Volcanoes have a whole host of reasons as to why they’re hard to study. There’s the obvious problem of intense heat and the release of lava. Then there’s the plume of smoke and fine particulates at super-high heats that can wipe out surrounding environments. Oh, and that doesn’t even include the noxious gasses rapidly emanating from the volcanic site. Most of the information gathered by scientists up to this point has come from researching seismic patterns and measuring the presence of volcanic gasses. There’s very little understanding of what volcanoes look like as they erupt from a close range.
A team of researchers from the Universities of Cambridge and Bristol decided to change that. The team managed to gather some of the world’s first drone captured visuals of an active volcano.
The sensor-filled drone took temperature, humidity readings and thermal data around two Guatemalan volcanoes. The drones were successfully flown at just 8 km away (roughly 5 miles) from the activity. For senior research associate Kieran Wood, the drone performed better than expected.
“Even during this initial campaign we were able to meet significant science and engineering targets,” Wood said. “For example, multiple imaging flights over several days captured the rapidly changing topography of Fuego’s summit. These showed that the volcano was erupting from not just one, but two active summit vents.”
The research team used a suped-up, fixed wing unmanned aerial vehicle as the drone in question. The drone/RC plane combo managed to gather samples of emissions gasses otherwise undetected by previous research. The team hopes that their findings could help further volcanic research.
“This is exciting initial research for future investigations, and would not be possible without a very close collaboration between volcanology and engineering,” said Matt Watson, a researcher with the Cambridge team’s University of Bristol School of Earth Sciences.
They also want to improve upon current research methods in order to give residents of the area more time to evacuate to safety.
“These sensors not only help to understand emissions from volcanoes, they could also be used in the future to help alert local communities of impending eruptions – particularly if the flights can be automated,” said Emma Liu, a volcanologist from Cambridge.