Updates from the Field: Expedition Papua New Guinea

The newly funded “Aerial Observations of Volcanic Emissions from Unmanned Aerial Systems” field study got off to a flying start on Monday, 21 October 2018. Follow the team’s progress here.

 Expedition Papua New Guinea

The newly funded “Aerial Observations of Volcanic Emissions from Unmanned Aerial Systems” field study, also known as Expedition PNG or #DCOdronesPNG on Twitter, got off to a flying start on Monday, 21 October 2018. Led by Emma Liu of the University of Cambridge, UK, expedition participants are using innovative unmanned aerial system (UAS) technologies (or drones) to collect volcanic gas measurements at Manam and Rabaul Volcanoes in Papua New Guinea. These strongly degassing volcanoes remain largely uncharacterized because their plumes are challenging to access using ground-based techniques. 

The team will be in the field through the end of October, returning for three more weeks in the spring of 2019.

Follow the team’s progress on the DCO Twitter account (@deepcarb), or check back here for short blog posts from the field. 


8 November 2018

Manam Boat
First glimpse of the unmistakable outline of Manam volcano; one of the most active, yet enigmatic, volcanoes in Papua New Guinea.

Our journey to Manam has taken us across the length of Papua New Guinea. As we embarked on the final boat crossing, the unmistakable triangular shape of Manam emerged from the haze and gave us our first glimpse of the volcano. On this rare clear afternoon, the summit was clearly visible and we could see a continuous gas plume emanating from the summit. Small ash emissions occurred every 10 to 15 minutes, reminding us that Manam is still a very active volcano.

Manam boat group
Making the final crossing to Manam; (left to right) Brendan McCormick Kilbride, Kila Mulina, Herman Tibong, Tom Richardson and Emma Liu.

Our goal was to collect preliminary data on the composition and flux of volcanic gases being released from Manam. We flew two successful flights to the summit of Manam using fixed-wing drones equipped with miniaturized Multi-GAS instruments developed by the University of Palermo as part of DCO’s DECADE project. Reaching the summit required us to fly 5 km inland and 2 km altitude, pushing the boundaries of current engineering capabilities. The drone was launched by hand, and recovered by releasing an on-board parachute.

Kieran Wood Manam

Manam Locals
Fixed-wing drones carried our Multi-GAS instrument to the summit of Manam. The flight was controlled from a ground-station located more than 5 km from the summit, piloted by Kieran Wood from the University of Bristol.

The first views of the summit of Manam were spectacular. Two distinct regions of strong degassing are clearly visible in our overpass imagery, with active fumaroles encrusted with yellow sulfur deposits. Volcanic gases are being passively released continuously from these vents, forming a strong gas plume that disperses downwind of the volcano at summit altitude. Although we managed to intersect a dilute part of the gas plume with our sensors, this time we were slightly too high to directly pass through the region of highest gas concentration. For the next expedition, our target will be ‘plume hunting’; the ability to dynamically change our flight path whilst flying beyond visual line of sight, to ensure that we spend the maximum amount of time possible within the gas plume.

Manam Summit
Novel imagery of the summit of Manam following the recent large eruption in August 2018, and the first ever acquired using an unmanned aircraft. Two regions of strong degassing can be clearly identified in drone imagery.

As well as collecting preliminary scientific data, one of the key aims of this first expedition was to set the stage for the main expedition next year. We wanted to make sure that we worked in harmony with the local island communities, for whom Manam is their home. We were humbled and delighted by the warmth of the hospitality we were shown on the island. The Manam islanders were the most wonderful and generous hosts, and reinforced our resolve to ensure we do all we can to ensure our research can have a positive impact on these communities. We always had a little help from our friends. The local children, in particular, were fascinated by the drones we were flying, and were always close by to wave us off with unbridled excitement.

PNG locals
Research with a little help from our friends. The local children were never far away.

We spent much of our time exploring the island to find the best launch and landing sites for our drones, ready for next year’s expedition. As we travelled to the northern side of the island, the effects of the recent eruption were clearly apparent. Manam had a major eruption on 25 August 2018. This eruption sent a column of ash more than 15 km into the atmosphere, and buried much of the northern half of the island in ash and pumice. Lava flows and pyroclastic flows (superheated clouds of ash and gas) cascaded down the deep avalanche valleys incised into the landscape. From speaking with local communities, we learned that eruptions here often occur with little or no warning. We used our drones to create aerial maps of some of the deposits from this recent eruption, to assist the Rabaul Volcanological Observatory in their on-going hazard assessment.

Manam avalanche valley
View of the northeast avalanche valley from the coast. Lava flows from the recent eruption were emplaced directly on top of ash-rich pyroclastic flow deposits. These fresh lava flows are still cooling and releasing gases.

As this first expedition draws to a close, we reflect on how far we’ve come since our project ‘Aerial Observations of Volcanic Emissions from Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS)’ was announced only four weeks ago. We’ve achieved everything here in Papua New Guinea that we set out to do; most importantly, laying the foundations for the main expedition that will return to Manam and Rabaul next year. We’ve collected exciting preliminary data that provides valuable context, but the real advances will be made when we bring together the full team, which includes more than 20 DCO researchers from seven different countries. We come away from this fieldwork having developed a strong relationship with the Rabaul Volcanological Observatory, and we look forward to re-joining our new colleagues for the next stage of Expedition PNG in May 2019.

We will continue to post updates and blog articles as we enter our six-month development phase of the project. Follow us on Twitter at @deepcarb and @EmmaLiu31 #DCOdronesPNG and on the DCO website. This is only the beginning!



27 October 2018

We have just spent one week in Rabaul at Tavurvur crater, working with local scientists from the Rabaul Volcano Observatory (RVO), and have already accomplished much. We installed a ground-based DECADE multi-GAS in Rabaul, on the rim of Tavurvur crater, and Brendan McCormick (University of Cambridge, UK) trained local RVO scientists in its deployment.

Brendan McCormick PNG
Brendan McCormick installing a DECADE Multi-GAS monitoring device at Rabaul Volcano. Image courtesy of Emma Liu.

Our drone deployments also are going well. We flew fixed-wing flights over the summit of Rabaul, collecting aerial imagery while testing our experimental new unmanned aircraft. We also flew multi-rotor drones within the crater, sampling the gas composition of high temperature vents and fumaroles.

Kieran Wood PNG
Kieran Wood (Univeristy of Bristol, UK) prepares the fixed-wing drone for deployment at Rabaul. Image courtesy of Emma Liu.
Liu and Wood PNG
Emma Liu (left) and Kieran Wood with a multi-rotor drone on Rabaul Volcano. Image courtesy of Emma Liu.

Before heading out on the next leg of our trip to the island volcano of Manam, we deployed small temperature sensors in the base of Tavurvur crater using a drone. These tiny sensors send their data back to us via satellite communication.

Our next stop, Manam, located just off the northern mainland of Papua New Guinea is a very active volcano. Its latest eruption occurred two months ago forcing the evacuation of a large part of the island’s population. This week, we will test the limits of our fixed-wing aircraft, which will have to cover 5 km distance and 2 km altitude gain to reach Manam’s summit.

RVO and Expedition PNG
The team with local RVO scientists, heading into the field. Image courtesy of Emma Liu.


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