San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Unmanned drones to explore mystery of volcano plumes

There are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) flying over Costa Rica. But these drones don’t drop bombs.

Researchers from the University of Costa Rica unveiled the two new aircraft on Monday. One, an airplane, is outfitted with high-tech tools to analyze the makeup of volcanic plumes that spew ash, rock and gas into the air. The other is a four-rotor helicopter that can be flown in and around volcanoes and areas struck by natural disasters to collect data.

The UAVs are a step toward making Costa Rica a global center for the study of volcanoes, said Jorge Andrés Díaz, a physicist and director of the Gas Sensors Laboratory at the University of Costa Rica (UCR).

“It is very important to understand [the behavior of] volcanic plumes, what they are going to do, how they are going to spread out and, later, how many people will be affected,” Díaz said in a presentation to reporters. “Our intention is to enter, with an airplane, these volcanic plumes.”

In April 2010, Eyjafjallajökull, a volcano in Iceland, erupted and covered huge swaths of the European continent with clouds of ash. According to a report by the United Nations, approximately 20 countries closed their airspace due to the eruption, grounding flights and stranding thousands of travelers. Díaz said the Vector Wing-100 (VW-100), as the unmanned plane is called, will help detect potential volcanic eruptions, as well as the movements and potential effects of volcanic clouds, like the one created by Eyjafjallajökull after an eruption. This information, he said, will help authorities in areas affected by eruptions to effectively allocate resources to the hardest-hit areas and possibly save lives.

Costa Rica has seven active volcanoes. Last month, the Rincon de la Vieja Volcano in the northwestern province of Guanacaste erupted twice, throwing ash, gases and liquid into the air. Massive fish die-offs were reported in nearby rivers as a result of the eruptions. No human casualties were reported, but the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry shut down access to the volcano as a precaution.

“Volcanic emissions have an enormous impact on economies and human life,” Díaz  said. 

Data about the makeup and behavior of volcanic clouds, like the one generated by Eyjafjallajökull, generally come from remote sensors that take readings from locations near an active volcano. That data is beamed up to satellites in space and then to scientists for examination. Díaz says calibrating remote sensors and their satellite counterparts with what is happening on the ground can be problematic, and that additional data is necessary to get a clear picture of what is happening at the site of an eruption.

“Satellites are our eyes in the moment that something happens,” he said. “But the calibration of the satellites with the data from sensors and the modes of transporting the data fail when you try to validate the data in situ. The only way to fix this issue is by taking measurements on the ground.”

Hence, the drones. 

Outfitted with miniature mass and gas spectrometers designed by Díaz, along with a 10-megapixel digital camera, which also shoots high definition video, an infrared camera and GPS, the VW-100 is built to go into the dark hearts of volcanic plumes – places too dangerous to send humans or multimillion-dollar unmanned aircraft. The mini mass and gas spectrometers measure gases such as carbon dioxide, hydrosulfuric acid and hydrogen to determine what elements and compounds are present in volcanic emissions. 

The plane is not cheap – the prototype unveiled on Monday cost $40,000 to build, plus an additional $20,000 in sensors and computing equipment. But $60,000 is still cheaper than a human life or a few million dollars for other types of unmanned craft. Díaz said his team is working on designing a cheaper version of the VW-100. The goal, he said, is a model with the same capabilities as the VW-100 that will cost no more than $2,000 to produce.

NASA, which uses satellites for monitoring volcanoes across the globe, is interested in Díaz’s plan, too. Because of the new technology and Costa Rica’s many active volcanoes, Díaz said NASA is interested in using Costa Rica as a testing ground to calibrate all of the agency’s remote sensors before they are put to use in other places. 

Costa Rica could become a global center of volcanic research with NASA and other research organizations using the area to calibrate remote sensors and to develop models to be applied studying other volcanoes.

“In this case, we’re in a very advantageous position because we have a natural laboratory here in Costa Rica,” Díaz said. 

In the past, NASA has lent its own unmanned aircraft to Costa Rica for studying volcanoes, but only briefly and when the agency was not using them. With the VW-100, Díaz and other researchers will not have to rely on other agencies.

“The greatest advantage is that now we have our own plane, that we can take anywhere we want,” Díaz said. “NASA is interested because we can give them data that they can’t get themselves, as they’re not willing to risk a plane that costs one or two million dollars.”

The VW-100 flies a pre-set flight path following programmed GPS points and has a range of approximately 10 kilometers. A 1/2 horsepower engine powers the UAV, taking it up to altitudes as high as 3 km at speeds of up to 95 kph.  At 2.5 meters wide and 1.5 meters long, the plane weighs about 4.5 kilograms. 

The VW-100 lacks any kind of landing gear, so it must be launched via a high-tension bungee cord that flings the plane into the air. Once aloft, the aft-mounted propeller engine takes over and the plane follows a path of pre-programmed GPS points. The plane can be controlled manually by remote control, if necessary. 

Getting the plane back to the ground without landing gear is a matter of flying the craft into a net held by members of the project team.

The helicopter drone, on the other hand, can stay in the air for 15 to 30 minutes and reach altitudes of up to 350 meters. Manufactured by AscTec, a German company, the “quadrirotor,” or craft with four spinning rotors, can be connected to an array of digital and infrared cameras and other various sensors.

“We’re working, and have been for some time, in hydrothermal changes, especially in volcanoes and in the Central Volcanic Range [of Costa Rica],” said Javier Bonatti, leader of the helicopter project.

The helicopter program is a collaboration between the Center for Investigation in Atomic, Nuclear and Molecular Sciences at UCR and the Polytechnic University of Madrid.

Hydrothermal changes can give insight into things happening deep inside a volcano, Bonatti said. The chopper, like VW-100, can also help evaluate damage to areas affected by natural disaster, Bonatti said.

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