Research

Drone Research Project Reaches New Heights

BlueCat 5 collecting temperature, pressure, humidity and turbulence data over the Great Sand Dunes National Park.

LEXINGTON, Ky.​ (Aug.3, 2018) — Could unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), otherwise known as drones, revolutionize weather forecasting? The University of Kentucky continues to conduct groundbreaking research that suggests they could. 

In 2015, a four-university interdisciplinary team began developing small, affordable UAS to measure wind turbulence, atmospheric chemistry, soil moisture and thermodynamic parameters to better understand severe storm formation. The project, known as CLOUD-MAP for "Collaboration Leading Operational UAS Development for Meteorology and Atmospheric Physics," was awarded through the National Science Foundation (NSF) Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR).

"Having hands on experience in the field you are interested in also gives you a chance to see what you can do with your major and what possibilities there are for you in the working world," Christina Vezzi, a mechanical engineering student, said. "This project has introduced me to different applications of engineering I had never thought of and has gotten me interested in the relationship between engineering and meteorology."

Eighteen students, staff and faculty from UK, along with Oklahoma State University (OSU), University of Oklahoma (OU) and University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL), recently converged in Alamosa, Colorado, for an exciting opportunity known as ISARRA Flight Week, where they joined researchers from other U.S. universities and around the world.

"Being able to practice real life problem-solving skills while working together as a team really transcends what one can accomplish in a classroom. Experiences like this put our students in a position where they are ready to step into their careers and be immediately successful," Caleb Canter, a mechanical engineering graduate student, said.

Overall, dozens of research drones, fitted with sensing equipment and weather instruments, zipped, hovered and soared over the San Luis Valley during the five-day trip. They collected data on how and where storms start and rain falls, with the goal of learning more about local weather patterns important to farmers and residents.

"Forecasters use complex weather models for their work. These models rely on data that is gathered daily, but in locations that are few and far between compared to what is needed to understand and forecast local weather," Suzanne Smith, the Donald and Gertrude Lester Professor of Mechanical Engineering and director of the Kentucky Space Grant Consortium and NASA EPSCoR, explained. "Ultimately, the payoff of Flight Week is better local weather forecasting."

Improving weather forecasts can be a daunting task that requires accurate observations from various parts of the atmosphere. To get instruments to the right place, at the right time, researchers experimented with remotely-piloted drones. They can sample the atmosphere in remote locations where weather data is scarce.

The San Luis Valley provided a diverse enough terrain to research a wide array of factors. From high altitudes and valleys, to sand dunes and rivers, the mountainous area included elements that researchers can use to form conclusions and hypothesis from a variety of environments. 

"The key benefit of UAS is being able to blanket areas and the first few thousand feet of the lower atmosphere with measurements in ways that have never been possible before," Smith continued. "During Flight Week, more than 1,100 flights measured data. Some were short in duration (10-15 minutes), but others were much longer (45-60 minutes)."

UK conducted 361 flights throughout the week, and three weather situations were explored that also occur in Kentucky: afternoon thunderstorm initiation (two days), dawn at the Earth-atmosphere interface (two days) and early morning cold air drainage from the canyons to the valley (one day). There were also two days for each group to pursue their own objectives.

The research gathered during Flight Week is just one example of how the College of Engineering continues to lead efforts to develop autonomous systems to improve weather forecasting.

"Countless hours were spent in the laboratory preparing for this campaign; but, a lot of the learning occurred in the field when I was able to put my knowledge to the test and see if my instrumentation held up to the rigors of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) research," TJ Schuyler, a chemistry student, said. "Without the field work aspect of this research project, I would never fully know the capabilities of my work. These campaigns provide real-world experience and the chance to work side-by-side with established professionals in the field."

UK has been conducting unique UAS development and flight testing research since 2002. As a result, UK has extensive and recognized experience developing sensors, UAS platforms and flight operations for technology development, agricultural and atmospheric science.

The CLOUD-MAP team will continue to combine data and results gathered from Flight Week over the next 12-18 months.

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