June 27, 2018 Tim Haynie

Data Collection for Crisis and Science…What the USGS Learned From Drones While Responding to the 2018 Mt Kilauea Eruption

USGS drone operators collect imagery of Mt Kilauea’s eruption in 2018

Last week during the latest Rocky Mountain UAS Professionals Meetup two representatives from the United States Geological Survey, Jeff Sloan and Joe Adams presented data collected over the Mt Kilauea volcano eruption in May/June 2018.  Among the many anecdotes were stunning images of flowing lava at night, plumes of volcanic ash and steam rising to heights of 8000 feet or more, and close coordination between USGS staff and local first responders to help locate stranded residents at night in imminent peril due to changes to the lava flows.

In response to the eruption, the US Government established a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) and an Emergency Certificate of Authorization (ECOA) over the site of the lava flows and allowed the USGS to operate their Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) well outside current UAS flight limitations established by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Three quick take-aways (not the only ones, just the ones of interest here) related to UAS operations and utility in such times of crisis were:

  1. The USGS clearly demonstrated that UASs can be safely operated in congested airways and varying weather/lighting conditions by well-trained professionals, close communications, and daily coordination for UAS activities. As emergency professionals consider the inclusion of UAS systems to support events like wildfires, floods, and other events that require expert-synchronization of collection assets, this serves as a great example of how it can be done safely and effectively.

    USGS drone operators capture the 2018 Mt Kilauea volcanic eruption

  2. Removing current flight limitations on UASs (400 feet height restrictions, flights at night and flights Beyond visual line of Sight (BVLOS)) quickly expands the application and benefits of employing UAS platforms (in data-terms, it scales the UAS utility!)!!  Almost all the data collection missions the USGS performed under the FAA Emergency COA and TFR, including collecting air samples and imagery of the ever-changing landscape (routinely operating above 1000 feet in altitude) to assisting with rescue efforts at night and BLOS, required expanding current FAA flight limitations.
  3. Not surprising, foreign-made UASs are the platform of choice based on cost, performance, and ease of use.  However, employing foreign systems is requiring the US Government to work with these companies to restrict how the data is being shared.  There is a need for a collective effort on behalf of industry, academia, and government to address the problem of commercial-grade UASs able to compete with foreign systems.

The data the USGS collected will be studied for years and the experiences on the ground and in the air are a textbook example of how employing UASs can both benefit the overall effort in ways we can’t see yet and be done safely despite the often chaotic skies above an event such as this.  What pulled it together for the team was an extensive knowledge-base for UAS systems and operations, highlighting the notion that UAS operations should be a separate profession that’s integrated into the overall effort and not an “additional duty” assigned to a fearless, motivated member of the team.

Enjoy some spectacular imagery!!

USGS drone operators collect imagery of Mt Kilauea’s eruption in 2018

USGS drone operators collect imagery of Mt Kilauea’s eruption in 2018

USGS drone operators collect imagery of Mt Kilauea’s eruption in 2018

USGS drone operators collect imagery of Mt Kilauea’s eruption in 2018

USGS drone operators flying a data collection mission over Hawaii’s Kilauea volcanic eruption

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