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2019 Kīlauea Disaster Supplemental Funding: Eruption Response, UAS

Through the Additional Supplemental Appropriations for Disaster Relief Act of 2019 (H.R. 2157), the USGS received Supplemental funding to support recovery and rebuilding activities in the wake of the 2018 Kīlauea volcano eruption. 

A close-up Unoccupied Aircraft Systems (UAS) photo of the inactive western fissure within Halema‘uma‘u
This close-up Unoccupied Aircraft Systems (UAS) photo of the inactive western fissure within Halema‘uma‘u was captured on Thursday, June 3, 2021, at the summit of Kīlauea. The recent pause in the eruption has allowed the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) UAS pilots to safely photograph the eruptive features from new angles. For scale, the tallest parts of the western fissure stand approximately 19 m (62 ft) above the surrounding Pāhoehoe flows in this view.UAS photos like this help scientists to understand ongoing volcanic processes and their associated hazards, and to detect changes that might indicate shifts in the character of activity. USGS has special use permits from the National Park Service to conduct official UAS missions as part of HVO's mission to monitor active volcanoes in Hawaii, assess their hazards, issue warnings, and advance scientific understanding to reduce impacts of volcanic eruptions. Launching, landing, or operating an unmanned aircraft from or on lands and waters administered by the National Park Service within the boundaries of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is prohibited under 36 CFR Closures & Public Use.

The USGS response to the 2018 Kīlauea eruption demonstrated the critical role of Unstaffed Aircraft Systems (UAS) for future eruption responses. HVO will establish a permanent UAS capability to monitor the summit and rift zones for renewed volcanic activity and lava flow. HVO will acquire aircraft and sensor packages, software and hardware to speed data processing and to support live video streaming to emergency managers during eruptions, pilot training, and support adaptation of volcano-specific sensor packages to the aircraft. USGS will also develop a “best practices” guide for UAS activities for future eruptions. This guide will build on established Department and Bureau guidelines, expanding those to include practices specific to eruption response such as choosing and combining various sensors, techniques to process the data in the field for quick analysis, ensuring proper meta data is collected to be able to merge with other monitoring data sets, and how to build optimal teams for eruption responses. The guide would include insights gained by USGS volcanologists operating UAS at foreign volcanoes. UAS training will extend beyond HVO staff to other USGS volcanologists in order to have a sufficiently large pool of qualified pilots. In addition to training pilots we plan to have as many as 10 USGS volcano geologists outside HVO complete the basic pilot training in order that they will understand the operating requirements/procedures of UAS work while serving in non-pilot roles as volcanology leads to the UAS teams – duties such as data processing, tracking volcanic activity while in potentially hazardous areas, handling communications to emergency operations centers and such. After completing the basic pilot training, staff would undertake specific volcano response training on Kīlauea using aircraft outfitted with sensor systems specific to volcanoes and conducting missions around the summit and any recently active lava flow areas.  

Activity Description/Goal: Establish a permanent UAS capability to monitor summit and rift zones for volcanic activity and lava flows. Acquire aircraft and sensor packages, software and hardware to speed data processing and to support live video streaming to emergency managers during eruptions, pilot training, and support adaptation of volcano-specific sensor packages to the aircraft. 

Color photograph of scientists preparing UAS for flight
USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory and DOI Office of Aviation staff prepare the sampling mechanism (on blue tarp) and inspect the Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) just before it took off to collect water from the Halema‘uma‘u crater lake. Brightly-colored flagging tape tied to a cable attached to the UAS indicated depth as the sampling tool was lowered into the water. The October 26, 2019, UAS water collection flight was conducted with permission from and in coordination with Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park.

Key Successes/Outcomes:

  • UAS collection of water samples from the Kīlauea summit crater lake on 26 October 2020, ultimately the last of three sampling missions to the crater lake (two missions in FY20) before it was inundated by lava on 20 December 2020. 
  • UAS high-resolution photography of the 2018 Kīlauea collapse-crater walls during four separate missions in Fall 2020, to enable detailed analyses of newly-exposed stratigraphic layers that include both lava flows and beds of explosive debris. 
  • Numerous UAS data-collection missions during the 12/2020–5/2021 Kīlauea summit eruption, which included measurements of volcanic gas concentrations and high-resolution photography of eruptive features within Halemaʻumaʻu crater, especially at low altitudes that were inaccessible to manned helicopter overflights. 
  • Development of a UAS-borne gas sampling system (vs. the current MultiGAS instrument, which measures gas chemistry but does not sample the gas) is underway. Real-time telemetry from a on-board gas sensor similar to the MultiGAS will allow a manual trigger of intake of volcanic gas into an on-board sample bag for later laboratory analysis. 
  • Acquired rugged laptop for real-time MultiGAS data telemetry and in-field photo/data inspection 
This video shows the unmanned aircraft system (UAS) collecting a water sample from Halema‘uma‘u. This wider view shows the scale of the UAS relative to the water pond. USGS video by M. Patrick, 26 Oct 2019.

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