DOI UAS Teams Supporting Volcano Monitoring & Emergency Response / Rescue

Follow the drone to safety, UAS mission in Kīlauea helps guide evacuations and rescued a local resident

Last edited 10/05/2022

Two weeks ago, U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) teams of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) operators from USGS and the Office of Aviation Services (OAS) deployed to support the remote sensing data acquisition requirements for the monitoring of the Kīlauea Volcano eruptions in Hawaii. 

The UAS teams monitored volcanic activity using thermal video imagery and on-board gas sensors.   In addition, the teams assisted the local county and fire emergency managers in support of monitoring lava movement toward the Puna Geothermal Venture Hawaiian Electric Plant.  In response to changing mission demands, DOI UAS payloads were adapted/reconfigured to provide periodic assistance to local emergency managers, including investigation of lava-surrounded communities for potentially-stranded people and delivery of live video feeds of lava flow conditions/paths to the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in support of emergency evacuation efforts. 

On May 27, 2018, the DOI UAS response team was conducting mapping missions to monitor lava advancement rates and direction toward the highway and populated areas.  Around 7 pm the team launched a UAS to assess the area in the northeast corner of Leilani Estates and identified a new outbreak of lava that was very rapidly moving into a residential area. The team notified the EOC and field operations of the flow and a need to evacuate the area.  The team also began providing live video coverage of the flow's progress to emergency officials in the EOC, who dispatched police and fire units to clear residents off the street.  The UAS team continued to provide live coverage of the breakout, and EOC personnel were able to use the information to guide evacuation actions, including dispatching an emergency alert notification to anyone in the area.  During the preflight, the UAS team overheard radio transmissions that a civilian was trapped at their residence.  The team confirmed the location of the residence and flew into the area to assess if we could be of assistance.  The individual was spotted and instructed to "follow the drone to safety".   The individual began moving through the jungle toward the street where the drone was hovering.   While the individual was making their way through the jungle, the UAS team was able to track him visually (he was using a cell phone flashlight) and information about his location was relayed to the ground searchers.  After about 10 minutes of providing direction information to both the stranded person and the first responders, the search team was able to make contact and guide him to safety.  The UAS team stayed onsite until the crews were clear of the area.  The UAS team, field operations, and EOC worked the situation for 2.5 hours. 

In addition to the SAR mission, the UAS team was able track the rate of advancement of the flow along the effected street and provide real time information to field operations and live video feed to the EOC regarding the rate and direction of the flow as well as any structures destroyed.  Coordination between field ops, the ground searchers, dispatch, the EOC and the DOI UAS team was very effective and we are proud to have been part of this effort. 

This video shows the UAS being used for aerial reconnaissance to assist in getting messages to emergency responders (seen using flashlights in the video) to rescue the resident.  Video provided by the U.S. Geological Survey and Office of Aviation Services, Department of the Interior, with support from the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.  Live stream technology was provided by NASA Ames

Additional links of potential interest: 

UAS Hovering Near Fissure 22, USGS Kīlauea Volcano Updates, Volcano Hazards Program Photos and Video Chronology

The DOI UAS Teams continue to support this ongoing emergency operation. 

Narrative content, photos, and video courtesy of DOI USGS.

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