How the USGS Used a Drone to Save Someone from Kīlauea’s Lava

By Erik Klemetti | May 30, 2018 3:18 pm
The lava fountain from Fissure 8 seen on May 28, 2018. USGS/HVO.

The lava fountain from Fissure 8 seen on May 28, 2018. USGS/HVO.

Few things are changing volcano monitoring and hazard planning more than drones. A decade ago, it either took expensive and dangerous helicopter flights or approaching eruptions on foot to get close enough to make observations. Today, we can watch volcanic eruptions and their results up close using relatively cheap drones that can fly into craters and over lava flows to see what’s happening. This provides vital data for volcanologists watching the volcano to understand how the eruption is changing. They can also be used to map volcanic deposits and find people who might be in peril due to volcanic activity. Paired with satellite monitoring, drones are making the job of watching volcanic eruptions safer for scientists and citizens.

Case in point: The recent events at Kīlauea. Earlier this week, fast moving lava flows from Fissure 8 (see above) prompted more evacuations of residents who had not left their homes so far. These new flows were discovered by a drone that was mapping the flows for the U.S. Geological Survey. When it was clear that the flows would potentially block escape routes, the survey team contact emergency managers so they could warn citizens.

Drone footage used to help find a resident from the Kīlauea lava flows. The glow at the top are lava flows and the beams from searchers flashlights can be seen near the house. USGS/HVO.

Drone footage used to help find a resident from the Kīlauea lava flows. The glow at the top is the lava flow and the beams from searchers’ flashlights can be seen near the house. USGS/HVO.

It turned out that a resident was rapidly becoming trapped by these new lava flows. The USGS team was able to find the resident with the drone and have them follow it out of the lava flows and vegetation to safety. Think about that: A drone used to map the flows then used that data to help guide a resident from the hazard zone! Not only that, but the drone was able to send real-time images and video of the lava flows to emergency responders to help them more efficiently help residents and know where to send people as the evacuation progressed.

May 30 lava flow map for the Leilani Estates fissure eruption on Kīlauea's lower East Rift Zone. USGS.

May 30 lava flow map for the Leilani Estates fissure eruption on Kīlauea’s lower East Rift Zone. USGS.

The eruption at Kīlauea is continuing unabated today, with lava flows from Fissure 8 that moved at ~550 meters (600 yards) per hour — and that’s pretty fast for a lava flow. Fissure 18 is also producing a slower moving lava flow as well. Lava flows are (thankfully) not the most dangerous volcanic hazard because even at that speed, people can get out of the way if they have some warning (because you definitely don’t want to fall into lava). The lava fountaining from Fissure 8 has also produced some impressive deposits of Pele’s Hair (see below) as the lava is thrown into the air.

Like I’ve said before, this eruption at Kīlauea has shown off some of the great science and technology used by the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory and U.S. Geological Survey to help understand eruptions and keep citizens safe.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Rocky Planet, Science, Science Blogs
  • Uncle Al

    I’m thinking “human sacrifice.” Who wants to take one for the team?

  • whheydt

    Not really volcanology… I keep seeing articles talking about roads getting cut by lava flows and there being no way out, followed by data about using Marine helicopters to evacuate 40+ people at a time.

    What crosses my mind is.. Aren’t there beaches on the coast in these areas? Doesn’t the Navy have any landing ships left? How many people could a single LSI (or LST!) take off at once?

    • OWilson

      What crosses my mind is that building a house on an earthquake fault or an active volcanic island is a fool’s errand, which requires the foolish governments who allow such subdivisions on a volcanic island, having to use the National Guard, police firemen, and other first responders to risk their own lives, to save fools from their foolishness!

      It offends my sense of Darwinism! :)

      • whheydt

        Even Darwin opposed “Social Darwinism”. Yes, building in a high hazard area without the means to build in such a way as to resist the local hazard is questionable. Do you feel the same way about people who build in flood plains and on barrier islands? What about areas subject to tornadoes or hurricanes? (FYI…a properly built wood frame house is one of the safest structures you can be in during an earthquake.)


Rocky Planet

Rocky Planet covers all the geologic events that made and will continue to shape our planet. From volcanoes to earthquakes to gold to oceans to other solar systems, I discuss what is intriguing and illuminating about the rocks beneath our feet and above our heads. Ever wonder what volcanoes are erupting? How tsunamis form and where? What rocks can tell us about ancient environments? How the Earth might change in the future? You'll find these answers and more on Rocky Planet.

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