UAS response to the volcanic eruption in La Palma

Volcanic eruptions are powerful and destructive with almost unstoppable energy, hence the regular and precise monitoring of these events is critical for safety. In October 2021, the Cumbre Vieja volcano located on La Palma (Spain) erupted forcing the evacuation of hundreds of homes and triggering an international response effort to monitor the state of the volcano helping inform local government decisions. As part of the response, a team comprising CASCADE funded engineers from the University of Bristol, in close partnership with national and international colleagues from UCL and Università degli Studi di Palermo, travelled to the island to collect airborne measurements of the volcanic gasses using Unoccupied Aerial Systems (UAS).

Dr Kieran Wood (right) and Dr Emma Liu (left) preparing for a gas measurement flight into the plume of Cumbre Vieja volcano.

The gasses contained within the plume can effectively act as an exhaust pipe for the planet, and a detailed analysis of the composition of the emitted gasses can help volcanologists understand the processes occurring deep underground. The plume however is not a pleasant environment for people containing high temperatures and toxic gasses, and when combined with explosive activity, it becomes an unacceptable risk for human presence. Airborne systems provide an ideal solution for performing these remote measurements both by allowing the personnel to operate from safe locations and also allowing the sensor to be positioned in extremely proximal locations, therefore maximising the quality of the measurement.

The turbulent plume of Cumbre Vieja volcano

Following several years of cooperative development (Schellenberg et. al. 2019, Wood et. al. 2020, Liu et. al. 2019), the sensor has been miniaturised into a sub 1 kg package with dimensions allowing its easy integration into commercial drones hardware. The result is a very flexible system which can be easily transported and deployed from difficult field locations.

Kieran Wood, a lecturer in Aerospace Systems at the University of Manchester, said:

“UAS are transforming the ability to collect unique and high-quality data for many geophysical studies. We have tackled the hardware integration problem for volcanic gas sensing and have a reliable system capable of being easily piloted, but the next step is to further increase the automation and remove the human pilot from the loop”.

Remote sensing and identification of volcanic plumes using fixed‐wing UAVs over Volcán de Fuego, Guatemala. Ben Schellenberg, Tom Richardson, Matt Watson, Colin Greatwood, Robert Clarke, Rick Thomas, Kieran Wood, Jim Freer, Helen Thomas, Emma Liu, Francis Salama, Gustavo Chigna- Journal of Field Robotics, 2019.

BVLOS UAS operations in highly-turbulent volcanic plumes. Kieran Wood, Emma J Liu, Tom Richardson, Robert Clarke, Jim Freer, Alessandro Aiuppa, Gaetano Giudice, Marcello Bitetto, Kila Mulina, Ima Itikarai. Frontiers in Robotics and AI, 2020.

Dynamics of outgassing and plume transport revealed by proximal unmanned aerial system (UAS) measurements at Volcán Villarrica, Chile. Emma J Liu, Kieran Wood, Emily Mason, Marie Edmonds, Alessandro Aiuppa, Gaetano Giudice, Marcello Bitetto, Vincenzo Francofonte, Steve Burrow, Thomas Richardson, Matthew Watson, Tom D Pering, Thomas C Wilkes, Andrew JS McGonigle, Gabriela Velasquez, Carlos Melgarejo, Claudia Bucarey. Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems, 2019.

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