A team of volcanologists and engineers from the universities of Bristol and Cambridge in the UK has collected measurements from directly within volcanic clouds, together with visual and thermal images of inaccessible volcano peaks.
A recent 10-day research trip saw the team carry out several proof-of-concept flights at the summits of both Volcán de Fuego and Volcán de Pacaya in Guatemala. Using lightweight modern sensors, they measured temperature, humidity and thermal data within the volcanic clouds and took images of multiple eruptions in real time.
This is one of the first times that bespoke fixed-wing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) have been used at a volcano such as Fuego, where the lack of close access to the summit vent has prevented robust gas measurements. The UAVs were flown beyond-visual-line-of-sight at distances of up to 8km away, and 10,000ft above the launch site.
The group plans to return to Guatemala later in 2017 with a wider range of sensors including a multiGAS gas analyser (for CO2, SO2 and H2S), a four-stage filter pack, carbon stubs for ash sampling, thermal and visual cameras, and atmospheric sensors.
Dr Emma Liu, volcanologist at the Department of Earth Sciences at Cambridge, said, “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. 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.” - April 2017