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Syracuse University graduate students help NUAIR, WindShape on drone wind-tunnel project

By Eric Reinhardt (


MARCY, N.Y. — Syracuse University graduate students Vincent James McGovern and Jean-Eric van der Elst Portero this past academic year worked with NUAIR and the Swiss firm WindShape on an unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) wind tunnel that will be used to test how different weather patterns affect drone flight.

NUAIR says it annually seeks college-level interns interested in the UAS or drone industry to give them “hands-on, real-life experiences” with the technology.

The contributions both McGovern and van der Elst Portero have made to the wind-tunnel project has helped NUAIR “move the commercial drone industry forward,” the organization said in a news release. The UAS wind tunnel and the tests conducted within will help shape future rules and regulations for safe, advanced drone operations like package and medical deliveries via drone, NUAIR contends.

Although their in-person internship was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, McGovern and van der Elst Portero continued to collaborate virtually with NUAIR and its partners on this project. They both have their bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering and are working on their master’s degrees in mechanical and aerospace engineering at Syracuse University.

Syracuse–based NUAIR is short for Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research. The nonprofit focuses on UAS operations, aeronautical research, safety management, and consulting services.


Vincent James McGovern

Vincent James McGovern (NUAIR provided)

McGovern took the lead on researching integral products and components of the UAS wind tunnel, including a global navigation satellite system (GNSS) simulator and motion capture environment. GNSS is much like the GPS in a phone, but in addition to time and location, GNSS also determines speed, vehicle motion, and more.

Utilizing a GNSS simulator within a closed environment allows for the safe flight-testing of drones in different scenarios and weather conditions, “removing the potential risk” of putting people or property in harm’s way, NUAIR said.

Jean-Eric van der Elst Portero

Jean-Eric van der Elst Portero (NUAIR provided)

As a computational fluid dynamics (CFD) engineering intern, van der Elst Portero worked at simulating a newly designed open-loop wind tunnel concept that would be able to produce a multitude of flow conditions, such as gusts of wind and turbulent shear flow. The challenge was to “precisely replicate” urban atmospheric weather conditions that a drone might encounter.

Understanding and calculating for various changes in weather patterns is an “essential piece” to the commercialization of drones, especially within an urban environment, which can cause “major wind variations from block-to-block,” NUAIR said.

The Syracuse graduate student is currently identifying and investigating upstream inlet conditions, such as Reynolds Averaged Navier Stokes (RANS) and Large Eddy Simulation (LES) Turbulent models, that will produce the desired downstream effects for drones to encounter.

Using the predicted model’s data, van der Elst Portero has been able to analyze turbulent kinetic energy (TKE) and TKE dissipation rates of the primary flow, and is investigating vortex mitigation techniques. He is also currently designing and implementing a 3-component, closed-loop testing system which will be able to quantify a drone’s ability to “accurately” execute a real-life flight plan under hazardous weather conditions.

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