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Planet Earth

The Remote-Controlled Helicopter That Predicts Volcanic Eruptions

Aerovolc 1 has a very sharp sense of smell—and not a shred of fear.

By Tyler NordgrenNovember 18, 2008 6:00 AM

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Volcanologist Andrew McGonigle walks through clouds composed of mist, steam, carbon dioxide (CO2), and sulfur dioxide (SO2) on Vulcano, an active volcanic island off the coast of southern Italy. To predict eruptions, volcanologists typically use distant ultraviolet spectrometers to measure SO2 released by active volcanoes. McGonigle has developed a remote-controlled helicopter called Aerovolc 1 to do it better. By accurately measuring CO2, which escapes magma earlier than SO2, scientists could predict eruptions sooner, helping to implement timely evacuations for nearby populations—but measuring CO2 is a challenge. McGonigle’s method requires that sensors capture gases directly above a volcano, a major problem for static instruments, which are easily destroyed by magma. But a remote-controlled helicopter can gather data from a safe distance. McGonigle, who recently won the $100,000 Rolex Award for Enterprise, plans next to outfit a fully automated helicopter, akin to the unmanned aerial vehicles used by the military.

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