EQC grants help volcano drones and other Victoria research take flight

Victoria University of Wellington-led development of drones able to fly close to active volcanoes and withstand, monitor and analyse their emissions could transform the forecasting of volcanic eruptions.

The project is one of five led by the University to secure funding in the 2018 Biennial Grants Programme of the Earthquake Commission (EQC).

The other four focus on improving the detection and understanding of earthquake-related geological activity.

Victoria’s Vice-Provost (Research), Professor Kate McGrath, says the awarded funding reflects the high-quality innovative research into earthquakes and volcanoes that is being conducted at the University.

“Research led by academics in Victoria’s School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences has received substantial funding from the 2018 EQC grant programme’s total pool of $1 million,” says Professor McGrath. “This money will enable our hugely talented researchers and their collaborators to make significant advances in their work toward enhancing the country’s resilience and sustainability and improving the safety and wellbeing of New Zealanders.”

Victoria’s Dr Ian Schipper is Principal Investigator on the drone project, with Associate Researchers at GNS Science, the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom and the Institute of Research for Development in France.

Dr Schipper says the team aims to develop and apply drone—or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)—technology “to monitor and characterise volcanoes and forecast eruptions more thoroughly, more accurately and more safely, and to address fundamental scientific questions about chemical reactions in active plumes directly at their sources.

“Together, these will provide essential information about the range and magnitude of airborne volcanic hazards in New Zealand, and will provide tools for assessing these hazards and informing civil defence authorities during future periods of volcanic unrest.”

The project builds on an initial effort to use UAV technology to measure emissions from active volcanoes in South America as part of the recently completed Trail by Fire research expedition, and on the monitoring and analysis of emissions in GNS Science and GeoNet programmes on New Zealand’s most active volcano, White Island in the Bay of Plenty.

Dr Schipper and his colleagues have already developed and carried out preliminary tests using a prototype UAV system. Because volcanic plumes are rich in water, acids and other corrosive chemicals, one of the tasks ahead will be refining protection of easily damaged instruments and other electronics.

It is important New Zealand asserts itself as a global player in applying emerging technologies to “our natural volcanic laboratories”, says Dr Schipper. “Given we currently understand almost nothing of volcanic plume chemistry and processes, we’re confident the gain in knowledge from this project will deliver answers to questions we haven’t even yet thought to ask.”

The five Victoria-led 2018 EQC grant projects are:

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (“drones”) for measuring volcanic plumes—led by Dr Ian Schipper, $60,000

Filling in the gaps: Improving earthquake catalogues to improve forecasting—led by Dr Calum Chamberlain, $56,700

Calibrating the turbidite paleoseismometer on the Hikurangi margin using the Kaikōura earthquake—led by Dr Jamie Howarth, $63,000

Encoding earthquake ruptures into the stratigraphic record: Changes in near-surface structure of the Kekerengu Fault zone before vs after the 2016 Kaikōura earthquake—led by Professor Timothy Little, $61,600

How did the Kaikōura earthquake affect the stress in and around the ruptured region?—led by Professor Martha Savage, $65,500

‘Enhancing the resilience and sustainability of our natural heritage and capital’ is one of Victoria’s eight areas of academic distinctiveness.