospace engineering, left, shown here with former student Neeti Wagle, current doctoral student Holly Borowski and postdoctoral researcher Jack Elston, is leading a collaborative effort to develop new technologies for unmanned aircraft used in remote and hazardous environments, primarily to better understand severe storms. Photo courtesy Glenn Asakawa, University of Colorado