You can’t ask how a rumbling volcano how it’s feeling: You need to get close enough for a good look. But you don’t want to get
so close that you put yourself in the way of an angry, ash- and magma-spewing fire mountain.
Even for experts, it’s difficult to predict exactly when an impending eruption will occur, where the molten-hot rocks will flow, and how far dangerous conditions might reach.
That’s why engineers are developing drones hardy enough to endure violent conditions around active volcanoes.
Their hope: Create better warning systems for when a volcano really is ready to blow, and determine if and how people should evacuate.
Volcanic eruptions are one of the most dangerous events on Earth. They can trigger a terrifying natural phenomenon known as a pyroclastic flow, where red-hot waves of rock and gas rush down the side of the volcano. The event heats the air above it so quickly that it can form monstrous storm clouds.
A pyroclastic flow looks like this:
Sometimes even tornadoes of fire form during the chaos.
Again, you don’t want to get too close to an active volcano.
In the past researchers could only trek out to a volcano’s gas vents and collect samples in a bottle — a dangerous task, since volcanic fumes are often toxic and sometimes deadly.
But it’s critical that volcanologists monitor what’s happening at a volcano’s crater. It’s simply one of the best locations to see whether or not it’s getting ready to erupt, plus keep track of where the lava flows after it does blow.
That’s where drones come in.
Keiji Nagatani, an engineer at Tohoku University, has spent over a decade developing hardy robots and drones that can survive the hot, punishing conditions around an active volcano.
He’s even created squads of air- and ground-based drones that work together to monitor volcanoes.
Some of his aerial drones record and broadcast video while towing shovels on a tether; the shovels can drop down, open up, scoop up rock samples, and then fly them home:
Such video footage and rock samples can help researchers identify a volcano that may be on the brink of eruption.
Once a volcano is already erupting, another type of aerial drone can drop in a wheeled rover that collects gas and rock samples, sending the data back to home base in real time:
There are other high-flying volcano drones besides Nagatani’s creations, but they’re designed for different missions.
One drone can 3D-map lava lakes that sit at the mouths of some active volcanoes.
NASA, meanwhile, is testing a fleet of drones equipped with video cameras, sulphur dioxide sensors, and air sample bottles. These drones can help researchers better predict where deadly volcanic smog may drift during an eruption.
Some day, one or more of these drones just might help save your life.
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