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NSF Awards $6 Million to UK and Three Partner Schools to Develop Weather Research Drones

By Whitney Harder

(Aug. 17, 2015) — A $6 million National Science Foundation grant will allow researchers at the University of Kentucky, Oklahoma State University, University of Oklahoma, and University of Nebraska to develop unmanned aircraft systems, otherwise known as drone systems, to study atmospheric physics for improved precision agriculture and weather forecasting.

Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) are currently used in search and rescue, infrastructure inspection and in many other ways to gather information via cameras and specialty sensors. The four-university interdisciplinary team will develop small, affordable systems to measure wind, atmospheric chemistry, soil moisture, and thermodynamic parameters. Doing so will provide meteorologists with data needed to build better forecasting models.

The project, called CLOUD MAP for "Collaboration Leading Operational UAS Development for Meteorology and Atmospheric Physics," was awarded through the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) and is being led by Oklahoma State University. CLOUD MAP will combine unique expertise from each university. At UK alone, researchers will contribute diverse expertise in engineering, precision agriculture and atmospheric chemistry to achieve the technical objectives of the multi-faceted program.

"This project will lead to important scientific discoveries for our environment, agriculture and meteorology, as well as to related future research and education opportunities for UK and the entire four-university science team," said Suzanne Smith, Donald and Gertrude Lester Professor of Mechanical Engineering. Smith is principal investigator of UK's efforts in the project as a result of her experience with UAS research and development since the early 1980s working in industry. She is also director of the NASA Kentucky Space Grant and EPSCoR Programs, which focus on NASA-aligned aerospace workforce development and research infrastructure development.  

Smith will focus on the team's organizational network – how it functions and how it evolves – particularly with respect to development of the 12 younger faculty involved and building their relationships for future multidisciplinary research. Her experience in systems engineering and from prior research in UAS technologies and dynamic system identification will contribute to planning and executing the annual collaborative flight test campaigns, as well as to deriving atmospheric physics models from flight test results.

Jesse Hoagg, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, is focused on developing cooperative control methods for UAS formations. In other words, because the project will develop a fleet of unmanned aircraft instead of a single vehicle, Hoagg must get the vehicles to operate together with a high level of autonomy—to fly in formations, flock, and swarm; all without human operators.

"It's about picking the right UAS platforms, putting the right sensor packages on them, and developing the right control algorithms, so that groups of autonomous aircraft can work together to take atmospheric measurements at different locations in the sky," Hoagg said.

Sean Bailey, associate professor of mechanical engineering, is tasked with integrating spatially distributed data from moving sensor platforms. Essentially, Bailey wants to get data from the UAS which can be used by scientists that model atmospheric physics. Doing so will improve the ability to predict the behavior of atmospheric turbulence, a key factor in predicting the exchange of heat, momentum, water vapor, aerosols and other pollutants between the surface and the atmosphere. 

"Thus, it is a crucial component of many applications, such as meteorology, climatology, wind engineering and environmental science," Bailey said. "For example, for predicting the formation of dangerous weather; predicting structural loading; improving energy recovery in wind farms; or for predicting the trajectory of pollutants in the atmosphere."

With the project's potential to reveal pollution sources and monitor air quality, assistant professor of chemistry Marcelo Guzman will use his expertise in atmospheric chemistry to develop airborne sampling systems. Guzman says chemical sensors capable of working under high relative humidity conditions will be implemented and allow them to detect low levels of contaminants in air.

The team also expects CLOUD MAP to significantly impact agriculture, an industry of special interest here in Kentucky. Michael Sama, assistant professor of biosystems and agricultural engineering, will concentrate on airborne soil hydrology, developing custom multispectral remote sensing instruments that observe moisture differences in crops and soils from a UAS platform. Studying the variability of moisture in the soil will allow Sama to determine how it influences crop development, and ultimately yield, within a field.

"It will also provide data for implementing variable-rate prescription irrigation systems that apply water only where it is needed, thus conserving a crucial natural resource." Sama said.

In addition to developing new UAS to improve weather forecasting and crop irrigation, the team's goal is to develop further UAS-themed research capabilities and outreach activities. The group at UK will develop related outreach programs, building on their experience from the Wing Design Competition, which has provided hands-on engineering experience to hundreds of high school students across Kentucky.

Track the future progress of CLOUD MAP at