In this Anthropocene era we often think of ourselves as controlling the natural world. But natural disasters, like volcanic eruptions, remind us that our planet can still be dangerously unpredictable. In the Indonesian province of Bali, this danger looms large. But now, scientists are using drones to forestall the danger and make the invisible workings of the volcano visible.
Warning signs: reading the land to predict the future
Mount Agung, the highest point on Bali and a currently active volcano, poses a huge potential danger to the island's inhabitants. But although major seismic activity is underway, volcanoes are unpredictable, and it's always difficult to tell what will happen next.
This is where drone company AeroTerrascan came in. Their high-flying drones have been helping in several different ways. Firstly, the drones were sent up to thoroughly scan the volcano from all angles. The data gathered, tracking Agung's shape and size to 20 cm of accuracy, was used to create a detailed 3D map. It's important to have this kind of map because growth in the size of a volcano is a clear indicator of danger. Now scientists can assess future danger by comparing the volcano current size against the map.
For their second mission, a brave little drone was sent to fly right over the volcano. This drone was fitted with sensors to detect carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide. High levels of these gases indicate an imminent eruption. In this case, unfortunately, the data gathered was bad news, and the government raised Agung's warning level even higher.
Which brings us to the drones next proposed task: scanning Agung's surroundings not for geological data, but for people. When evacuation is necessary, it can be difficult to tell if everyone has gotten the message and escaped. When the time comes, these drones could patrol for anyone who might have been left behind.
Beneath the surface: a deeper understanding of invisible processes
These tasks aren't risk-free. Several drones have been lost navigating the 3000 km vertical climb to Agung's peak. Yet if it can save lives, the risk is clearly worth it. And besides this immediate benefit, using drones in this way is part of something bigger. New technologies are allowing us to make typically inscrutable, chaotic elements of nature, phenomena we have lived with for millennia, more comprehensible.
Many people fear that technology disconnects us from nature. But in cases like this, at least, it's clear that the opposite is true. We are learning to read the obscure geological signals being sent out by the most violent and unpredictable parts of our world. And doing so not only provides practical benefits, but in the long-run gives us a deeper understanding of our environment.
Perhaps it's another example of "making the invisible visible". If what once seemed like the whims of wrathful nature becomes ever more understandable to us, how does our relationship with the planet change? Technological applications like this could be the key to allowing us to treat the Earth like an old familiar friend, rather than a dangerous enemy.