New methods for state estimation and adaptive observation of environmental flow systems leveraging coordinated swarms of sensor vehicles

April 24, 2015, Webb 1100

Thomas Bewley

UCSD, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering


Accurate long-term forecasts of the path and intensity of hurricanes are imperative to protect property and save lives. Accurate estimations and forecasts of the spread of large-scale contaminant plumes, such as those from Deepwater Horizon, Fukushima, and recent volcanic eruptions in Iceland, are essential for assessing environment impact, coordinating remediation efforts, and in certain cases moving folks out of harm’s way. The challenges in estimating and forecasting such systems include: (a) environmental flow modeling, (b) high-performance real-time computing, (c) assimilating measured data into numerical simulations, and (d) acquiring in-situ data, beyond what can be measured from satellites, that is maximally relevant for reducing forecast uncertainty. This talk will focus on new techniques for addressing (c) and (d), namely, data assimilation and adaptive observation, in both hurricanes and large-scale environmental plumes. In particular, we will present a new technique for the energy-efficient coordination of swarms of sensor-laden balloons for persistent, in-situ, distributed, real-time measurement of developing hurricanes, leveraging buoyancy control only (coupled with the predictable and strongly stratified flowfield within the hurricane). Animations of these results are available at and We also will survey our unique hybridization of the venerable Ensemble Kalman and Variational approaches to large-scale data assimilation in environmental flow systems, and how essentially the dual of this hybrid approach may be used to solve the adaptive observation problem in a uniquely effective and rigorous fashion.

Speaker's Bio

Prof. Thomas Bewley (BS/MS Caltech 1989, diploma von Karman Institute 1990, PhD Stanford 1998) directs the UCSD Flow Control and Coordinated Robotics Labs. He currently works at the intersection of semi-autonomous agile robotics and the analysis, estimation, and forecasting of environmental flows using advanced control theory and numerical methods. His Coordinated Robotics Lab is developing an array of clever vehicles to achieve maximum agility with minimal complexity, and is coming to the mass market with a number of small toy and educational robotic vehicles in collaboration with WowWee Robotics (their first jointly-developed product, MiP, recently was awarded Innovative Toy Ot The Year by the Toy Association of America). His Flow Control Lab is developing new algorithms for weather-forecasting class problems like state estimation and adaptive observation in environmental contaminant plumes, and in-situ monitoring of developing hurricanes using buoyancy-controlled balloons.