The VolCAN Project

Volcano CO2 Sampling by Drone

You can tell a lot from the composition of the gasses coming from active volcanoes about what is happening deep beneath. It is even possible to predict when an active volcano will erupt causing widespread damage,and determine their contribution to climate change, yet gathering this critical data can be extremely hazardous to volcanologists.

An interdisciplinary team from UNM Departments of Computer Science, Earth and Planetary Sciences and Electric and Computer Engineering received a 4-year research grant from NSF’s National Robotics Initiative to develop novel bio-inspired software and drones to measure and sample volcanic gases. The team began this collaboration back in 2017 and participated in an international field expedition to the remote and dangerous volcanoes of Papua New Guinea sponsored by the Deep Carbon Observatory in Spring of 2019. During this expedition UNM researchers Tobias Fischer, Scott Nowicki (E and PS), Matthew Fricke and undergraduate student Jaret Jones (CS) successfully sampled the plume of Tavurvur and Manam Volcanoes for Carbon-isotopes, which provided information on the ultimate sources of carbon dioxide in these volcanoes. The results are about to be published in the journal Science Advances.

Following the expedition, UNM computer scientist Melanie Moses led the team to a successful proposal for the National Robotics Initiative to program swarms of drones so they work together to map the gas concentrations around volcanoes and so discover the richest places to sample. Writing code to allow drones to autonomously and collaboratively survey volcano gasses will allow small local monitoring stations to keep an eye on volcanoes, rather than having to rely on teams of drone pilots. The computer science efforts are spearheaded by Profs. Melanie Moses, Matthew Fricke and Jarred Saia specialists in bio-inspired algorithms. Drone hardware developments are lead by Prof. Rafael Fierro from Electric and Computer Engineering. Field testing, sensor development and science application are lead by Prof. Tobias Fischer and Dr. Scott Nowicki from Earth and Planetary Sciences. The team also includes several undergraduate students, M.Sc. students and Ph.D. students who will work synergistically within the VolCAN project.

“Our ultimate goal is to develop and test drone-platforms that enable scientists to collect data from active volcanoes that improve our understanding of volcanic processes and use that knowledge to forecast eruptions and save lives” said Tobias Fischer.

Tavurvur and Manam

Papua New Guinea

A major eruption of Tavurvur in 1994 destroyed the nearby provincial capital of Rabaul. Most of the town still lies under metres of ash. Another eruption in 2013 forced local people to evacuate.

A team from the University of New Mexico joined an expedition to Tavurvur led by Emma Liu of the University of Cambridge and supported by the Deep Carbon Observatory to test whether robotic drones could be used to reduce the risks of gathering volcanic samples. The team flew drones at Tavurvur and Manam volcanoes in Papua New Guinea. These volcanoes lie on the Pacific ring of fire. Drones were employed to place sensors in the crater of Tavurvur and sample gasses from multiple towering plumes. During the expedition a 7.5 earthquake caused the team to evacuate their hotel in the middle of the night, underscoring the danger of working in geologic hotspots. So far during the expedition two drones have been lost to the volcano, but drones can be replaced.

New Mexico Supervolcano

Valles Caldera

Valles Caldera is a supervolcano in northern New Mexico. A series of eruption in the Jemez volcano fields over the course of half a million years formed a caldera 15 miles wide. The presence of hot springs and CO2 emmisions near the caldera at Soda Dam and Hummingbird camp indicte that Valles Caldera is still an active volcanic system. We are sampling C02 emissions with automated UAS flights to better understand this system.


LOCUS: A multi-robot loss-tolerant algorithm for surveying volcanic plumes

John Ericksen, Abhinav Aggarwal, G. Matthew Fricke, Melanie E. Moses

Measurement of volcanic CO2 flux by a drone swarm poses special challenges. Drones must be able to follow gas concentration gradients while tolerating frequent drone loss. We present the LoCUS algorithm as a solution to this problem and prove its robustness. LoCUS relies on swarm coordination and self-healing to solve the task...

Aerial strategies advance volcanic gas measurements at inaccessible, strongly degassing volcanoes

E. J. Liu1, A. Aiuppa, A. Alan,

Volcanic emissions are a critical pathway in Earth’s carbon cycle. Here, we show that aerial measurements of volcanic gases using unoccupied aerial systems (UAS) transform our ability to measure and monitor plumes remotely and to constrain global volatile fluxes from volcanoes...

VolCAN Expedition to Iceland

Krýsuvík Geothermal Area, Fagradalsfjall Volcano & Sólheimajökull Glacier(on top of the Katla Volcano)

In early-September, 2022, VolCAN team members John Ericksen, Tobias Fischer, Matthew Fricke, Carter Frost, Melanie Moses, Karissa Rosenberger, Samantha Wolf, Rafael Fierro & Scott Nowicki traveled to Iceland. On September 3 the team visited the Krýsuvík Geothermal Area. September 4 & 5 the team was at the Fagradalsfjall Volcano where we flew multiple missions. September 7 the team few missions from the South East river outlet from Katla as well as at the Sólheimajökull Glacier(on top of the Katla Volcano). September 8 the team hiked out of Emstrur-Botnar Hut, along Laugavegur near Þórsmörk on the West side of Katla and few multiple missions.

VolCAN Expedition to the island in Spain

La Palma Volcano

In late-November, 2021, VolCAN team members Tobias Fischer, Scott Nowicki, Matthew Fricke, and John Ericksen collected gas samples from the CO2 plume of the erupting Cumbre Vieja volcano. Cumbre Vieja is located on La Palma Island in Spain’s Canary Islands. The eruption, which began in September and ended in late December, is the largest in Europe in 500 years. 
Volcanic lava flows from Cumbre Vieja destroyed more than 1,000 homes and covered significant parts of the Western side of the island with ash. The continuous emission of ash from the volcano resulted in frequent closing of the airport and evaculatons of towns and villages near the volcano. High sulfur dioxide and aerosol concentrations in the air, made for hazardous conditions. Frequent earthquakes and unpredictable lava flows added made gas sampling challenging for volcanologists. 
It was a dramatic and devastating occurrence but a rare and perfect opportunity for the VolCAN team to put its resources to the test, so they did just that — navigating all the physical and bureaucratic hoops to make their way to the island with three drones and a handful of team members with the mission of collecting gas samples by flying drones into the volcano. The VolCAN team was one of several international research groups working on the eruption of Cumbre Vieja at the time.
As the research team directed the UNM-programmed autonomous drones into the gas plumes, they protected themselves from the noxious gases by donning military-grade gas masks. But their risky efforts were a success, becoming what is believed to be the first team to sample uncontaminated gases from an erupting volcano for later carbon isotope analyses. This resulted in a treasure trove of data to help better understand the course of the eruption.
“The robot missions couldn’t have gone better,” said Matthew Fricke, one of the principal investigators on the VolCAN project and a research assistant professor of computer science. “We got uncontaminated gas samples from the plume that told us where the magma causing the eruption was coming from. No one has ever been able to do that during an eruption before. That data allows us to try and forecast the duration and intensity of the eruption.”
These gas samples were analyzed for carbon isotopes in collaboration with and using instrumentation of InVolcan ( Without the support of InVolcan the team would not have been able to achieve the results they did. The data gathered  provides new insights into the nature and depth of the magma source in near real-time. This information, together with other data collected by numerous scientists from local and international institutions, will result in forecasts about the ongoing and future volcanic activity. [Adapted from UNM News article, Kim Delker January 05, 2022]

out in the community


Albuquerque, New Mexico

Bandelier Elementary School

Matthew Fricke and Carter Frost visited Tiara Dominguez's 5th grade class at Bandelier Elementary School. We discussed the hurtles of observing volcanoes as well as forging strategies with the students. The students had the opportunity to operate the Swarmie Robots using only the onboard sensors and controllers to locate a resource, pick it up and deliver it to a collection zone.

Hardware and Software Platform

DragonFly Autonomous UAS