A scientific team has flown an Autel EVO Lite+ drone inside the active main crater of Costa Rica’s tallest volcano, Irazú. The 6K camera drone helped to document several aspects of the volcano including lake water levels, areas of mineralization or crystallization, and potential vents degassing volcanic emissions.
Researchers have traditionally observed volcanoes using small single-engine aircraft with glass window bottoms. But drones have since revolutionized this application by flying much closer to the volcanic caldera, carrying specialized equipment such as thermal IR imaging cameras, LiDAR 3D mapping sensors, and gas detection equipment.
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The trigger behind the scientific mission being discussed here, however, was the significant cracking and erosion that had been observed on the south wall of the main crater below the area where tourists gather to peep inside Irazú. As such, researchers sought to document the internal structures of the main crater, looking specifically for areas that were at an increased risk of erosion or cracking, or that might potentially suffer rock falls in the future.
The $1,349 Autel EVO Lite+ drone was selected for the mission because of its high-quality sensor and ability to withstand winds of up to 37 knots. This was an important consideration for researchers because the drone was to be flown in a high-altitude volcanic environment, at 3,432 meters above sea level, with notable windy conditions.
Scientists were also concerned about large crater walls creating interference, leading to the drone being disconnected from the remote controller. Thankfully, that did not happen with the EVO Lite+, and the drone’s onboard obstacle avoidance sensors prevented the aircraft from accidentally colliding with crater walls.
Overall, the drone was flown continuously for a period of about 2.5 hours at the Irazú Volcano National Park, utilizing spare batteries. While changing the batteries, the team checked the rotary systems on all four arms for heat. Any kind of temperature increase on the rotary system from high usage would have required a cooldown period, but the drone didn’t show any signs of heat and the team could instantaneously move forward with the next flight mission.
According to the research paper published by the scientific team, the drone was able to get up-close, detailed images and video from perspectives not obtainable from the main lookout observation point. All rock falls have been documented with a 360-degree view from the center of the crater, along with the crater floor, plant vegetation inside the crater, cracking, and the existence of potential waterfalls for further research.
Drones have indeed become a valuable tool for researchers to study active crater morphology and geological changes. They can carry scientific equipment into danger zones such as active craters and document volcanic gas emissions or take thermal images and collect water samples. Drones can also be used to monitor and document ozone depletion following volcanic eruptions.
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