Two UPC cutting-edge research projects selected under the MIT-Spain ”la Caixa” programme


Map showing the water content of vegetation, one of the results obtained in the project that involves UPC researchers David Chaparro and Mercedes Vall-llossera.


In the project led by Joan Montanyà, researchers will use UAVs to study the effects of atmospheric electricity in aerial vehicles and elevated structures.

Quantifying vegetation response to climate change with statistical models and studying atmospheric electricity using small uncrewed aerial vehicles. These two projects involving UPC researchers have been selected under the third MIT-Spain ”la Caixa” Foundation Seed Fund, an initiative to foster knowledge and cutting-edge research between Spanish universities and research centres and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States.

Sep 03, 2020

The programme aims to encourage interaction between Spanish research centres and MIT to boost cooperation and cross-disciplinarity in generating knowledge for confronting the great challenges of the 21st century. Researchers from the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya · BarcelonaTech (UPC) participate in two out of 12 projects funded by the third call of the programme.

One of the projects involves David Chaparro and Mercedes Vall-llossera, researchers from the UPC’s Department of Signal Theory and Communications; María Piles, a researcher at the Universitat de València; and Dara Entekhabi, the science team leader for the NASA Soil Moisture Active/Passive (SMAP) mission and a researcher at MIT. The project aims to quantify vegetation response to climate change using statistical models. It is based on the premise that events such as Storm Gloria, prolonged droughts and global warming are phenomena related to climate change that have a major impact on vegetation and terrestrial ecosystems. Such extreme climatic events, which have been affecting the Mediterranean area in recent years, are reducing crop yields, changing carbon storage in forests and reducing their ability to mitigate climate change. Understanding the role of vegetation in soil-plant-atmosphere exchanges is essential for determining the impact of the climate emergency.

The project will develop statistical models for studying vegetation response to extreme climate events. High-tech Earth observation satellites with microwave, optical and laser sensors will be applied to measure soil and vegetation water content and the photosynthetic activity of plants and biomass, and thus determine vegetation cover and its behaviour. Based on this information, the team of scientists will analyse soil-vegetation-atmosphere water exchanges on a global and regional scale and will quantify vegetation response to extreme changes in these processes induced by climate events such as heat waves, droughts and floods. Vegetation absorbs more than 25% of CO2 emissions from human activities and helps to mitigate climate change. Determining its health status through these statistical models will help to improve predictions about climate change and its impact.

The other project funded by the MIT-Spain ”la Caixa” Foundation Seed Fund is a proposal by Joan Montanyà, a researcher at the Lightning Research Group and the UPC’s Department of Electrical Engineering, and Carmen Guerra-Garcia, from MIT.

The project is based on small uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) as a unique platform for studying the effects of atmospheric electricity on air vehicles and elevated structures. UAVs can be used as a relatively low-cost model of larger-scale aircrafts for extensive testing in a university context, with short response times. Additionally, vertical-flight drones provide a precise platform for measuring and observing the electrical properties of the atmosphere and for simulating their impact on high structures and more specifically in wind turbines, which in the near future could reach a height of 300 metres.

The team of researchers propose using UAVs to study corona discharges—a precursor of lightning—and electric charge in a small aircraft and in wind turbine blades. In aircrafts and wind turbines, ambient electric fields are amplified by factors of 10 or more on the surface of the structure. Combined with the effects of rapid motion, this leads to corona discharges at sharp edges, that is at the tips of wind turbine blades and at the ends of aircraft wings and stabilisers. In addition, aircrafts and wind turbines acquire electric charge from the atmosphere and other sources, and such mechanisms are still little known. Studying these phenomena is relevant, as they are precursors of lightning during storms and contribute eventually to the degradation of the composite materials of which aircraft and wind turbines are made.

Transoceanic research projects
The third call of the programme received 25 proposals from 23 Spanish organisations. After evaluation by the committee of experts, 12 projects were selected: four related to health, four related to the global economy and four related to energy. The call has a budget of over 300,000 euros, which are entirely intended to cover travel and accommodation expenses of researchers in Spain and Boston so that they can launch their research projects. The initiative also aims to increase the visibility of Spanish research among MIT professors, researchers and students, and the other way round, and to foster links between Spanish and MIT researchers that lead to long-term collaborations.