Monitoring volcanoes that could explode? A drone is on it.

volcano erupting

Volcano eruptions can be scary if you don't know they're coming. Izabela Kraus / Unsplash

Volcano eruptions are dramatic, messy events. And worse, they’re often unpredictable. Despite humanity’s best efforts to understand them, volcanoes continue to be a big threat—one that most people are not adequately prepared for. Historic ice cores tell us that the biggest explosions yet are still to come. Over the years, scientists have devised software, computer simulations, and even special instruments to monitor and predict when these sleeping beasts may wake. Researchers from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz have come up with another technique: drones. 

In a study published in late October in Scientific Reports, a team of scientists showed that small drones can be used to characterize the chemistry of volcanic plumes. Properties like the ratio of carbon dioxide to sulfur dioxide can give clues on what reactions are happening under the surface, and whether an eruption is coming soon. This ratio sometimes changes quickly before a volcano blows. 

Research drone flying in tests on Vulcano, Italy. Hoffmann group

Big, heavy-duty drones can often be a hassle to transport in and around the terrain surrounding volcanoes. And having humans trek out in special gear and suits is not an easy or quick journey either. Using a drone that could fit into a backpack could simplify the process. The drone used in the experiment was a 2-pound commercial model called DJI Mavic 3. 

Of course, the flying gizmo had to undergo a few modifications before it was volcano-ready. It’s decked out in a sensor system coordinated by a 4 MB microcontroller that bridges the communications between the electrochemical sulfur dioxide sensor, a light-based carbon dioxide sensor, plus other instruments for measuring temperature, humidity and pressure, and a GPS module.

The drone boasts a relatively high-frequency sampling rate: 0.5 Hz. And its battery allows it to run for 1.5 hours. The team tested the system on the island of Vulcano, Italy in April 2022 and flew it into a fumarole field, where volcanic gasses and vapors are emitted from openings in the ground. During its test flight it was able to quickly and accurately measure the gaseous emissions from the fumarole field in order to monitor volcanic activity. 

[Related: Whale-monitoring robots are oceanic eavesdroppers with a mission]

Drones are being used more and more as the eyes in the skies above hazardous locations; they have proved to be a practical solution for monitoring the real-time developments of phenomena and disasters like fog, wildfires, and hurricanes. They’ve also been used to monitor day-to-day happenings in the natural world like shark activity and changes to water sources

Off-the-shelf drones have become an extremely valuable tool for scientists hoping to collect data in hard-to-access places like the polar region and remote locations where wildlife congregate. But the certification process to use drones through the FAA is sometimes a hurdle to these tools becoming more commonplace among more researchers. 

The group from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz isn’t the first to use drones to study volcanoes. For example, an international team of researchers used the flying tools to study the structural integrity of volcanic domes, and NASA has used small airplane-like drones to capture visible-light and thermal images of volcanic areas from above. 

Hopefully, if the science done via drone become refined and robust enough, it could help researchers actually predict eruptions well before they happen.