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EQC-funded heavy-duty drones benefit scientists

9 September 2019

EQC-funded heavy-duty drones benefit scientists around the Pacific

Heavy-duty drones and monitoring equipment developed with EQC funding by a Wellington research team is starting to have an impact far beyond New Zealand shores in tough volcanic conditions around the Pacific.

Team leader Dr Ian Schipper of Victoria University of Wellington was awarded an EQC Biennial Grant in 2018 to study volcanic gases to predict potential eruptions. As part of the study, the team developed specially reinforced drones to bring back gases from inside a volcanic plume and tested them at White Island.

“Until now it’s been impossible to get a sample from right inside the plume where all the action is - and before the gases have changed as they travel through the air,” says Dr Schipper. “The inside of the plume is not just hot, it’s also highly acidic so our drones have to be very tough to deal with the conditions.”

The lead researcher explains that the team have been able to perfect the technique of filling up a bag with gases to get high-value information to analyse the gases inside the volcano.

The EQC-funded technology has drawn interest from volcanologists around the world and Dr Schipper recently shared his findings with leading scientists at the international Deep Carbon Observatory meeting in Papua New Guinea and also received additional funding through the Marsden Fund to sample gas emissions on some of the world’s most inaccessible volcanoes.

“There are a lot of people wanting to measure and study carbon dioxide coming out of volcanoes, but teams have been having difficulty getting the samples from right inside the plume. We are now sharing our system that directly takes bags of the gases and brings them back for analysis,” says Dr Schipper.

Dr Jo Horrocks, EQC’s Director Resilience Strategy and Research, says the team’s ground-breaking technology and techniques take a big step in helping to understand how volcanoes behave.

“Getting a better idea of how plume chemistry works, and what the plume is doing to the local atmosphere will provide information that could help forecast eruptions – and that’s critical for a country like ours.

“It’s also wonderful to see how the team’s knowledge is already being shared worldwide to build further scientific knowledge for everybody,” says Dr Horrocks.

Receiving the prestigious Marsden Fund award will allow Dr Schipper to lead a project to sample emissions from volcanoes around the Pacific. The Victoria University research team will use traditional Māori and Melanesian waka to reach volcanoes that have not been studied before, in the Melanesian section of the Pacific Ring of Fire – Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, and Papua New Guinea.

“As with White Island in New Zealand, this is a really volatile area that could produce an eruption that affects the whole region,” says Dr Schipper who says that his team is far from finished yet.

“In the next project we will use these drones to study the volcanoes, and also develop submersible devices to study undersea volcanoes. Once we add the next layer of instruments we are working on, we expect to get even more valuable and more sophisticated data than we get at the moment.”

Dr Horrocks says that she will be very interested in the full results once Dr Schipper completes his EQC-funded analysis of the plume chemistry at White Island later this year, “and it is incredibly exciting that researchers around the world are already seeing the benefits of what we have started here in New Zealand.”

EQC funds $16 million of research and data annually to reduce the impact of natural disaster on people and property. This project is funded by an EQC Biennial Research Grant.


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