‘Dragon eggs’ lowered into the heart of volcanoes using drones could help monitor for clues of future eruptions with more precision, scientists have revealed.
Such extreme, hazardous and unpredictable environments present a very difficult challenge to reliably record volcanic behaviour.
For some volcanoes, it is simply too dangerous for humans to get close enough to take readings manually.
However, scientists have got around this problem by creating highly sensitive pods that can be positioned in dangerous locations to provide real-time data on eruptions.
Dubbed ‘dragon eggs’, scientists say these devices could also monitor other natural phenomenon such as glaciers, geological faults and man-made hazards such as nuclear waste storage sites.
The ‘dragon eggs’ currently being developed by the University of Bristol are autonomous sensor pods designed to monitor volcanic activity.
They are being equipped with a range of sensors for temperature, humidity, vibrations, and numerous toxic gases.
The eggs are tough enough to operate in the extreme conditions of a volcano, light enough to be carried by a drone and ultra-efficient in power consumption.
The pods have ‘sensor-driven’ detectors.
This allows the eggs to remain dormant for prolonged periods of time, preserving power, until volcanic activity is detected.
At this point the dragon egg ‘hatches’ into a full-featured remote monitoring station with a wireless transmitter.
The event detectors have the lowest stand-by power consumption in the world.
They can be activated by pulses as low as 5 picojoules (which is about 100,000 times less than the energy released if a fruit fly collides with you).
Therefore, sensor-driven detectors do not require battery power to remain operational, and instead use a fraction of the energy contained in the sensor signals.
Thanks to this detection circuit, the eggs can remain in service for many months without depleting their energy resources.
The dragon eggs can report data to a base station at a safe distance of up to 10km (six miles).
‘It is the first time an autonomous system using zero-power listening technology has been deployed in this kind of hostile environment’, said Dr Yannick Verbelen, Research Associate in the School of Physics.
‘We are pushing the limits of the sensor driven low-power monitoring in this application, but that’s what research is all about.’
Due to the extreme conditions near the volcanic vents, the ‘dragon eggs’ are designed to be deployed by flying Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).
‘This is an exemplary application for using UAVs (drones)’, said Dr Kieran Wood, Senior Research Associate and UAV specialist in Aerospace Engineering.
‘Approaching volcanoes is hazardous and logistically challenging. UAVs can efficiently place sensors at long-range to minimise risk and improve the efficiency of data collection’, he said.