In Bali, Indonesia, researchers are hoping that high-flying drones will help them to prepare for the next major volcanic eruption and minimize injuries and fatalities.
The researchers from Aeroterrascan, an Indonesian drone company, have already carried out two missions. On the first, they used drones to create an accurate 3D map of the size of the Agung volcano, down to 20 cm of accuracy. Volcanoes grow before an eruption so being able to track size changes over time is crucial to predicting eruptions.
In the second mission, a drone outfitted with carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide sensors flew over the volcano. When these gases spike, this is another sign that an eruption is going to happen soon. On this test, the levels were high, which caused the government to raise the warning level for the volcano to its highest level.
The third mission will be to use the drones to scan the area around the volcano for people who will need help evacuating so that they are out of the path of danger.
These flights are not without risk though. Getting the drones the 3,000 meters to the summit of the volcano is a tricky business. A few drones have been lost in the process and they're not cheap to replace, but it's all necessary in the effort to increase the amount of data about active volcanoes so that people can be safer.
These drones serve a purpose beyond just advanced warnings and improved rescue operations though. They could also be an essential part of the process of translating organic signals like those that a volcano emits before an eruption into computer code. In the same way that things like tools like the microscope have led to us discovering more about the natural world, having drones and sensors delivering data about the earth could also lead to a better understanding of natural processes that have been hard to see before now.
You can watch a video about the volcano drone missions below.