And now, NASA is using drones to explore volcanoes to improve the accuracy of ashfall measurements.
Ashfall from volcanoes can be dangerous to aircraft; the microscopic particles of the ash cloud can erode metal and clog fuel systems, and in airspace where levels of volcanic ash exceeds 0.2 milligrams per cubic meter of air space, the area becomes a no-fly zone. After the April 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland, 95,000 flights were cancelled and $1.7 billion were lost.
But while areas of volcanic activity are too dangerous for manned aircraft to enter, scientists can send drones instead.
NASA is partnering with Boulder-based Black Swift Technologies to create a set of drones, called the SuperSwift XT, that can be sent around volcanoes with sensors that can measure gas and atmospheric parameters, gathering data about particle size-frequency distribution, vertical ash concetration and levels of sulfur dioxide.
NASA is paying Black Swift Technologies $124,849 to work on the project, according to public records.
“The SuperSwift XT will permit researchers to collect data previously unobtainable through traditional data collection methods or existing sUAS,” according to a news release. “Additionally, the use of drones to measure dangerous phenomenon, such as wildfire smoke and volcanic plumes, eliminates the risk of harm to researchers and scientists making observations at close proximity.”
The company was created by Jack Elston and Maciej Stachura, two PhD graduates of the University of Colorado. NASA has previously worked with the duo on another drone project in a deal worth nearly $900,000 in 2012 to work on a soil moisture mapping drone.