Here’s one way to get my attention: talking about dropping things called “dragon eggs” into volcanoes where they “hatch”. Fine, University of Bristol: you win.
Obviously, these are not real dragon eggs, because (spoiler alert) dragons aren’t real. They’re actually more like silvery boxes placed on the slopes or near the vent of a volcano, which makes them more like dragon presents, I suppose. Either way, they promise to change how we think about volcano monitoring.
Volcanoes are ideally covered in monitoring equipment, including instruments that measure changes in ground deformation, thermal and gaseous emissions, and seismic activity. However, positioning the equipment, particularly in volcanic systems that regularly or unpredictably engage in eruptive activity, is easier said than done. Sometimes, it's downright dangerous.
Although many of the most hazardous are monitored, including in the US, plenty of this equipment isn’t cutting-edge – and plenty of volcanoes remain poorly monitored or entirely unmonitored. This is where the eggs come in.
These small, lightweight boxes, dropped off by drones, are designed to sit atop volcanoes. They contain thermometers, accelerometers, humidity sensors, and volatile gas analyzers. The idea is that whenever the volcano begins to rumble, they activate or “hatch”, record data and transmit data, and withstand the corrosive and scorching environment around them.
These devices are, rather conveniently, autonomous, meaning they work all by themselves, no pesky humans required. Although details are currently scant, a University of Bristol press release suggests that they're activated by small movements, with the sensors triggered by energy levels equivalent to 100,000 times less than those involved when a fruit fly bounces off your nose.
This sounds like witchcraft, but these low-energy, battery-lacking sensors are indeed real. Whether they're siphoning energy from radio transmissions or from minuscule vibrations, many see them as the future of so-called smart sensors.
Dr Kieran Wood, an aerospace engineer who’s heavily involved in the project, told IFLScience that this tech means they can lay “dormant for years” before being awoken through a variety of inputs. Asked about the decidedly un-egg-like shape of the devices, Wood cheekily notes that “this is a technology project, so I guess that is what robot-dragon eggs look like.”
So far, they've been tested on Italy's Stromboli volcano, a highly predictable, not particularly dangerous lava-fountaining hill that's often used to test models, new tech, and theories. “The current design of the eggs 'wake' when they sense vibrations, hence Stromboli is perfect because of the regular ground tremors provided by the eruptions,” Wood says.
At this stage, this collaborative effort between an interdisciplinary team of scientists and a tech start-up company, Sensor Driven Ltd, is a proof-of-concept idea. The eggs need testing on far more volcanoes to demonstrate their viability.
Fortunately, that's precisely what's happening next. “We are aiming to deploy more eggs at Rabaul volcano in Papua New Guinea later this year,” Wood explains, pointing out that its large eruption potential, proximity to a city and its dangerous near-vent conditions make it an ideal target.
The eggs cannot be said, as some outlets have bizarrely claimed, to be able to predict when volcanoes will erupt. They activate when they detect a range of volcanic activities, meaning they could perhaps signal an impending eruption to some degree.
No one can specifically predict when a volcanic eruption will occur. Each volcano is entirely idiosyncratic, meaning that it has its own eruption histories, styles, and warning signs – or lack thereof. When things begin rumbling, it’s possible to suggest it will erupt within a certain timeframe, but this isn’t the bang-on prediction that people imagine.
What these dragon eggs can potentially achieve is the remote, autonomous monitoring of volcanoes that normally endanger volcanologists’ lives. It’s not clear how high-resolution the data is compared to conventional instruments, but either way, the huge advantage of their far-flung transportation ability is clear.
Noting that the project is also funded by a grant from the National Centre for Nuclear Robotics, Wood adds that future plans also include using the eggs to monitor changes in ambient radiation levels around nuclear power plants and storage sites.
This project, once again, also showcases the increasing presence of drones in volcanology. Already used to take geochemistry samples and thermal readings, produce 3D topographic models of volcanic craters, and even redirect people away from lava flows they’re simultaneously documenting, they're accomplishing feats that were previously neither possible nor safe.
These dragon eggs are, quite inarguably, cool bits of tech. It’s the drones, however, that remain the current stars of the show – so expect to see more creative uses for them in the coming months and years.