Unmanned Aircraft: From Potential to Reality
I had the privilege of speaking with Dr Mark Askelson, Atmospheric Sciences, ahead of his Dean’s Lecture for the Scholarly Forum. Each year, the School of Graduate Studies highlights the outstanding research of two faculty members during our annual research showcase. I spoke with Dr Askelson about his research and the Unmanned Aircraft project he’s involved with.
The Dean’s Lecture Series presentation is Tuesday, March 5 at 12 noon in the Lecture Bowl on the UND campus. Read more about the presentation here.
You grew up not too far from here?
Yes, I’m from Detroit Lakes, MN and did my undergraduate here at UND earning two degrees, one in Mathematics and one in Atmospheric Sciences. Then I went to graduate school at the University of Oklahoma and returned to UND as faculty.
When you came to UND as an undergraduate did you know what you wanted to do?
I did. In high school I realized I had an interest in the weather and I also had strengths in physics and mathematics, both of which are important tools for working on problems associated with the weather. And I think I also realized that we didn’t have it all figured out – that meteorology is a very live science. This is where my interests and skills intersected, so I decided to pursue atmospheric sciences.
I also really enjoyed mathematics and entertained the idea of becoming an actuary at one time, so my math degree had a statistical concentration.
I suppose growing up in this region exposed you to a lot of weather activity?
Right, and I remember as a kid hearing these forecasts of large snowfalls and then they wouldn’t pan out, so I would wonder what was going on there and why it was so far off. It turns out that the storm path could be slightly different but that could be the difference between 12 inches of snow versus none. And that got my curiosity going
You also research mesoscale meteorology?
Yes, what that refers to is phenomena of a particular size. So what you see on your nightly news’ weather forecast, these tend to be large scale, ie: thousand kilometer-wide events. Mesoscale tends to be smaller than that, such as thunderstorms. These can range from a small tornado to multi-thunderstorm complexes. These phenomena can be really complex because of all the things that interact and the physics involved but that’s what makes it fun – it’s the tough problem that needs solving.
Your research interests include surface transportation weather.
Yes! Leon Osborne, who I took classes from years ago when I was a student here, has in many ways helped to put that field on the map. But there remain all of these research problems that we struggle with like precipitation – for instance exactly where it snowed. So, for example, if you look at local radars it never snows in International Falls – apparently it is a tropical paradise (that gets can get bitterly cold). What’s happening is that the radars are overshooting the snow because precipitation systems that produce snow tend to be not as deep as summertime rain producers. Radar beams tend to climb away from the ground – what’s happening is the beams fall away but the ground is falling away faster the further you get from the radar itself. So you might think that the solution is available because we have lots of radars, but the truth is that our radars are too far apart leaving these big holes, making the estimates of where and how hard it is snowing more difficult.
There are a couple of ways you might use this advances in this area, for instance: traveler information systems. UND is the birthplace of the 511 system that has become a really popular conduit of information for travelers. One way to use that information is to find out what the weather and travel conditions are like.
Another way is to use that information for maintenance engineers who work for the Department of Transportation who have to take care of the roads. There’s a big difference between 5 inches and 1 inch of snow, and how they might treat the roads, whether salting or plowing, and so knowing where and how much it snowed is a big deal to them. It’s a challenging problem and one that I’m working on right now for a project.
Can you talk about your involvement with Unmanned Aircraft?
About 6 or 7 years ago we had an opportunity to get involved with the Air Force on Unmanned Aircraft issues and there was interest in using ground-based radars to identify aircraft in the area and to provide that information to someone who is flying an unmanned aircraft. The big challenge with unmanned aircraft is that by definition, by design, they are fundamentally different from manned aircraft. So one of the huge challenges is, if you are flying an aircraft, at all times, regardless of weather conditions, you are required to look out the window to see any other aircraft and avoid them. But without a human on board an unmanned aircraft, you physically can’t do that. So we need to come up with another way to do that, and using ground-based radars is one way. And since ground based radars is one of my research areas in meteorology, that’s how I became involved.
The talk you are preparing for the Dean’s Lecture Series looks at the social benefits and other applications of Unmanned Aircraft.
Right, I’m often asked why I work in this area since it not down the center of my research from the standpoint of meteorology and I am trying to figure out what’s going on in the atmosphere. I’m trying to work this problem so we can use unmanned aircraft to collect measurements to help me answer some of the questions I have about what is going on in the atmosphere. I study things like tornado genesis – why do some storms make tornados and others don’t when in many ways they might look similar – so there are some really great things it can do for me from a research standpoint.
In addition, there are some tremendous social benefits that can be gained from a broader use of unmanned aircraft.
There are potential drawbacks, too, from the issue of privacy which has a lot of people upset, and rightfully so. One of the great things about UA is that they are so good at collecting ISR (Intelligent Surveillance and Reconnaissance) data – so if you lose someone in the woods you can put up a UA and it can fly for 24 hours in search mode. But because it is so good at that type of thing, you could enable people to use it for bad things too. So we have to be intelligent about it, and the University (of North Dakota) is playing an important role in this issue with an oversight committee and then we can reap all the benefits – all the good things it can do. There’s tremendous potential for economic development with the business opportunities, too.
It was exciting to read about the positive impacts that this technology can have and UND is really at the cutting edge of much of this development.
Yeah, it’s a really big deal, and one of the great benefits of this project has been the partnerships we’ve been able to develop.
What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced with the execution of this project?
That’s a good question. From a technical standpoint, we’ve been able to do all the things we’ve wanted to do. We’re very lucky – we have a partnership that is very functional. One of the key elements to a successful partnership is that you have to have partners that are in it for the right reasons, the same goal, and you have to want to help one another achieve that goal together. Collectively, it’s not about any one of the partners doing something special, but it’s about all of you doing something special. And that’s what we have both with our internal and external partners. That being said, some of the biggest challenges can be political – being careful not to step on anyone’s toes.
Secondly, performing our tests and developing equipment is not cheap. It costs money to fly planes, do all of the testing and development, and it’s tough economic times, so that’s a challenge as well, for all of the partners to get enough resources to accomplish what we want to accomplish. But I think we are doing fairly well. It’s funny how you might set out to solve a technical problem but some of the biggest challenges you run into are fiscal or political.
But we’re extremely fortunate. The partnership has been incredible.
It’s fun to reflect on the various disciplines and partnerships over the past six or so years that have brought us to this point. Where do you think we’ll be in the next ten years?
You talk to people who might say UA need to be integrated into the national airspace “immediately”, and while I don’t disagree – it would be great! –the problems are challenging enough and the FAA by design is very cautious. So it will take a little bit of time, but it will happen, and when it does we’re going to be able to do some great things. I don’t think that in ten years our jetliners will be unmanned – you want that pilot up front, so I don’t know when or if we’ll ever cross that boundary.
What would say are some of the highlights of your academic research?
One of the highlights is the partnerships we have. I really do enjoy that aspect of it. I don’t know that relative to this project I’ll ever have another project that looks like that. But regardless it’s not often you get a chance to work on a problem with that much significance, with that kind of a team that has been brought together with those kinds of resources. So it is an exciting time.
But to be honest, as a researcher, a highlight could be a relatively small problem that you have solved that no one else has done before and it turns out to be a very cool thing. People have asked me why I go storm chasing and certainly it’s awesome to watch some of the things the atmosphere does, but you also learn by observing. And we want to understand why we’re getting these tornados, what processes are leading to these. And by learning about it, you hope to get to a better understanding, better forecasting, and better warnings that have a positive impact on people—that’s what it’s all about.
Dr Timothy Pasch is also presenting for the Dean’s Lecture Series. His presentation: The Evolution of the Scholarly Journal: Digital Convergence and Broader Impacts is in the Lecture Bowl at noon on March 6th. Read our interview here.