When it comes to studying poisonous volcanic gas, it’s best to get up close and personal. But who outside of Joe Banks, who would be brave enough to just walk up the edge of a smoking volcano and peer over its rim?
That’s why NASA has acquired three remote-controlled unmanned aerial vehicles and assigned them to Costa Rica to monitor Turrialba Volcano, near San Jose. The “Dragon Eye” drones are retired crafts the U.S. Marine Corps primarily used for scouting missions. Each plane weighs under six pounds, has a 3.75-foot wingspan and two electric motors. Equipped with infrared video cameras and a one-pound instrument payload, they’re capable of flying into a volcanic plume for up to an hour.
The project aims to create better satellite maps of not only the direction volcanic plumes drift, but the concentration and distribution of sulfur dioxide gas. This gas causes volcanic sulfur dioxide smog — or “vog” — which causes environmental hazards and respiratory problems for people living near volcanoes.
“It is very difficult to gather data from within volcanic eruption columns and plumes because updraft wind speeds are very high and high ash concentrations can quickly destroy aircraft engines,” David Pieri, principal investigator of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement. “Such flight environments can be very dangerous to manned aircraft. Volcanic eruption plumes may stretch for miles from a summit vent, and detached ash clouds can drift hundreds to thousands of miles from an eruption site.”
Last month NASA reportedly launched 10 flights into the volcanic plume above the rim of Turrialba’s 10,500-foot summit. Scientists plan to return next year with a larger plane — the SIERRA unmanned aircraft — to measure additional gases.
Credit: Google/NASA/Matthew Fladeland