Kiwi scientists could soon have a clever new way to safely get an up-close look at erupting volcanoes: send in the drone.

GNS Science technicians have already used a high-end hobby drone to help map and monitor New Zealand's most active volcano, White Island.

The drone, fitted with camera technology, has also been used over recent months to survey river terraces and geothermal systems around the North Island, capturing images so sharp that centimetres can be measured with each pixel.

GNS volcanologist Brad Scott said the high-tech helper had been particularly useful collecting aerial shots of White Island's crater - a job usually done by staff taking pictures from helicopters or planes fixed with cameras.

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"We've been getting some awesome stuff."

The Crown-owned research institute was now moving to get a larger, professional drone for future work that could involve taking infra-red surveys of volcanic craters.

Scott could also see a role for drones in high-risk situations.

"Shortly after an eruption, when it's still too dangerous to go into an area, we could fly in and get imagery or take temperatures," he said.

"Or maybe, hopefully, with sampling gear we might be able to collect volcanic ash and rock samples so we don't have to put people in there."

GNS Science volcanologist Brad Scott and his colleagues have started using drones to map geothermal activity.
GNS Science volcanologist Brad Scott and his colleagues have started using drones to map geothermal activity.

Some volcano observatories were now routinely using drones, but for most state agencies like GNS Science, the technology was new territory.

The GNS drone hadn't yet sustained any damage from some of the geothermal hot spots it had been sent into, although Scott said a film company crew that recently accompanied him to White Island lost one while flying it through a steam plume.

Meanwhile, University of Canterbury researchers are working with Japanese colleagues to enable swarms of drones that could locate and potentially triage people buried in wreckage and debris following natural disasters.

The recent establishment of the university's DroneLab coincided with a call for proposals from the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science and the Royal Society of New Zealand to develop technologies to help in major disasters.

Part of the new collaboration centred on Body Area Networks (BANs) - sensor devices attached to the body and which drones might use to locate and check the status of disaster victims.

The researchers were further investigating how entire swarms could be controlled by one or two operators, with the drones also communicating between themselves, said Dr Graeme Woodward, of the university's Wireless Research Centre.

"We are also looking for complementary projects that can provide further funding to develop drone swarm capabilities, and have had some success with Scion around detection and monitoring of hotspots in bushfire situations."

A high-end hobby drone has been used to help map and monitor New Zealand's most active volcano, White Island.
A high-end hobby drone has been used to help map and monitor New Zealand's most active volcano, White Island.