Published: July 28, 2017 By

CU Boulder engineers, scientists and students are teaming up with Black Swift Technologies of Boulder to use unmanned aircraft in the coming weeks to measure water moisture at a test irrigation farm in Yuma, Colorado.

The testing will take place at the Irrigation Research Foundation (IRF), a research and demonstration farm in northeast Colorado. The team will fly high-tech sensors mounted on drones that will be able to assess moisture in crop fields at a resolution of about 50 feet across and to a depth of about 8 inches, said Professor Brian Argrow of the Ann and H.J. Smead Aerospace Engineering Sciences.

Pilot Dan Hesseliusl with drone aircraft

Pilot Dan Hesseliusl with drone aircraft

The effort is part of Project Drought, a CU Boulder initiative to use drones to improve the understanding and prediction of drought, flooding and agricultural vulnerabilities. The sensor on the drone that will be used in Yuma was developed by a team led by CU Boulder Professor Al Gaseiwski of electrical, computer and energy engineering.

Project Drought is one of five research efforts initiated under CU Boulder’s Integrated Remote and In Situ Sensing (IRISS) project, directed by Argrow. IRISS is a pillar of the university’s Grand Challenge initiative efforts to harness science, technology and innovation to solve key national or global problems. Project Drought is a collaboration of CU Boulder’s Research and Engineering Center for Unmanned Vehicles (RECUV) and the Center for Environmental Technology (CET).

“The IRISS objective is to fill the gap between the ground and space with sensors and services,” said Argrow, recently named chair of aerospace engineering sciences. “We see Project Drought as a way to succeed in high-precision, high-resolution mapping, ultimately increasing the efficiency of water management.”

Black Swift Technologies, a company formed by CU Boulder aerospace PhD graduates Jack Elston, Maciej Stachura and Cory Dixon in 2011 with the help of a NASA Small Business Innovative Research Grant, developed the fixed-wing SuperSwift drone with a removable nose cone that will fly over the test farm.

“For us, this project is all about the sensor,” said Dixon, IRISS chief technologist. “We want to explore soil moisture mapping for things like land use, landslides and water runoff. While some farmers don’t have the ability to adequately assess their soil moisture, we can fly over an entire crop field with high enough resolution to give them data that will eventually allow for more efficient water use in particular areas.”

The team members will combine high-precision drone observations of soil moisture with measurements from NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite, launched in 2015. Although SMAP’s primary radar instrument failed, scientists are still able to use a passive radiometer instrument on board SMAP to produce surface maps with each pixel representing an area roughly 25 miles across, Argrow said.

The IRF facility in Yuma also has sensors embedded in the soil to chart moisture, which will be compared with data gathered overhead by the SuperSwift drone. Each flight team will include an on-the-ground pilot, a staff member and two students, Dixon said.

In May, IRISS Project Storm researchers led by Argrow and aerospace engineering Associate Professor Eric Frew, working in Oklahoma, provided the first live-streamed data from a drone—known as TTwistor—to the NOAA National Weather Service (NWS) in Norman. The CU Boulder team flew TTwistor into a storm front in northern Oklahoma, which sent back information about wind speed, temperature and other data in real time.

The goal is to provide real-time data to the NWS to improve forecast and warning capabilities for severe storms, including tornadoes, Argrow said.

CU Boulder faculty and students have likely flown more research drones in more places in the world than any university in the country, Argrow said. Unmanned CU Boulder research aircraft have been flown in the Arctic, Antarctica, Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Peru and Japan.

“We have about a dozen undergraduates working with us this summer,” Argrow said. “There is no better training for these students than actual field experience.”