Aberdeen scientists create world’s first 3D thermal image of volcano

volcanoScientists from Aberdeen University have created the world’s first 3D thermal image of an active volcano. The spectacular image of Stromboli in Italy was made using high-precision cameras mounted to an aerial drone.

It was developed by a team of geoscientists from the Universities of Aberdeen and Oslo who are using drone technology to develop a technique that can detect subtle changes in the behaviour of the volcano, providing more accurate information on the likelihood of an eruption.

The research team’s ultimate aim is to develop a fully automated drone monitoring system that is more accurate, safer and cheaper than current methods, which are unaffordable in 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.

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Professor Howell on Stromboli.

“This thermal structure 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 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.

“The ability to deploy a drone really close to a volcano means that as well as getting high precision thermal mapping and imagery, we can also deploy portable seismometers and gas sensors in areas that are too dangerous for people to go.”

Professor Howell said that their initial research has allowed them to identify the key challenges involved in developing a fully automated system, but the early results are promising.

“Drone technology is moving so fast that we could have a system fully up and running in a few years,” he said.

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Stromboli’s crater.

“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.”

A documentary produced by the research team explaining the science behind their research is available here