Josh Rhoten

Principal investigators
Eric Frew; Nisar Ahmed

National Science Foundation (NSF)

Collaboration + support
Ann and H.J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences; Autonomous Systems Interdisciplinary Research Theme; industry partners Ball Aerospace, Draper and Lockheed Martin; Research and Engineering Center for Unmanned Vehicles; university partners Sinclair Community College, Brigham Young University, Penn State University, the University of Michigan, Texas A&M University and Virginia Tech

Smead Aerospace will house a new NSF Industry-University Cooperative Research Center (IUCRC) on autonomous air mobility and sensing

A major research center on autonomous air mobility and sensing has been founded at CU Boulder in partnership with the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The Center for Autonomous Air Mobility and Sensing (CAAMS) will be housed in the Ann and H.J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences and is organized under the NSF’s Industry-University Cooperative Research Centers program (IUCRC). The five-year, multiuniversity and industry partnership will integrate research from traditional engineering topics such as automatic control, aerodynamics, wireless communication and energy storage with new disciplines such as artificial intelligence, autonomy, machine learning and robotics.

Dynamic combinations of these disciplines will lead to next-generation technology solutions and policies as autonomous airborne drones become more prevalent across society in applications ranging from agriculture and shipping to transportation and national security.

The IUCRC framework is designed to help startups, large corporate partners and government agencies connect directly with university faculty and student researchers to solve common pre-competitive challenges, all in a low-risk environment. The aim is to develop new technology, leverage resources and, most important, develop the U.S. workforce in critical areas through research projects led by graduate students.

Colorado is a natural home for a center like CAAMS. The state ranks first in the nation for per-capita private aerospace workers and has the second-largest aerospace economy in the country. Corporate partners in this center so far include several companies with close Colorado ties, including Ball Aerospace, Lockheed Martin and Draper.

Professor Eric Frew will serve as the center’s director, with Associate Professor Nisar Ahmed serving as the CU Boulder site director. Both are members of the Ann & H.J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences. And both are deeply involved in the College of Engineering and Applied Science’s Autonomous Systems Interdisciplinary Research Theme.

Frew said the new center will build on expertise within the college, the university and the state. He pointed specifically to the Research and Engineering Center for Unmanned Vehicles and the Autonomous Systems Interdisciplinary Research Theme that launched in 2018 as examples of the foundational work already being done here.

“The aviation industry is moving beyond remotely piloted, uninhabited aircraft systems toward new autonomous air mobility and sensing concepts,” he said. “Addressing those challenges requires a multidisciplinary approach that we are well suited to lead.”

Frew added that the center will help facilitate the adoption of these systems by providing a space where regulators, industry and academics can comfortably and easily work together. In addition, the center will increase public awareness and understanding around unmanned vehicles.

Ahmed said that partners involved in the project will gain access to an annual research portfolio equivalent to over $2.4 million for an annual membership fee of $50,000.

“That is a tremendous monetary return on investment,” he said. “But partners also get to influence the direction of the research program to their needs and gain access to our state-of-the-art facilities and top engineering students. We are always looking for new partners.”

CAAMS is the college’s third new IUCRC since 2020. The other two centers explore green building technology and developments around the Internet of Things.