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Drones ready to measure ash particles

Drones fitted with on board air particle sampling instruments can provide precise measurements of volcanic ash particle concentrations.

“We can have an ash particle sampler in the air in about two weeks,” says Norut Senior Research Scientist Rune Storvold.

The scientist is waiting for new particle sampling instruments, which are on their way north. The drones – or unmanned aircraft system (UAS) – are ready to take-off at short notice.

“Norut in collaboration with the Andøya Rocket Range has the infrastructure, competence and sensors ready to measure the properties of the volcanic ash clouds,” says Storvold.

Large range

The UAS developed at Norut Tromsø is today operated by Aranica. They are ready at the rocket range in Andøya and can make test sampling flights in early May.

The current UAS has a range of 500 km, while a new UAS is currently under development and later this year the range of the remote-controlled aircraft will be extended to 2000 km. This is equivalent to a return flight from Tromsø to Oslo.

“These drones can fly up to an altitude of 10,000 feet, but we also have plans in collaboration with Robot Aviation for a new one that can fly at an altitude of 40,000 feet,” says Storvold. “This will cover the entire normal altitude for commercial air traffic. One of the new drones will be ready for flights with particle samplers in about 12 months.”

Measuring the ash cloud’s properties

The in-situ measurements will be able to assist today’s models with knowledge about the density, size, composition and horizontal and vertical distribution of the volcanic ash concentrations, as well as their lifespan in the atmosphere.

This knowledge can enhance the accuracy of the model’s concentrations. When the margins of uncertainty in the models drop, smaller areas of the air space will be closed and the duration of these closures will become shorter.

Today’s models are extremely good for calculating the extensiveness of the volcanic ash, but provide very uncertain information about the properties of the volcanic ash concentrations. Naturally enough, the quality of the data one gets from a model depends on the quality of the data one inputs in the model. This forces the authorities to put in large safety margins.

More precise knowledge about the volcanic ash particles will lead to huge financial savings by regular air traffic. It can also save lives by making air ambulances and rescue services more operative.

“This can be an area which will provide major social gains,” says Norut CEO Ivan C. Burkow.

Friendly drones

Norut has been working on the development of drones and sampling instruments since 2005. Many associate drones with acts of war, but we are referring here to “friendly drones”, which are used for environmental surveillance and civil preparedness and safety.

The drones can for instance be used to chart oil spills, for search and rescue work over ocean areas, measurements of glaciers and sea ice and measurements in the atmosphere.

Norut is participating in a research group that is already using the drones to measure the effect of soot in the atmosphere. The research group is currently developing a series of instruments for the drones, ranging from soot particle samplers to imaging radar. These projects are mostly financed by the Research Council of Norway.

These drones will not be grounded by ash as they can fly when no other aircraft should fly. The UAS is remote-controlled and can tolerate some ash dust and high levels of turbulence, and it is powered by an economical little petrol motor.