Drones help monitor huge volcanoes


Volcanoes are known to be most interesting when active. But it is also the time when they are most dangerous. Now volcanologists are using drones to obtain detailed data thanks to close-up views of volcanoes without putting themselves at risk.

Researchers from the German Research Center for Geosciences, known by the German abbreviation GFZ, recently revealed extremely detailed data from an active volcano using drones with optical and thermal-imaging cameras. Their study of the Santa Maria volcano in Guatemala appears in the journal Scientific Reports.

The team was studying a lava dome, a viscous lava plug. Through the flights of their drone, they were able to understand two types of flow over the volcano: rapid extrusion of viscous lava and slow expansion and growth of the dome.

Specific data

Although they weren’t piloting a stereo camera, the researchers used special algorithms to convert the collected images into a 3D model of the volcano. The thermal imaging camera collected data to create a temperature model of the facility. The models are precise down to a few centimeters.

“We equipped a drone with several cameras. We then piloted the drone over the crater at various intervals, measuring the movements of the lava flow and a lava dome using a specific type of stereo photography with a precision never seen before.” says GFZ author Edgar Zorn.

The data helped researchers determine the flow velocity, movement patterns, and surface temperature of the volcano. These factors are fundamental to predicting the danger of explosive volcanoes.

“We have shown that the use of drones can help completely remeasure even the most dangerous and active volcanoes on Earth from a safe distance,” says Zorn.

Again, drones are expanding human capabilities safely and economically. It was not necessary to pilot a helicopter to acquire data, for example, which would have been expensive and could have put the pilot at risk. No drones were damaged in this research. But even if there was one, it would be a small price to pay to protect humans.

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Image credit: Zorn et al. 2020, Nature – Scientific reports