The continuing lava flows from the Kilauea volcano, which are threatening the town of Puna on the Big Island, are changing the landscape daily, making topographic maps almost useless to predict future flows.
So how can researchers compensate, so they can give early warning to residents in the path of the molten lava? Bring in the drones!
The team from the University of Hawaii at Hilo are using a Sensefly SwingletCAM drone armed with a Canon digital SLR in order to advise local Civil Defense teams, and the U.S. Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. Using GPS and drone attitude data, the drone gets enough high-resolution photos to create 3D orthomosaics to get up-to-date topograhpic data, taking into account fresh lava flows that have hardened and changed the landscape.
Here’s an amazing example of the visualizations possible from the drone-collected data:
Yet the team still had to get approval from the FAA even for this urgent, potentially life-saving work. “That was one of the biggest hurdles,” confirms Nicolas Turner, a cyber computer programming analyst for the university’s Spatial Data Analysis and Visualization Laboratory.
“To the FAA, you’re a pilot” when flying drones, confirms Arthur Cunningham, the team’s aeronautical science consultant. “You need to pass a flight physical, and be licensed. Because if something goes wrong, that vehicle could be up there without a pilot.”
(Um, dude? Drones are always up there without a pilot!)
Approval was swift not because of the emergency situation, but rather because the SwingletCAM drone was already approved for commercial flights on the island. Flights specific to mapping lava flows have been running since late October.
More information on the university’s efforts can be found here.
News report on the effort from West Hawaii Today.