Atmospheric Sciences’ faculty secure private funding to probe secrets of thunderstorms near the equator

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Atmospheric Sciences’ faculty secure private funding to probe secrets of thunderstorms near the equator

When the Northrop Grumman Corp. wanted to figure out how tropical thunderstorms would impact unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) flights, they turned to experts at the University of North Dakota.

Northrop Grumman is one of the world's largest aerospace companies and the maker of several prominent UAS, including the Global Hawk system now deployed at the Grand Forks Air Force Base.

"We started talking with Northrop Grumman awhile back about defining the hazards of tropical thunderstorms to UAS," said Gretchen Mullendore, a faculty member and thunderstorm expert in the UND Department of Atmospheric Sciences, part of the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences. "We recently were notified that we'd received a $75,000 one year grant from the company to start phase one and phase two of research into that."

Mullendore is the principal investigator on the grant; her co-principle investigator is the department chair Mike Poellot, Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Sciences.

Why the tropics?

"Because most of the research about the hazards of thunderstorm systems to aviation has been done in the mid and northern latitudes, so we have clearly understood hazards and defined rules for pilots about how to avoid such storms," said Poellot, who among other duties is principle investigator for UND's Cessna Citation II atmospheric research jet. That knowledge and those rules apply equally for unmanned aircraft.

While the aviation industry knows that aircraft should not fly directly through thunderstorms, hazards also extend beyond the visible boundary of the storms. The question this grant-funded research will address is: what is an appropriate avoidance distance that will ensure aircraft safety while optimizing mission performance?

"As part of this grant, we will summarize what we already know about tropical storm-related hazards to aviation," said Mullendore, one of whose key tools is computer modeling.

"Then we'll move forward with the climatology, studying all the available satellite data and the limited available radar data to help us model how tropical thunderstorms behave," Mullendore said. "They're much different from the thunderstorms we experience in our part of the world — part of the grant's aim is to find out how to help aircraft, crewed or unmanned, avoid those hazards in the tropics."

Mullendore will employ three students — a Ph.D. student, a master's degree student and an undergraduate, all from the atmospheric sciences department — in this grant project.

"Our students think it's really great to be involved in hands-on research," said Mullendore, who helped to launch and is advisor for the UND Women in Science chapter.

Juan Miguel Pedraza University & Public Affairs writer

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