Getting close to a volcano has never been an easy task. Emissions, particularly those in the near-vent region, is extremely hazardous not to mention hard to access.
With that in mind, a team of engineers and volcanologists from the Universities of Bristol and Cambridge collected measurements from directly within volcanic clouds using flying drones, which also took images and video of multiple eruptions in real-time.
The researchers say this is one of the first times that bespoke fixed-wing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have been used to collect data from volcanoes. During a 10-day research trip, the team made numerous proof-of-concept flights at the summits of both Volcán de Fuego and Volcán de Pacaya in Guatemala.
The drones were successfully flown beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) at distances up to 5 miles away and 10,000 feet above the launch site. The drones outfitted with modern sensors recorded temperatures, humidity and thermal data within the volcanic clouds. The team plans to take another trip to Guatemala later this year with a wider range of sensors, such as a multiGAS gas analyzer, a four-stage filter pack, carbon stubs for ash sampling, thermal and visual cameras and atmospheric sensors.
“Volcanoes are prodigious sources of volatiles and trace metals and have a key role in the geochemical cycling of these elements through the Earth system,” 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.”
Researchers also used the drones to map the topology of a barranca, a narrow gorge with volcanic deposits in it. These were formed by recent pyroclastic flow — a fast-moving cloud of superheated ash and gas. The data derived from the drones will help assist in modeling flow pathways and the potential impact of future volcanic eruptions by nearby settlements.