Scientists Using Drones to Monitor Active and Dormant Volcanoes in the Papua New Guinea Region


The Ring of Fire is a horseshoe shaped path running along the edge of the Pacific Ocean that contains more than 75% of the world’s active and dormant volcanoes. For any volcanologist, studying the activities along the Ring of Fire is a must. Recently, a group of volcanologists and geologists led by Dr. Emma Liu from the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Cambridge began a new study called the Above Project to see how drones could be used to study volcanoes. The team of about 20 scientists from universities all over the world converged in the Papua New Guinea (PNG) region of the Ring of Fire to begin their research.

Located north of Australia in the North Pacific Ocean, PNG has several active volcanoes. The two sites that Dr. Liu had designated for her drone research were Manam and Rabaul. Created by volcanic eruptions, Manam is an island that looks like a lily pad floating off the northeastern coast of the mainland. Maman is one of the most active volcanoes in PNG. On October 24, 2004, Manam began to erupt. By November, as debris and ash began to encroach on the island’s communities, 9,000 people were evacuated to the mainland. Over the last few years, some people have begun to resettle the island, though the government has stated that they feel it is not safe to do so.

Rabaul was at one time an important and busy port in PNG’s East New Britain province and even served as the area’s capital until 1994. There are 2 volcanoes in Rabaul’s port, Tavurvur, and Vulcan. In 1937, ash and debris from a major eruption destroyed the port. Rabaul was rebuilt and once again became one of the most important towns in the region. Between 1983 and 1984, the town was on high alert that the volcanoes were heating up, but as nothing changed, life went back to normal. Then on September 19, 1994, a major eruption occurred from both volcanoes, once again destroying the port. Luckily the town was well prepared for evacuations, and even though there was less than a 20 hour warning, there were only 5 casualties.

As both Manam and Rabaul are in close proximity and deemed safe for investigation while still being active, they are ideal research sites for drone based experiments. Both sites are actively expelling gasses, but they are extremely difficult to access because of their dangerous terrain. Dr. Liu and a few members of her team first traveled to PNG on October 2018 for 2 weeks to determine flight plans, gather all necessary permits, and work out any logistical issues. In May 2019, the entire team returned to PNG with 4 key research questions. These questions were, “How much carbon dioxide and other gases do Manam and Rabaul volcanoes emit? What does the isotopic composition of carbon dioxide tell us about its source? Can we integrate data from UAS into databases of ground- and satellite-based observations? Can we develop rigorous, internationally accepted protocols for using UAS to collect gas measurements at volcanoes?”

The team used several DJI Phantoms, an off the shelf drone that costs less than $3,000. These drones are inexpensive and easy to use, already equipped with high definition cameras that can withstand extreme weather conditions. Dr. Liu modified the drone’s payloads to collect data from the volcanoes. The drones were outfitted with special sensors, spectrometers, and remotely opening and closing sample containers that could collect accurate data on the gasses released from the volcanoes. Staying on the ground at a safe distance, nearly 4 miles away, the drones were effortlessly flown into the vaporous clouds over the volcanoes.

The cameras allowed Dr. Liu and her team to see everything that was going on and capture photographs that could later be used to compare against existing satellite images. The sensors provided the team with critical data that could be used to predict possible eruptions. The data collected showed that Maman’s volcano was increasing in emissions, leading them to believe an eruption could be happening soon. About a month after the drones collected this data, the volcano erupted.

Not only can the research being done by Dr. Liu’s drones be used to build predictive models, but it also gives a truer understanding of the amounts of carbon dioxide being released by volcanoes and the impact this will have on climate change. All of the data will be shared with the DECADE Project whose goal is to create a plan of action to stabilize global carbon emissions. It is widely excepted that while volcanoes are carbon emitters, they don’t cause nearly as much damage as humans. But as Professor Tobias Fischer from the University of New Mexico, and one of Dr. Liu’s teammates pointed out, it is critical to take into account how the earth naturally produces carbon to better understand climate change.

Dr. Liu and her team released all of their findings this past October in “Frontiers in Robotics and AI”, one of the world’s most respected journals on the advancement of robotic systems. The experiments were highly successful and have laid out the framework for future projects. As the paper submitted by Dr. Liu and her colleagues stated, “Our novel approach – that is, long-range and high-altitude [drone] operations enabling in situ measurements – is presently the only feasible means by which we can characterize gas chemistry at steep, hazardous, and highly active volcanoes like Manam.” Dr. Liu’s initial research in PNG only lasted 10 days, she hopes that with funding more extensive drone research missions will be taking place in the near future.


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