Researchers from UH Mānoa and UH Hilo receive grant from NASA to study UAV use in scientific endeavors

The aim of the grant is two-fold: to study volcanism using unmanned aerial vehicles, and, while doing so, to develop capability and protocol for UH researchers to use UAV to conduct other types of scientific studies.

By Susan Enright.

Research team studying lava flow. Smoke and steam from the flow can be seen in the background.
Ryan Perroy (holding UAV) and his research team (at right) stand in front of an active lava flow with county officials and scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, Oct 22, 2014, Puna. The lava threatened to flow over the main highway and completely cut off Puna district. Courtesy photo.

University of Hawai‘i at Hilo researchers will be collaborating with colleagues from UH Mānoa on a research project funded by NASA.

NASA recently announced the awarding of $11.25 million to universities in 15 states for research and development in areas such as remote sensing, nanotechnology, astrophysics and aeronautics. UH’s project will develop capability at the university for data collecting via unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs through observations of active volcanism in Hawai‘i.

Specifically, the aim of the UH grant is two-fold: to study the active volcanic processes (lava flows and gas plumes) in Puna on Hawai‘i Island using UAVs and, while doing so, to develop capability and protocol to use UAVs to do other types of scientific studies. The latter will be of benefit to all UH researchers.

The UH team is awaiting confirmation on the exact amount they will receive; they requested $749,696. The award covers a three-year period.

Peter Mouginis-Mark
Peter Mouginis-Mark

Principle investigator of the UH project is Peter Mouginis-Mark from the Hawai‘i Institute of Geophysics and Planetology at UH Mānoa. Co-investigators from the institute include Robert Wright and John Porter.

Ryan Perroy, assistant professor of geography at UH Hilo, also is a co-investigator on the project.

Building on UH Hilo research

Ryan Perroy, aloha shirt, glasses, smiling at camera.
Ryan Perroy

Perroy and his UH Hilo research team used UAVs last fall to study the lava flow in Puna.

The Hilo team, which included Jonathan Price, associate professor of geography, Nicolas Turner, cyber computer programming analyst at the UH Hilo Spatial Data Analysis and Visualization Laboratory, and Arthur Cunningham, consultant for aeronautical science at UH Hilo, were highly successful in helping Civil Defense map the Puna lava flow as it encroached on Pāhoa town nearly cutting off the main highway into the district.

The UH team working on the NASA grant will be building on that work, not just for continued study of lava activity, but to create a protocol for UAV use that all UH researchers could utilize.

Expanding the tool box for UH researchers

“Some of the goals (of the NASA grant) are to better link the thermal properties of lava flows with how they grow and move over the landscape, using thermal imaging sensors, which we haven’t had access to before on our previous UAV work over the Pāhoa flow, and to do formation-flying with UAV platforms to increase the amount of data we can collect,” says Perroy.

But the research also has the goal to make UH researchers in general be more competitive.

“The most important thing is that we will be learning how to fly our vehicles legally in collaboration with NASA,” says Mouginis-Mark. He and Perroy will be working closely with NASA to develop the protocol so that the scientific research done with UAVs is legal under federal guidelines. “Our work will set up protocol so UH researchers can do other research with UAVs.” 

While Perroy’s prior work in Puna was to assist with emergency response at the county and state levels, with full authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration, there are stricter federal guidelines for research being conducted with federal money.

“Their efforts (with the Puna lava flow) have given other colleagues at UH an idea of what other studies could be done using UAVs,” says Mouginis-Mark. “For example, more measurements of active lava flows and gas plumes beyond our existing capabilities, particularly for dynamic phenomena that change quickly. We want to work with (the UH Hilo researchers) and learn from them.”

Mouginis-Mark says that beyond this investigation, the team will be looking at different types of UAV that can be used for scientific research. Through studying the active parts of Kilauea volcano, the researchers will be finding out how best to utilize multiple UAVs in order to assist with the collection of data on gases and topographic change of the active lava flows. For example, they will try to identify what type(s) of coordinated observations from multiple UAVs are most informative, and how frequently measurements need to be made from different altitudes in order to best identify the growth rate of an active lava flow.

To build their prototype UAV models, the researchers will be working closely with specialists at the Ames Research Center, NASA’s primary facility for aircraft science studies. Ames will help with the construction of the UAVs and take the prototype instruments in order to seek approval from the FAA for air worthiness.

In addition, the team will be exploring the various government agencies and non-government organizations that would serve as good collaborative partners in this type of research.

“As researchers, we want to publish data,” explains Mouginis-Mark. “But if you obtain federal money, you can’t publish if you don’t have federal approval for your research methods. We want to learn how to do it legally and scientifically.”


About the writer of this story: Susan Enright is a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.

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