Drones Go up 10,000 Feet to Explore Volcano Emissions

Volcanologists and engineers from the University of Bristol and University of Cambridge in the U.K. recently deployed drones to collect measurements from directly within volcanic clouds that were previously inaccessible.

During a 10-day research trip, the team carried out many proof-of-concept flights at the summits of both Volcán de Fuego and Volcán de Pacaya in Guatemala. Using lightweight sensors on fixed-wing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), they measured temperature, humidity and thermal data within the volcanic clouds and took images of multiple eruptions in real time.

The team, which received funding from the Cabot Institute, deployed the UAVs beyond the visual line of sight at distances up to 8 kilometers away, as well as 10,000 feet above the launch site.

The group plan to return to Guatemala later in the year with a wider range of sensors, including a multiGAS gas analyzer; a four-stage filter pack; carbon stubs for ash sampling; thermal and visual cameras; and atmospheric sensors.

“Drones offer an invaluable solution to the challenges of in-situ sampling and routine monitoring of volcanic emissions, particularly those where the near-vent region is prohibitively hazardous or inaccessible,” says Dr. Emma Liu, volcanologist from the Department of Earth Sciences at Cambridge. “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.”

The research group also used their aircraft to map the topology of a barranca and the volcanic deposits within it. These deposits were formed by a recent pyroclastic flow, a fast-moving cloud of superheated ash and gas, which traveled down the barranca from Fuego, the universities explain. The data captured will assist in modeling flow pathways and the potential impact of future volcanic eruptions on nearby settlements.

Photo courtesy of the Universities of Bristol and Cambridge

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