Researchers Use Drone to Save Man's Life from Hawaii's Lava Flow

One man is safe thanks to a drone that helped him escape quickly approaching lava flow in Hawaii.
Shelby Rogers

In recent years, drones have become more than just fun recreational gadgets or to wow crowds at major sporting events. They've been used in several search and rescue situations, but the most recent use sounds straight out of a disaster movie. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) used a drone earlier this week to help a resident of Hawaii escape impending lava flow.

The team used live footage from the drone in order to direct the rescue group along the safest escape route possible.

“[The drone] helps prompt and guide evacuations and led to the successful rescue of a resident after a lava pond outbreak sent a very fast pahoehoe flow” down one of the Big Island’s streets, the USGS said in a Twitter post on Wednesday, May 30.

The resident was "trapped at their residence" on Luana Street of Leilani Estates over the weekend. The call for help from the scared resident prompted the Department of Interior's Kilauea team to quickly map out the Lower East Rift Zone using the drone. The drone spotted the resident as Kilauea's lava continued to swallow homes. 

As the lava flow closed in, the resident and the rescue team could only trust the drone's analysis and data tracking. 

“While he was making his way through the jungle, the … team was able to track him visually (he was using a cell phone flashlight) and information about his location was relayed to the ground searchers,” the USGS said. “After about 10 minutes of providing direction information to both the stranded person and the first responders, the search team was able to make contact and guide him to safety.”

The researchers helped the resident via drone for two and a half hours out of the jungle and get toward Nohea Street. 

“It’s not usually our mission to save people. We’re scientists. We monitor earth’s activities,” said USGS spokesman Paul Laustsen. “We’re there to help monitor the flows and try to understand what’s going on with lava that’s coming down. This was kind of a happenstance where we were on the scene and able to assist emergency responders.”

Thus far, the lava flow from Kilauea volcano has destroyed roughly 75 homes and displaced thousands of island residents. The volcano has been leaking lava for weeks, and researchers recently said there's no potential end in sight.


"We can't really peer through the ground and see it exactly in all its details and intricacies," NOAA volcanologist Bill Chadwick told NPR. "It could last days, weeks, years. All that's possible. It's hard to say, unfortunately."

This most recent volcanic activity started nearly three decades ago, but issues picked up when lava levels of the Pu'u O'o crater started rising. The magma continued to get backed up from below, explained researchers, causing the floor of the lava lake within the volcano's summit to collapse.