Is it really possible? Can drones be used to predict future natural disasters?
Natural disasters are on the increase, and the world has been ravaged by deadly storms, weather events and wildfires in recent years which have made headlines around the globe. We spoke to John Howell to see how he is using drone mapping to predict volcanic eruptions in his recent research, which is also featured in the online documentary ‘Over the Crater’ and the Smithsonian Channel’s recent ‘V-Day’ programme .
Drone mapping software continues to develop at a rapid pace so even those who have been in the business for a while may be surprised at the new features available. Unsurprisingly, the major players in the market are racing to keep up with the ever-increasing demands of the drone surveying world.
Professor John Howell, from the University of Aberdeen, has been using thermal cameras to map volcanic terrain. The use of drones has allowed John and his team to gather a large amount of data that is accurate and with a high level of detail for areas that are dangerous and otherwise inaccessible. John, originally from Wales, moved to Norway in 2002 where he worked at the University of Burgen. Whilst there, he founded the Virtual Outcrop Geology Group to develop new methods for collecting and using geological data.
John returned to the UK from Norway in 2012 and took up his current position at the University of Aberdeen where he continues his research. During a 30-year career, John has supervised almost 50 PhD students, published more than 160 scientific papers and edited 7 books. His current research focuses on the digital capture of geological outcrops, especially using UAV’s, for a wide variety of applications including improved understanding of subsurface oil reservoirs and natural hazard mapping. He also has numerous other TV and radio credits as a presenter and as a scientific expert.
Case Study: Over the Crater – Stromboli, Italy
John and his team joined forces with volcanologist Professor Dougal Jerram of the University of Oslo to explore the possibility of using drones to map active volcanos. Their initial studies were based on the island of Stromboli in southern, Italy. Their goal was to produce high resolution 3D models and maps of the volcano that could be used as a baseline for further studies that would reveal subtle changes that are the precursor to larger, more catastrophic eruptions. The unique part of the work was that the 3D models built from the data acquired from the drones would include thermal imagery which could supply information on long term changes in heat flow from the volcano.
The ultimate goal from the work was to develop a low cost, drone based, monitoring system that could be deployed to volcanos in more remote parts of the World. High a billion people live within the shadow of active or potentially active volcanoes. Providing affordable, and accurate systems that can predict eruptions is a massive challenge.
Coptrz supplied Aberdeen University with two drones: a Phantom 4 RTK and Parrot Anafi Thermal. The group had an Inspire 1 on loan from DJI. The group visited Stromboli 3 times between 2017 and 2019. Their work was featured in the Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Job Interview” and in the YouTube documentary “Over the Crater”. It has also led to a number of scientific publications.
Your recent film published ‘Over the Crater’ featured some incredible footage shot over Stromboli volcano. Tell us about this?
“It all started when Dougal (Jerram of Oslo University) was contacted by the Discovery Channel to make a TV program about volcanologists working in dangerous places. He asked me if I was interested in joining and bring the drones and testing some ideas we had been discussing. The TV show turned out to be classic Discovery – lots of jeopardy and personality stuff and very light on the science. However, they were happy for us to take all the rushes (extra stuff that wasn’t used) and use it as the basis for our own science documentary. Obviously having a proper film crew on hand made for some great footage.
“The second time we went back, we were able to build on the stuff that we had learnt and acquire a bunch of really cool data. That was when we acquired most of the data that featured in Over the Crater and also the material that formed the basis for our scientific publications. We then went back again, last year after a major eruption to survey the change in the volcano. That was especially interesting as we were able to map active lava flows and calculate how much material had been removed from the crater rim by the explosion.”
What drones did you use in ‘Over the Crater’?
“Back in 2016 there were no off the shelf set ups with thermal cameras mounted on to UAVs so I attached a Flir to a Phantom 2. We also had a P3 which we used for mapping. By the second time we loaned an Inspire 1 with a Zenmuse XT, which was a huge step change. Last time we went back, we had the Phantom 4 RTK and Parrot Anafi thermal from Coptrz and the Inspire 1 again. The P4RTK was fantastic and we were interested to compare the results of the small thermal set up with the more expensive option.
“Flying over an erupting volcano is a pretty harsh environment for the drones. There is lots of dust and gases in the air and also a pretty high chance of the drone being taken out by an eruption. They all did amazingly well.
“We ended up building the World’s first 3D thermal model of an active volcano and got some awesome thermal imagery of the system for Over the Crater. It’s amazing because the thermal camera sees straight through the smoke and the dust and you can see right inside the crater.”
You have just purchased an M300, what plans have you got for the drone?
“We bought the M300 for its high-quality thermal camera and also because its really tough. Weatherproof might mean rain to most people, but to us it allows means volcanic dust! We will definitely be going back to Stromboli to capture more data once the Covid restrictions have lifted – we have lots of ideas to test. However, the volcanos are just a small part of our work, most of what we do is regular scanning cliffs for geologists to study. We have built up a database of over 500 cliffs from geological locations. We think that the M300 will greatly enhance that work and we are exploring methods for rapid data acquisition, higher quality models and better automated mapping.”
What is the data collected being used for?
“Our data are used for teaching geologists and this has been especially important during the last 6 months, at a time when students and researchers can’t travel or go to the field. Commercially our data are used by geologists who want to understand the subsurface, for oil reservoirs or water aquifers. The basic idea is that if you’re drilling a well out in the middle of the North Sea, they will probably be at least a kilometre apart. Understanding what is going on in between them is really important because it controls how fluid will move through the layers un the subsurface. Since we can’t look beneath the North Sea we do the next best thing and study similar rocks in cliff sections at the surface. The drones enable us to accurately map those cliff sections. Our research group have built up a large database of cliff sections from all over the world which our sponsors can access and make predictions from.”
So, is that only available to your sponsors?
“The main database is but in March we launched a sister site which is fully open to the public. It’s called V3Geo.com and contains almost 200 of the best geological sections from around the world in full 3D with a specialist viewer. It’s really cool and has been very popular, with teachers, educators and frustrated geologist through lockdown.”
Before the introduction of drone technology, you were using the Lidar – how do they compare?
“Our first attempt at digitally capturing cliffs started in 2004 with a terrestrial Lidar system (laser scanner). It produced good results but was very expensive and data acquisition was very time consuming. A typically 3D model of 1 km of cliff would take two or three days to acquire and weeks to process. The same model can be collected in 20 minutes with a UAV.
“We started using drones in 2011, initially to get additional photos for the Lidar derived models. This was just around the time that SfM (Structure from motion) became mainstream. SfM is a type of Photogrammetry which involves taking several hundred photos, selecting millions of common points and then constructing a 3D model.
“This revolutionised the study of geology because now anyone can build a 3D model with a relatively cheap drone and a standard laptop. So now we see that it’s becoming very common and the software we developed to visualise and share the models is becoming popular across the Earth Sciences. The photogrammetric models are not quite as accurate in term of mm precision as the Lidar models but it’s pretty close, especially with the P4RTK and for the majority of our work it’s not essential. We are more interested in the large-scale structure of the cliff sections. Although I have seen that DJI just released the Zenmuse L1 – a Lidar for the drone, so we might need to talk about that soon!”
Have you got any of your PHD students using drones?
“Our research group is split between Aberdeen and Bergen. We have about 15 PhD students at present working with collecting and analysing the data. Drones have become a key tool to use and to other groups around the World. Virtual outcrops have revolutionised how we do our science and we are only just being to see the full potential.”
You can watch ‘Over the Crater’ by clicking here.
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