Scientists have developed groundbreaking technology that could save lives by predicting when volcanoes are about to erupt.
A team from Aberdeen University have created the world’s first 3D thermal image of an active volcano, using high-precision cameras mounted to an aerial drone.
The spectacular picture they produced of the Stromboli, in Italy, is the first example of advancing technology that will be able to provide accurate information on the likelihood of an eruption.
The research team’s ultimate aim is to pioneer a fully automated drone monitoring system that is safer and cheaper than the existing methods, which are unaffordable in the developing countries where many of the world’s active volcanoes are located.
Professor John Howell, from Aberdeen University, said: “Our technique involves using drones to take hundreds of aerial photographs and putting these together to create a 3D model that maps the surface.
“From there, we can overlay the model with images from a thermal camera, allowing us to see the thermal structure of the volcano in 3D.
“This gives us significant insight into changes in the volcano.
“If we see certain areas are unexpectedly hot then it might be an early warning sign, especially if the ground has swelled.
“These are very small movements, so are not easily detectable, but by using the latest high-precision cameras we can notice subtle changes to the volcano that might signal an imminent eruption.”
Mr Howell said the ability to deploy a drone close to a volcano means that portable seismometers and gas sensors can be used in areas too dangerous for people to venture.
The research has been conducted by geoscientists from both the Granite City and Oslo, and Mr Howell described the early results as “promising”.
He added: “Drone technology is moving so fast that we could have a system fully up and running in a few years.
“Being able to send a low-cost portable drone unit to any volcano around the world could really revolutionise how we monitor volcanos and be a game-changer for the people who live and work in their shadow.
“Ultimately, this technology could help us build a much better idea of how volcanoes behave and in the future could save lives.”