London, Nov 18 : A team of geophysicists is developing a large radio-controlled toy helicopter that could help predict when a volcano will blow its top.
When fresh, eruption-ready magma arrives deep in the heart of a volcano, it tends to release carbon dioxide (CO2).
As the magma rises, it also pushes sulfur dioxide out of the volcano. Spotting changes in the ratio of these gases around a volcano should indicate whether it is about to blow.
But although vulcanologists routinely measure sulfur dioxide, taking carbon dioxide measurements is a much bigger challenge.
Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are incredibly high compared to levels of sulfur dioxide.
"So, the component that the volcano adds to [the background carbon dioxide levels] is, relatively speaking, next to nothing," said Andrew McGonigle, a geophysicist from the University of Sheffield, UK.
In order to take the precise carbon dioxide measurements needed to tease out the volcano's contribution, vulcanologists have previously had to place gas sensors in the highly dangerous areas where the gas is released.
In 1993, six vulcanologists died when Galeras, a volcano in Colombia, erupted while they were trying to take gas measurements.
According to a report in Nature News, to avoid similar tragedies, McGonigle is developing an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to fly under the plume of an active, but not yet erupting volcano, to take those telltale carbon dioxide measurements.
McGonigle showed that this could be done earlier this year when he flew a small radio-controlled helicopter to take carbon dioxide measurements at Vulcano, Italy.
Now, Swiss watch company Rolex has named McGonigle one of five laureates of their annual enterprise awards, with a cash prize of 100,000 dollars.
McGonigle plans to use the cash to help his idea take off.
"That helicopter can only fly about 400 meters away from the operator," McGonigle said of his first efforts. "What's required is a really up-to-date UAV in order to make this technology useful," he added.
Stanley Williams, a vulcanologist at Arizona State University, said that McGonigle's efforts will be successful, because having carbon dioxide as well as sulfur dioxide data will make volcano predictions easier. Measuring two different things is always better than just one," said Williams.
UAVs hold promise for many scientific applications, and they have been used in Antarctica to take photos and measurements in places too remote for humans to access. ccording to Tamsin Mather, an earth scientist from the University of Oxford, UK, "Using a UAV will allow a greater range of volcanoes to be monitored."