Black Swift Technologies and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory – Unmanned Aircraft Volcano Research

Airborne Carbon Dioxide Data Analysis Helps NASA/JPL Advance Volcano Science and Monitoring Efforts

Boulder, CO – (February 6, 2018) – With a legacy of delivering reliable, robust, and highly accurate small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS), Black Swift Technologies (BST), a specialized engineering firm based in Boulder, CO, announced today a successful collaboration with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (NASA/JPL) to capture airborne carbon dioxide (CO2) measurements via an unmanned aircraft (drone) flying over the forest canopy near an active volcano. By measuring and monitoring the prevalence of volcanic gases like CO2 emitted from the vents and fractures of active volcanoes, NASA/JPL hopes to better understand how volcanoes work and their consequences, and improve volcano eruption planning and warning capabilities.

The flights were conducted in Costa Rica in January 2018 with the assistance of Dr. Jorge Andres Diaz and his staff from the University of Costa Rica using Black Swift’s most advanced sUAS, the Black Swift S2™ (Figure 1), equipped with sensors designed to measure carbon dioxide (CO2) and water vapor being emitted by the volcano. Future flights of the Black Swift S2 will incorporate sensors capable of measuring methane (CH4), hydrogen sulfide (H2S), and sulfur dioxide (SO2) as well as a nephelometer to assess volcanic particle size and distribution, coupled with atmospheric probes to analyze pressure, temperature, humidity, and three-dimensional wind patterns.

While satellite measurements of ground deformation and passive CO2 degassing continue to be monitored, these science flights have demonstrated that a purpose-built sUAS (drone) can more accurately measure the compounds present in the gas plumes released from vents and fractures all around the volcanoes, including those obscured by tree canopy (Figure 2), to help quantify the life cycles of volcanoes.

“A drone can go places more effectively than ground personnel or costly manned aircraft,” says Jack Elston, Ph.D., CEO of Black Swift Technologies. “Our goal was to deploy a sUAS in a challenging environment that was capable of following the contours of the forest canopy around a volcano to sample gases horizontally and vertically to obtain real-time data on how a plume varies over altitude, as opposed to satellite observations, which might just capture an average value over its entire column.”

The Value of Accurate Real-Time Data Capture

Understanding volcanic gases is essential to understanding how and why volcanoes erupt. Research and evidence has demonstrated that levels of emitted CO2 can be measured to predict the risk of a volcanic eruption because they are indicators of what is happening inside the volcano1. Enhanced levels of gases being released into the atmosphere from volcanic vents and fractures, fumaroles and by diffuse flank emissions indicate a higher chance of eruption. By studying the composition of this gaseous mixture and monitoring fluctuations in their composition, scientists have discovered that they can better predict the likelihood of a volcanic eruption.

Volcanic eruptions occur incessantly. According to Florian Schwandner, Ph.D., a volcanologist at UCLA and member of a research team based at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, “Large explosive eruptions occur annually at 50-60 of the world’s approximately 1,500 potentially active volcanoes, posing significant health and economic risks for close to one billion people, and their atmospheric impacts include climate forcing and aviation hazards.” He goes on to state, “In late January 2018, over 70,000 people were safely evacuated as Mayon volcano in the Philippines started erupting. The timeliness of this critical notification was the result of volcano observatories informing Volcanic Ash Advisory Centers (VAACs) and local authorities of precursory symptoms detected as a result of diagnostic monitoring of the volcano. Increases in CO2 emissions are one of the earliest indicators that a volcano is reactivating and might erupt, but it’s really hard to put instruments on so many volcanoes, especially in the tropics.”

NASA/JPL’s use of sUAS’s will provide targeted, in situ observations from previously inaccessible regions advancing volcano science and monitoring by quantifying the life cycles of volcanoes globally and help provide new insights into volcanic activity.

An Easy to Use, Unified Solution

Leveraging BST’s proprietary SwiftCore™ Flight Management System, NASA/JPL scientists can program the Black Swift S2 in minutes to calculate the area under review and then begin collecting data for immediate analysis and decision-making. SwiftCore’s high-performance autopilot function allows the science team to deploy the Black Swift S2™ at both AGL (autonomous variable height following terrain) and MSL (near constant height). Additionally, the modular design of the payload compartment of the Black Swift S2™ provides for quick turnaround between flight deployments enabling scientists to quickly change out or calibrate the sensor payload, or to replace components impacted by the degradation gases like concentrations of sulfur dioxide (SO2) cause.

With its intuitive interface, flight planning is simple and easy to accomplish. Mission monitoring and mapping is all done from a handheld Android™ Tablet loaded with BST’s SwiftTab™ software. Gesture-based controls enable users to confidently deploy their sUAS with minimal training while being able to collect data over geography that is topically diverse with confidence.

“sUAS have already enabled us to routinely observe our world in ways we’ve never thought possible,” Elston states. “Moving forward, increased autonomy will make operations simpler and safer, allowing for widespread adoption of sUAS for a broad range of scientific studies.”

About Black Swift Technologies

Founded in 2011, Black Swift Technologies LLC, develops custom unmanned aircraft system (UAS) solutions leveraging the SwiftCore™ Flight Management System (FMS) consisting of the SwiftPilot™ autopilot system, the SwiftTab™ tablet-based user interface, the SwiftStation™ ground station, and application specific sensor integrations. The SwiftCore™ FMS is designed to be modular, robust, and simple to operate allowing users to focus on data products.

In addition to the SwiftCore FMS, Black Swift Technologies has unique capabilities to develop and deploy advanced small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) due the team’s combined expertise in the design, implementation, and analysis of advanced “smart” control systems, expertise in legal and safe flight operations in the United States airspace, and their practical experience and knowledge from thousands of hours of UAS flight operations in demanding conditions. The SwiftCore FMS enables advanced control systems. These “smart” control systems provide industry leading sensor-based control of the UAS that minimizes operator workload while improving the quality of the observed data by autonomously modifying the flight path based on sensor inputs.

More information on Black Swift Technologies and their sUAS solutions can be found at: bst.aero.

Costa Rican Volcano Research Team with S2 sUAS in front of the volcano they monitored. Team made up of personnel from the University of Costa Rica and Black Swift Technologies.

Figure 1: The Black Swift S2 UAS and its specialized payload.

Figure 2: Many volcanic vents are obscured by trees and other ground foliage making them difficult to monitor.

1 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, “Volcanic Eruptions and their Repose, Unrest, Precursors, and Timing” April 2017.

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