Drones Practice Monitoring Volcanoes for Eruptions

A drone that deploys a ground robot could regularly explore remote, dangerous areas.

When Mount Ontake erupted in Japan a few weeks ago, it was completely unexpected. No significant earthquakes, no steam or gas releases, nothing.

Usually, some warning does exist, and the best that we can to is to monitor active volcanoes as carefully as we can to try and spot whatever warning signs that are there.

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This is especially problematic with volcanoes that are undergoing frequent periods of activity, where it’s not safe to get close to them to determine when a minor eruption might turn into a major one. Not safe, you say? There’s a solution for that: send in the robots.

Keiji Nagatani, a professor at Tohoku University in Japan, has spent the last half decade developing robotic systems for volcano exploration.

For the last few years, he’s been working on ways of exploring remote, potentially dangerous volcanic areas using UAVs in collaboration with ground robots. A video below shows a test last month on Japan’s Mount Asama.

Clover robots could be equipped with small sensor packages, like a gas sensor, but it’s also important to be able to analyze rock samples directly.

Strawberry is a robotic claw that hangs from the bottom of Zion and can be used to collect rocks or soil or stuffed alien toys or whatever else a claw dangling from the sky is good for picking up.

If you watch closely, in addition to a claw device, there’s also an actuated roller that helps to scoop up smaller rocks and dust.

As far as I’ve been able to tell, none of these robots have yet been tested on an active volcano, but hopefully the Japanese researchers are getting close to doing that.

Because one thing we’ve learned from previous disasters is that robots can be a huge help, so the more we test and improve them under real-world conditions, the better they’ll be when we really need them.

Robot Rides Hoverbike, Nuff Said

we know that life is increasingly busy in the digital age, and there are a million things you could be doing at any given moment. However, may we modestly propose you take a moment to watch this frickin’ robot ride a hoverbike.

Developed by a small operation out of the U.K. called Malloy Aeronautics, the Drone 3 hoverbike is exactly that — a flying motorcycle powered by four turbine fans. But the current vehicle is a 1/3 size scale model — a drone, essentially — with a robot rider to approximate the proportional size and weight of a human rider. The drone is controlled via remote, similar to other UAV designs.

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The Drone 3 is a proof-of-concept demonstration of a more ambitious plan. In an interesting strategy, the 1/3-size drone is being sold via Kickstarter in hopes of funding development of a full-size quadcopter hoverbike, designed for human riders. Think Return of the Jedi, forest moon of Endor, this sort of thing.

Designers say the quadcopter approach, which uses four different overlapping fans, offers improved stability, maneuverability and payload capacity than competing two-fan hoverbike designs. In fact, the Malloy hoverbike is intended to share the skies with helicopters, planes and other aircraft.

“This hoverbike is a helicopter — it takes off like a helicopter, flies and lands like a helicopter,” says Malloy Aeronautics’ Grant Stapleton in the demonstration video. “It’s designed to fly to an altitude of over 9,000 feet and do so at over 100 knots [115 mph].”

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The company is currently finishing up the full-size prototype, with flight tests expected in a few months.

Meanwhile, you can still get on board at the Kickstarter campaign, running through Aug. 31. For a pledge of just under $1,000 USD, you can get a bare-bones Drone 3 kit. For larger pledges, the team will throw in the robotic pilot (named Buster, in case you’re curious), plus a mounted Go Pro camera and dedicated control unit.