Unmanned “Unplugged”

Brian Argrow, University of Colorado-Boulder

Brian Argrow is a professor in the Aerospace Engineering Sciences Department at the University of Colorado Boulder, and cofounder of the university’s Research and Engineering Center for Unmanned Vehicles. His research on UAS has attracted attention for gathering data on supercell storms. Increasing Human Potential recently had the opportunity to talk to Argrow and learn more about his projects and research.

You’re currently involved in diverse array of UAS-related work at CU-Boulder. Can you tell us a little about what you do?

My UAS research is focused on the mission-derived design of small UAS and the integration, or at least limited permission, to fly these systems in the National Airspace System. I have been involved with flying UAS at Colorado since the late ‘90s and have continued with numerous certificates of authorization. In 2013, I was also one of the leaders of the industry-university team that bid for one of the six FAA UAS test sites. Although we were not awarded a test site, a positive outcome was the organization of many of the industries, universities and colleges of the state into UAS Colorado and the formation of the company Rocky Mountain UAS LLC. In addition to my university research and teaching, I continue to work with these organizations, the Aeronautics Division of the Colorado Department of Transportation, and other city and county groups that are seeking to develop UAS testing and training facilities and to work with FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] to develop a path forward for civil (commercial) UAS to integrate into the NAS.

You are a very hands-on researcher and have developed a wide variety of small UAS with new technologies. What do you enjoy most about building and testing new UAS?

By far the most enjoyable outcome is to watch our students develop capability and confidence while making engineering science discoveries and creating technology developments. Recently, several former students who were the nucleus of our original research team when we founded the Research and Engineering Center for Unmanned Vehicles have started their own company, Black Swift Technologies, located here in Boulder, Colorado. They are leveraging and expanding on the knowledge and skills gained while they were students and research assistants developing the technologies that remain the foundation of our small UAS capabilities, such as mobile ad-hoc radio networks and technologies for severe weather research.

You helped with the creation of the Tempest, the first UAS to intercept supercell tornadoes. What data were you able to retrieve from the storm, and how is this information helpful?

The primary deployment of the Tempest UAS was in [National Science Foundation project] VORTEX2. The formal project objectives were engineering objectives to validate our concept of operations of a UAS that is electronically tethered to a tracker vehicle that would lead the aircraft to the areas of interest (i.e., the aircraft flight computer tracked the location of a Wi-Fi node in an SUV from which an operator could issue local control commands, while the overall command authority resided in the ground station parked outside the storm). Secondarily, we obtained temperature, pressure and humidity data along the flight path. These thermodynamic data were then used by our meteorologist colleagues to study the conditions in the outflow of the supercell rear-flank downdraft [RFD]. One of the outcomes was the apparent verification of momentum surges in the RFD outflow of a tornadic supercell that we intercepted on June 10, 2010, near Deer Trail, Colorado. These results have helped our engineering team refine the concept of operations and the capabilities of the Tempest UAS and for our meteorologist teammates to derive new hypotheses to be tested with data from our future deployments.

You were recently named an inaugural fellow of the CU Center for STEM Learning. Can you tell us what you plan do there and how it relates to UAS?

While I was the college’s associate dean for education, I focused on the experiences of first-year students in our college. This work, coupled with my previous work in the development of the college’s Integrated Teaching and Learning Laboratory and my development of a proactive learning and teaching philosophy (a precursor to what is now referred to as the flipped classroom), all contributed to my nomination and selection as an inaugural fellow of the CU Center for STEM Learning. The start of my sabbatical coincided with my fellowship appointment, so I will probably not become deeply involved in a center project until spring 2015. My qualifications and interest in STEM are general and not specifically tied to my UAS research, but of course my research is integrated into all aspects of my teaching and outreach activities, so UAS will continue to be a vehicle (pun intended) for me to deliver lessons.

One of your main focuses at the University of Colorado’s Research Center for Unmanned Vehicles is the integration of UAS into the national airspace. As UAS technology continues to develop, how do you foresee it being used by researchers in the future? What do you see as its greatest limitation?

Future uses of UAS in the National Airspace System appear to be limited not by the imagination, but by the pace of policies and regulations that allow or prevent their use. The lack of the policies, rules, standards and regulations for routine access of UAS to the NAS remains the greatest limitation. One of my RECUV colleagues, with a wealth of experience in the telecommunications industry, likens the current opportunity to develop policies and rules favorable to the safe operation of UAS in the NAS to what has been witnessed for the telecommunications industry. We have an opportunity for the development of sensible policies and rules that will foster fair commercial development while ensuring public safety.

The primary challenge is to educate politicians, agencies and UAS experts on the current regulatory environment so that sensible regulatory progress can replace the sensational stories that are now coming at a pace of several per week. Hopefully, we will someday look back on the aftermath of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 with similar regard as we do for the legislation and rulemaking that have enabled the regulated emergence of cable, wireless and Internet services that have revolutionized all aspects of contemporary life.

A few years back, you traveled to Washington, D.C., to present the Tempest unmanned aircraft as part of the Hazards on the Hill Event and spoke to more than 350 attendees, including several members of Congress who came to listen. How has the landscape for UAS integration changed since then?

The landscape for UAS integration has become increasingly complex. A significant factor is the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. Prior to the act, it was widely known (but not always accepted) that government (public) entities could obtain very-limited access to the NAS through the certificate of waiver or authorization process. Not so well known was that commercial entities could also be cleared for very limited NAS access by obtaining a FAA special airworthiness certificate. The route to certify a commercial UAS proved so overwhelming, however, that few pursued it. The result was that public agencies and universities were conducting limited UAS operations in ever increasing numbers while individuals, companies and private universities sat on the sidelines, or incorrectly assumed they could fly based on hobbyist rules, or they chose to ignore FAA UAS policies altogether — with no consequence if they did not screw up too badly or encroach on a public operation.

The 2012 act immediately focused attention on the congressional mandate to change the landscape for UAS integration. While there have been tangible outcomes — allowing limited permissions for government public safety agencies and first responders, the establishment of six UAS test sites and the recent issuance of an exemption for a commercial operation — the overall UAS integration landscape is much more chaotic. The recent ruling of an NTSB [National Transportation Safety Board] judge that challenged the FAA’s claim to regulate UAS and the daily postings of YouTube videos that show complete disregard for UAS airspace policies are clear examples of a much more chaotic landscape than even five years ago.

You were interviewed for “PBS NewsHour’”s story “How Will Thousands of Drones Impact Already Crowded Skies?” You told the reporter that much of this depends on how they communicate. Can you explain to readers what this means?

For the foreseeable future, the FAA will require that a remote human pilot be able to interact, or at least intervene (when possible), with a UAS in the NAS. This will require highly reliable UAS-pilot communications, command and control, regardless of the potential for the UAS to operate with high levels of autonomy. Note that I write communications as the first of the three, because without it you cannot remotely command and control the UAS. So this raises the question of who will develop a communications infrastructure that will meet the requirements for connectivity and reliability or, alternatively, what levels of autonomy might be allowed to relieve the communications requirements.

What does that future hold for you and UAS? Do you have any other exciting research projects planned? What would you like to do next?

Since VORTEX2, our RECUV UAS team has continued to collaborate with our research partners from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln and Texas Tech University on the Energy-Aware Dynamic Data Driven System (EA-DDDAS), funded by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. This purpose of this project is to develop the Tempest UAS as part of a distributed system that ingests real-time mobile Doppler radar data coupled with atmospheric models for online planning and in-situ wind measurements to enable real-time path planning that maximizes the energy that the aircraft can extract from the environment. By energy extraction, I am referring to regions in which the aircraft encounters updrafts or wind-velocity gradients that allow it to soar to save battery energy. While the Air Force is primarily interested in development of the DDDAS, this system will greatly enhance our capabilities for future deployments for severe weather research.

I have also received an award from the state of Colorado to partner with NOAA, Black Swift Technologies (the company formed by our former students) and UASUSA (the company formed after VORTEX2 to sell the TEMPEST UAS, derived from our original Tempest UAS) to develop the TTwistor, the next iteration of the Tempest UAS. I have just started to work with a professor at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology to develop a lightning detection instrument for the Tempest UAS based on his balloon-borne instrument used to collect data on cloud-to-ground lightning. For another project, a RECUV professor and I are co-advising a graduate research assistant to develop an optical sensor for high-precision wind velocity measurements in smoke plumes generated by wildfires. These are some of my current projects, but what I am really looking forward to is getting back into the field for more supercell research with our meteorologist colleagues.