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Eying the Mouth of a Volcano

Aaron Curtis always loved science, especially the “big-picture” stuff, like geology and space science. After attending high school in Brazil and Sweden (his father is a diplomat), Aaron received his undergraduate degree from Cambridge University. That’s where he discovered his passion for volcanoes. A member of the Cambridge University Caving Club, Aaron devoted his spare time and summers to studying volcanoes, caves and electronic instrumentation.

When we learned that Aaron was using 3DR technology to track volcanic activity, we were duly awed. What an extraordinary use case for UAV technology! Ordinarily, a scientist would need to hire a piloted helicopter to obtain imagery for data analysis. Using a drone proved not only far safer and more economical, but also more versatile, capturing imagery and other data a piloted helicopter would not dare.

We had the opportunity to speak with Aaron, virtually (he’s currently en route to Antarctica), to learn more about his remarkable research.

How are you using UAV technology?

I should start by explaining that there are two main applications for multirotors on Erebus Volcano. The first is for securing visual data and sensing gas in the active crater. The second is autonomous mapping and sensing of the volcano’s fumarolic ice caves. This clip from a BBC documentary highlights some of the work I did with my field assistant Nial Peters.

Based on my experience at Erebus, I was later invited to provide “air support” for a group of volcanology students working on Villarrica volcano. Villarrica, like Erebus, has a lava lake. Unlike Erebus, the lake surface is usually several hundred meters down in the conduit, so it can’t be seen by people on the volcano’s crater rim. To see the lava, you must fly over the active vent. I was able to film the lava from a quadrotor and demonstrate that a lava crust covered most of the lake, which has important implications for gas and seismic studies of the volcano.

The Volcanofiles recently applied for a National Geographic grant. If the application is successful, I will go out there and take UAV video and gas measurements at the top of five active volcanoes.

Why did you decide to focus on this particular research area?

When I was an undergrad, I spent three summers volunteering with the Cambridge University Caving Club exploring the Austrian Alps, where we discovered and mapped caves no human had ever before entered. But we ran into a problem. We would often discover large openings that extended vertically upwards out of view. Using traditional means, it would have been extremely difficult to view these. So I began to research the use of R/C blimps and later quadrotors.

My professor Clive Oppenheimer told me about some unmapped, barely studied volcanic ice caves on Erebus Volcano, so I then applied to New Mexico Tech’s graduate program to help map and instrument these ice caves as a PhD project with Philip Kyle. The technical aspects of this project were incredibly challenging and rewarding. It fell to me to design and build systems to monitor airflow, humidity, temperature, gas content, etc., while mapping the caves.

One of the major obstacles we encountered is that we could not access the lake directly. It’s considered too dangerous, since it has bomb-throwing eruptions several times a day. I began to work on a multirotor system that could fly down to the lake to collect images and sense gas concentrations. Last year, I did the first test flights over the Erebus crater, and this year I will fly most of the way down to the lake while collecting gas data.

How does the use of drones improve safety and the quality of the data you collect?

Using multirotors for the fumarolic ice cave work will allow us to obtain 3D models / maps of caves that humans cannot enter for various reasons. Chief among these is that some of the caves on Erebus have high levels of volcanic gas (up to 3% CO2) and make it unsafe for humans to enter. A second reason is that they are unique microbiological habitats and human entry can contaminate these pristine ecosystems.

Developing multirotors for sensing active volcanic vents, such as the Erebus lava lake, will allow us to obtain data when we want it most: during periods of unrest and increased activity where direct human exploration would be impossible.

What are your long-term aspirations, and how will drones be a part of it?

I hope to make UAV technology available for a wide range of earth sciences. Although my UAV work so far has been in applications relating to speleology, volcanology and forestry, I think there are important applications in every discipline of earth science. And I find it thrilling to be able to apply this exciting new technology in novel ways. That’s why I started AfterFlight. I intend to make it useful for analyzing various types of scientific data collected by UAVs. Whether I’m working in a national lab, university or corporate setting, that’s where I’d like to focus. It’s not just about flying UAVs in new places, but developing new methods for interpreting collected data.

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