Notre Dame’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicle — its body stuffed with delicate meteorological instruments — sits on a desolate strip of asphalt at Utah’s Dugway Proving Ground, revving up for its first mission.

Besides a single massive mountain, the 800,000-acre military base in the Great Salt Lake Desert is dotted with sagebrush, foot-high anthills and not much else, save the occasional scorpion. It’s the kind of isolated place where Special Forces practice storming fake compounds that look like Osama bin Laden’s, and Air Force planes drop real bombs that leave impressive holes.

Over the last year, a team of engineers, scientists and graduate students from around the world had built the $250,000 nest of machinery inside the plane fuselage, and they are ecstatic over this flight. The instruments on the remote-controlled plane with a 14-foot wingspan should provide data on wind speed, turbulence, temperature and more in this groundbreaking attempt to understand how air flows through the mountains.

Photo by Barbara Johnston

“This is probably the best experiment ever done in mountain terrain — if we don’t screw it up — because of the amount of data and instrumentation here,” project leader H. Joseph Fernando, the Wayne and Diana Murdy Family Professor of Engineering at Notre Dame, had said weeks earlier.

Exact data on this fine a scale could have many applications, ranging from how toxic spills will dissipate in different weather conditions to improved wind and weather forecasting that could help pilots avoid some of the many airplane, helicopter and probe crashes each year. The U.S. Department of Defense has obvious reasons to fund the $7.5 million project. But civilian benefits are also expected, Fernando says, considering that many of the world’s cities and their airports are located in mountains.

As a pilot handles the remote controls, the ND plane revs again. About a dozen team members lean forward in anticipation. The UAV shoots forward about 10 feet, skids almost immediately off the narrow road — and crashes into a ditch full of sagebrush. Shock prevents anyone from shattering the barren silence.

Chris Hocut, 36, an ND graduate student, has spent untold hours predicting the wind-flow outcomes in lab work, programming the computerized flight plan and adapting the plane to fit in more instrumentation. As he reaches the fallen UAV, he can see that the delicate combo probe on the nose cone is mangled, along with its two fine-measure “hot wires,” worth $3,000 each. The back right strut is broken clean through and the sleek plane’s blue and gold surface is scuffed all over.

Hocut can’t hide the crushed look on his face as he carries the broken pieces of his baby back to his truck under the midday sun.

Like fishing is not called catching, experiments are not called discoveries. So Fernando was not dismayed by that September 2012 UAV crash. Field science means stretching the current boundary of knowledge into new places with equipment that has never performed under harsh conditions outside a lab. Failure is expected on the first try. If you don’t fail, you may not be pushing far enough ahead to be worthwhile.

In fact, later that same dry autumn day, Fernando led his team in a second experiment. This one involved sending a powerful laser through smoke as air flowed down the mountain at night, and videotaping the swirls of smoke for separation analysis.

Fernando and part of his team spent hours driving a pickup truck of equipment up a steep slope and setting up the laser. But the smoke dissipated before the laser could illuminate it because the smoke machine was too far away. Fernando barely noticed the roadblock. A few days later, he would change the location of the laser and smoke machine and his team would produce a perfect videotape.

Running multiple experiments in a day is nothing new to the 58-year-old scientist who provides the funding and vision, and builds a team to accomplish each goal. Juggling eight or more projects, he controls an annual budget of about $1.5 million.

The projects range from working with his native Sri Lanka on better prediction of monsoon winds in the Indian Ocean to measuring and mitigating the urban heat island effect in Chicago. He is also conducting research for the Department of Energy on the challenges of storing our strategic oil reserves in underground salt caverns. He works with the Arizona Department of Transportation to minimize noise pollution and the Royal Society of London on wind turbines. And he edits the top academic journal and textbook in his field: Environmental Fluid Mechanics.

Even though Fernando flies around the globe, leading projects that make a difference in the world outside the lab, the Notre Dame professor teaches a full load of classes, bringing that knowledge back to his classroom.

Fernando spent 25 years at Arizona State University pursuing a wide range of research and developing a reputation as a leader in environmental fluid dynamics before coming to Notre Dame in 2010. Hiring a star in the field who has settled in elsewhere is never easy, and the pursuit of Fernando twisted like the St. Joseph River before ending in South Bend.

A few years before the move, he was so intent on finishing his career at ASU that he bought beach property across the border in Mexico. In a 2007 article in The New York Times about tsunami damage around the Indian Ocean, he sang the praises of a 107-foot wave tank at ASU that helped him measure how such human activities as coral poaching had exacerbated the destruction in the 2004 disaster. He had long-term funding of nearly half a million dollars each year from the state of Arizona to study air quality and the heat island effect in Phoenix.

Leaving all this behind was not part of his plans. But Fernando and his family are devout Catholics. When the oldest of his four children decided to come to Notre Dame, he built some affinity for the school while visiting for football games. Still, his contact with the University was social, not professional. Then in June 2008, he received an email from Notre Dame engineering professors Andrew Kennedy and Joannes Westerink, asking him to speak at a seminar and offering football tickets for the whole family. During the visit, the hosts and Peter Kilpatrick, dean of the College of Engineering, probed Fernando about whether he might have any interest in working for Notre Dame.

Fernando said he would have to think about it, especially considering the difference in weather and how well he was treated in Arizona.

“We are practicing Catholics,” he says. “That’s the only reason I came here.”

A decade earlier, Fernando had traveled to Lourdes, France, to pray for his sister in Sri Lanka who had been diagnosed with throat cancer. Even with the aggressive treatment she received, Fernando says, the doctors still found her recovery miraculous. “From my family and especially after that, I had a very great appreciation for Our Lady,” he says.

Fernando says his wife, Ravini, convinced him that he should take advantage of the opportunities God provided. He was in the process of accepting the offer when Notre Dame invited President Obama to speak at its 2009 Commencement Ceremony. He says he did not object to open dialogue on the abortion issue but disagreed with a Catholic institution granting Obama an honorary degree. He decided to call off the marriage with Notre Dame — until his son, who was graduating that year, argued that people like him must work at Notre Dame to bolster its Catholic character.

So Fernando landed at Notre Dame and brought his entourage of three research professors and several graduate students, besides adding a new lab technician and administrative assistant. He also brought with him a tractor-trailer of lab equipment (all but the huge wave tank) and most of the grants and projects he had already started.

Fernando, who now participates in a campus men’s prayer group, says he had seen the criticism of Notre Dame losing its Catholic identity but has been pleasantly surprised. “If you are inside and want to practice your faith, there is a big difference from what [critics] say about the University,” he says.

Kilpatrick says hiring Fernando was a “big coup” because many prestigious universities, including some in the Ivy League, had tried and failed to woo him away from ASU. As Fernando continues to explore the frontier of knowledge, Kilpatrick says, his Notre Dame students see that what they are studying has a direct impact in such areas as creating a sustainable planet, using energy efficiently and improving safety through better weather modeling.

“Joe’s work points in the direction of either solutions or a need for action,” Kilpatrick says. “In his case, it’s easy to draw a straight line to impact, so it’s easy to motivate students.”

Kilpatrick also says he often compares research professors to small-business CEOs.

“They hire their own people, recruit talent, teach skills and manage their own budget,” Kilpatrick says. “They must have the creative, innovative ideas that are going to impact society, and they have to raise the money, so they have to be eloquent in telling the funding agencies why their ideas are important.” Like business owners, they also troubleshoot problems and hold the team accountable, he says.

Westerink, whose hurricane modeling has been instrumental in redesigning the levies in New Orleans, says Fernando came to his attention because his work exhibits such diversity.

“His research informs us about how we’re changing the environment and how to mitigate that,” Westerink says. “The common denominator and what makes Joe great is that he looks at foundational aspects — the processes that drive that phenomena. We have to understand them to be able to predict a whole range of events.”

Outside of teaching, Fernando devotes the largest chunk of his time to the Mountain Terrain Atmospheric Modeling and Observation (MATERHORN) program on mountain weather, one of several multi-university projects the Defense Department funds each year. Military planes and helicopters have struggled for years with crashes in mountainous areas where they are deployed. Fernando says one general told him, “If the mountains don’t kill you, the weather will.”

As a precaution, the military suspends most probe operations when humidity reaches 30 percent, which threatens visibility and plane hardware. But that threshold often is not detected until it’s too late, so the military needs to improve its ability to predict such a weather condition.

That’s where Fernando Inc. steps in to provide answers. The MATERHORN team of almost 60 researchers includes professors from other universities and countries, as well as postdoctorate fellows and graduate and undergraduate students. The military partners, headed by a former Fernando student at Dugway Proving Ground, provide planes to carry meteorological equipment, as well as a unique setting that is already laced with dozens of instruments for collecting weather data.

Work began in July 2011 in a simple water tank in a lab in the basement of Notre Dame’s Fitzpatrick Hall. There’s where Hocut, the graduate student who worked on the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, attempted to simplify a complex explanation. As the sun warms up a mountainside, the air blowing up the slope accelerates and heats up until it reaches a critical temperature that causes a separation — this warm air rising forms the foundation for precipitation. How far up the slope the flow goes before separating determines how warm the rising air will be and what the potential for rain is.

Hocut demonstrates by squeezing small amounts of dye into the water tank to show how it rises in swirling cascades as water is pushed up an incline in the tank floor. Why a water tank? He explains that the fluid dynamics field considers both air and water to be fluids with similar properties.

Theoretically, the lab work predicts where the separation will occur in the field work at Dugway and where to set up instruments to measure the process. Those instruments include plane-borne detectors, several towers with sensors at different heights, and tethered balloons bearing more sensors that are raised and lowered every hour. All of the data is then plugged into powerful computers for months of analysis. After several more observation periods, the project is scheduled to wrap up in mid-2016.

For Hocut, this particular project did result in some personal success: He won best overall presentation at the American Meteorological Society in January 2013. A few months later he landed a prestigious internship with an Army research lab to study the configuration of laser radar to create 3-D measurements. He credits Fernando for that, noting that the opportunity to participate in such quality research with the professor is the reason he came to Notre Dame.

Fernando’s work aims to understand the foundations of fluid dynamics as a science; the practical uses for the outcomes vary widely and are often identified by others.

Notre Dame doctoral student Zachariah Silver, 25, listened intently to a Fernando lecture on measuring energy dissipation during a turbulence class in spring 2013. He is studying to be a meteorologist, and a chalkboard full of formulas resembling hieroglyphics did not intimidate him. Silver has helped create weather models based on Hocut’s data from MATERHORN.

Right now, weather fronts can only be predicted in large-scale events. But Silver said the microscale processes that Fernando is researching could lead to better predictions of complex systems like lake-effect snow.

Another weather phenomenon, called microbursts, has been blamed for dozens of commercial plane crashes over the last 40 years. It involves a cold shaft of air that drops to the ground quickly during a thunderstorm. When it hits the ground, it rebounds in all directions, causing low-flying airplanes to experience a headwind, downdraft and tailwind in quick succession. This combination causes planes to sink rapidly and potentially crash if pilots don’t understand what is happening. Millions of dollars have been spent on sophisticated weather sensors to detect microbursts since the danger was proven after a 1985 Delta Airlines flight crashed as it approached Dallas.

Photo by Barbara Johnston

Brandon Herzog, an Indiana pilot hired to fly the remote-controlled UAV, says better mountain weather predictions would also definitely save lives. Airports in such places as Juneau and Hong Kong are surrounded by mountains and are tricky to approach, he says.

“When we approach airports, we get weather reports,” Herzog says. “But we’re not given any information on mountain weather, and we can hit shears that cause quick drops and real problems.”

Nine months after the UAV crash in Utah, Herzog and a partner wheeled the Flamingo (their nickname for the ND plane) out onto the runway of a small airport in Elkhart, Indiana, for a test flight, the first with a redesigned front wheel and repositioned combo probe.

It was a cool June evening, and a slight shake from the vibration of the engine made the Flamingo look like a racehorse awaiting the opening of the starting gate. The blue and yellow UAV raced forward about 30 yards into a steady wind, then skittered a foot or two to the left as it picked up speed.

With the forgiveness of a wide runway, the Flamingo quickly lifted into the air. Herzog was ecstatic over the performance of four smooth mile-long loops through the sky at about 30 miles per hour before the UAV touched down in a graceful landing.

The CEO of Fernando Inc. was later informed about the triumphant test flight. The goal of any experiment, Fernando says, is not necessarily immediate success. It takes expertise, hard work and time to develop a product — especially when the product is knowledge.

Brendan O’Shaughnessy works in communications for Notre Dame. A former teacher and Indianapolis Star journalist, his articles have appeared in this magazine, the Chicago Tribune and other publications. He is the co-author of two children’s books about Clashmore Mike, the original Notre Dame mascot.

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