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What Do Sand Dunes Have To Do With Understanding The Weather?

A group of USRI researchers made another visit to the park to conduct photogrammetry research on the migration of sand dunes there using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
Gary Lawson / Oklahoma State University
A group of USRI researchers made another visit to the park to conduct photogrammetry research on the migration of sand dunes there using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

OSU Research Matters is a bi-weekly look inside the work of Oklahoma State University faculty, staff and students.

In this episode, Meghan Robinson speaks with OSU's Unmanned Systems Research Institute (URI) director Dr. Jamey Jacob and project engineering director, Victoria Natalie, to learn more about their study of the atmosphere and wind profiles at Little Sahara State Park in Northwestern Oklahoma.


ROBINSON: For the last six years, Oklahoma State University's Unmanned Systems Research Institute — or USRI — has been working on technology to study the atmosphere and wind profiles through various forms of mapping. The research is part of a larger NASA effort focused on urban air technology and taxis. Dr. Jamey Jacob, director of USRI, simplifies the objective of the work.

JACOB: Think of it essentially as an Uber-Air. So, rather than taking a taxi on the ground from one point in the city to another point, this would be an aerial version of that. Essentially a very large drone without a pilot that you would get in, and you would hop from one side of the city to the other side of the city and just a matter of minutes.

ROBINSON: But how does USRI’s research in sand dunes related to urban air technology? Project engineering director, Victoria Natalie, explains…

NATALIE: When you're wanting your air taxi to go around buildings or through an urban setting, you want to know exactly what that air flow is going to be doing. This is a first step to really understanding that in a real world scenario. The goal is to really kind of understand and map out the boundary layer as it moves over dunes, or you want to go to a more scientific definition — alien structures — which is just structures affected by the wind in a real-world environment. So this is something that we can kind of simulate in the lab and in wind tunnel settings, but you're not getting the same type of Reynolds number that you would get as the wind is flowing over the dunes out in the real world.

ROBINSON: A Reynolds number? What is that?

NATALIE: It is a unitless number that is used to determine scaling as far as turbulent structures or air flowing over different objects.

ROBINSON: The drones used for the research can collect a variety of data by using anemometers.

JACOB: Those are the sensors that measure the wind velocity and direction. So it's the magnitude, how fast the wind is moving [and] in what direction it's coming from. Those are integrated with the drone, so that way it provides us with altitude information. So that way, at any point in time in space, we know what that wind, magnitude and direction is going to be.

ROBINSON: What is photogrammetry?

JACOB: Well, photogrammetry is a way of measuring the terrain or the structure, or really visual shape using pictures. So using a series of images taken in this case from the air, we can create what's called a digital elevation model, an exact map of what the surface looks like. And we're using that to study how the dunes migrate over time.

NATALIE: You can really see as you go over the top of the dune exactly what the wind is doing as you move along the Leeward side of it.

JACOB: It allows us to study a really unique feature within Oklahoma. There aren't many places like Little Sahara in the world, and we can learn a lot, about not only Little Sahara itself, but also larger weather induced phenomenon.

MEG: For OSU Research Matters, I'm Meghan Robinson.

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Meghan Robinson is the host of OSU Research Matters and the Multimedia Reporter/ Producer for Inside OSU, the official streaming platform of Oklahoma State University.
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