Hot Stuff (Picture Story) – Drone Mapping an Active Volcano

Earlier this year, Chilean geomatics specialist Geospacio became the first organisation to drone map an active volcano. Its team flew a senseFly eBee over Chile’s Villarrica volcano just two days after it erupted, in March 2015. This team then made the same flight again eighteen days later.

The aim of these flights, which were commissioned by the University of Concepción’s geophysics department, was to create two accurate, up-to-date 3D models of the post-eruption terrain inside the volcano’s crater. The researchers would then compare these models in order to identify and analyse changes in the crater’s morphology; useful for predicting future changes, such as the direction of lava flow in the event of expected future eruptions.

volcano mapping crater orthophoto drone An orthomosaic produced after the second mapping mission, generated from two flights flown 217 metres (712 ft) above the crater’s rim.

volcano mapping drone UAV UAS Staff from geomatics specialist Geospacio flew an eBee mapping drone over the crater to collect morphological data for the University of Concepción’s Departamento de Ciencias de la Tierra (L-R: Hernán Torres (Depto. Ciencias de la Tierra), Ximena González (Depto. Ciencias de la Tierra), Gaspar Cid (Depto. Ciencias de la Tierra), Jaime Soto (Geospacio), Leandro Olivares (Geospacio), José Luis Palma (Depto. Ciencias de la Tierra).)

drone survey volcano eBee UAV Due to obvious access challenges, Geospacio’s eBee UAV (shown centre top) needed to take off approximately 1,000 metres away from the crater.

drone UAV volcano flight plan The flight plan of the second mission, showing the drone’s initial take-off point (bottom left) and white image capture locations.

volcano crater profile drone survey The crater’s side profile, as mapped two days after the initial March eruption (the eBee’s first mission of two). (Software: Global Mapper)

volcano crater perimeter drone survey Identifying the perimeter of the crater using Global Mapper software.

crater rim elevation drone data Elevation analysis of the crater’s rim led researchers to conclude that in the event of a future eruption, lava would likely flow to the North. (Software: Global Mapper)

volcano crater elevation mapping differences The crater’s longitudinal North-South profile, showing differences in elevation between the project’s two flights. (Software: Global Mapper)

Project outputs:

  • Geo-referenced orthophotos
  • Contour maps (contours every 1-5 m)
  • 3D digital point clouds (avg. 30 points / m2)
  • Point cloud fly-through animations
  • Digital terrain models (DTMs): surfaces & profiles
  • Crater profiles
  • Crater volume comparison (DTM cut & fill)
  • Output file formats: shp, dwg, kml, geoTIFF, LAS, laz


“For decades the Villarrica volcano has shown degassing activity continuing from its crater, however after the eruption volcanic activity dropped to a very low level. It was almost idle,” explains Jaime Soto of Geospacio. “At that time it was necessary to determine whether the volcanic activity would soon recommence, and if so in what form.

“One hypothesis was that the volcano might accumulate too much pressure,” he continues, “causing an eruption of considerable magnitude. Another hypothesis was that its activity would recover gradually. In the first case, it would have been possible to see morphological changes in the base of the cráter, reflecting the increase in pressure, probably in the form of local inflation. In the second, the base of the crater would not change or even sink as persistent degassing continued. Two days after the first drone flight, the volcano began to emit gases, first sporadically and then continuously, confirming the second hypothesis.”

José Luis Palma of the University of Concepción’s geophysics department, adds: “The Villarrica Project demonstrated the great utility of drones during a volcanic crisis. We can use them for volcanic monitoring, when it is very important to capture and analyse data quickly, within one working day, and for hazard analysis, to study in detail how volcanic flows might move in the event of an eruption.”

The Villarrica Project demonstrated the great utility of drones during a volcanic crisis.

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