Long-range UAV operation for volcanic activity monitoring

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol
Department Name: Aerospace Engineering


Working alongside Volcanology and Earth Science experts from the University of Bristol, University of Cambridge
and University of Birmingham, this project aims to gather unique data from around and above Fuego Volcano in
Guatemala. As a relatively accessible volcano with natural activity on an hourly basis, it is of immense interest to
the scientific community. That said, the regularity and nature of Fuego's activities mean it has neither had its craters
photographed with visual (or thermal) cameras, or the gases around the crater measured for concentrations/ratios.
A small team from the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Bristol are working on a campaign that will take
place in February 2017 in Guatemala. Based at an Observatory 8km from Fuego's summit, the team aim to coordinate
the flight of several large fixed-wing Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) up to and around the summit of
the volcano in a Beyond Visual Line Of Sight (BVLOS) Flight mode.
The aircraft in question have a 5m wingspan and have been modified from their off-the-shelf configuration in order
to fly pre-programmed missions, collecting a wide range of measurements. During a mission the aircraft are
expected to climb between 2500m and 3500m from take-off, loiter in order to collect distinct data points over a
known time interval, then descend back to the observatory. During the flight they will see a dramatic change in air
properties, including a temperature difference of up to 35 degrees C between the Observatory and the maximum planned
flight altitude.
The UAV's power source is Lithium-Polymer (LiPo) batteries, with at least one 8000mAh 6-cell LiPo on-board.
This should give an endurance of between 45 minutes and 75 minutes, depending on local conditions and
configuration. In simulation, the climb up to 3800m (from 1136m at the Observatory) takes around 6 minutes.
The challenges involved in this project centre on the safe, reliable and controlled flight of the UAVs, and their
campaign-critical payloads. Based at the Observatory/Ground Station, the team will have three links to the aircraft;
a Safety Pilot Link, a Telemetry/Data link, and a First Person View (FPV) Video Link. The aircraft must be
configured such that it remains fully controllable at a range of >8km, with minimal data losses received at the
Ground Station. The pre-defined missions must then be executed accurately in order to locate and monitor the
volcanic gas plume, and constant monitoring of the aircraft systems are needed to make sure all systems are
operating well. Contingency plans must be made and executed if contact is lost with any of the critical on-board
The scientific missions that are the focus of this campaign will also lead into a key research question related to the
safe operation of UAVs in BVLOS regions where the topography varies significantly. Specifically, how can we
operate UAVs in relatively close proximity to the ground while making use of modern sensors, trajectory
optimizers and control system design? During this campaign, a number of different data types will be collected as a
basis for this future research. For example, terrain data and local air movement data will be collected. This will
form a basis for an on-board sensor suite which enables the UAV to sense and follow terrain, and to thermal in
rising air so as to conserve energy whenever possible.

Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
EP/N509619/1 01/10/2016 30/09/2021
1812578 Studentship EP/N509619/1 15/08/2016 14/08/2020 Benjamin Schellenberg