Badass Scientists Use Drone To Rescue Man Trapped By Hawaiian Lava Flow


Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer

The lava flows are somewhat unpredictable, but can suddenly change direction or speed at the drop of a hat. USGS via Facebook

As ever, the ongoing eruption at Kilauea and in the lower East Rift Zone (LERZ) continues to impress: moving on from its blue fire days, it seems that it's now putting a lot of work into a few of its fissures, with one particularly hardworking one – Fissure 8 – creating lava fountains that are now reaching heights of up to 76.2 meters (roughly 250 feet) high.

It’s still a danger though – primarily through its sulfur dioxide emissions and its somewhat unpredictable lava flows. One of them threatened to engulf a civilian in the region on the night of May 27, but thanks to the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and the clever use of a drone, the crisis was averted.


According to the USGS’s Facebook post about the incident, the Department of the Interior Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Kilauea response team was conducting mapping missions in the LERZ. Using a drone, they were keeping their eye on where the lava was flowing to, and how fast it was propagating across the increasingly scorched earth.


During this expedition, they were providing live video coverage of the flow to emergency officials. Using this information, the authorities began to clear residents away from the area, off the various streets into which the lava was encroaching.

At this time, the team was made aware of a radio transmission that notified them of a potentially life-threatening problem: a civilian was trapped in their home on Luana Street. Although details remain sparse at this point, it seems as if the lava had suddenly encircled his position somewhat. Although certainly incandescent, at night, with plenty of tree cover, it wasn’t clear to the man where the path of safety might actually be.


They then sent the drone to his position and asked him to follow it to safety. With the additional help of a cellphone flashlight, he managed to make his way “through the jungle” toward Nohea Street.


“After about 10 minutes of providing direction information to both the stranded person and the first responders, the search team was able to make contact and guide him to safety,” the USGS explained. “The UAS team stayed onsite until the crews were clear of the area.”


This isn't by far the first time drones have been used in the service of volcanology. They’re regularly used to monitor the progress of lava flows and lava lakes, both in Hawaii and elsewhere around the world. Recently, they were used to produce the world’s first 3D thermal map of Stromboli, a fantastically effervescent Sicilian volcano.

This little tale, though, reminds us that they can also be used to ensure that lives aren’t literally consumed by the flames. As ever, hats off to the USGS.



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