Scientists Throw 'Dragon Eggs' Into Volcano to Work Out When It Might Erupt

Researchers are developing autonomous, intelligent pods named "dragon eggs" that can withstand the extreme heat of volcanoes while monitoring temperature, humidity, vibrations and toxic gases, the University of Bristol has reported.

Deployed by a drone, the eggs are intended to access areas far too dangerous for direct human exploration. Researchers think the technology could be used to monitor extremely hazardous areas such as geological faults, glaciers and even nuclear waste storage sites.

The eggs use self-energising event detectors to conserve power—keeping them dormant until volcanic activity is detected. Then, the eggs "hatch" into a fully-fledged monitoring station. Equipped with a wireless transmitter, they will beam data across more than six miles, providing remote access to active volcanoes from a safe distance.

An international team of scientists now believes Homo floresiensis, a tiny species of humans thought to have lived between 190,000 and 50,000 years ago, may have been wiped out—at least in part—by volcanic eruptions. Getty Images

Researcher Tom Scott from the University of Bristol said the the team combined ultra low-power electronics, robotics expertise and advanced diamond power-harvesting technology to develop the dragon eggs, which are "the first of [their] kind in the world."

The team have dropped some of their pods over the active Stromboli volcano in Italy. "This is an example where we can use sensors deployed right at the top of the volcano to give us an advanced early warning of eruption," Scott said.

Deployed in sets of multiple eggs, the intelligent pods can work together as a network. Even if a violent volcano claims several eggs in the group, those that survive will keep the network operational.

Researchers think their technology has far wider applications than just volcanoes. These violent geological structures can act as a testbed for using these sensors in times of nuclear emergency, Scott said.

"On their own volcanoes are dangerous, but we can actually use them as analogs for nuclear sites when things go wrong. With volcanoes you have a plume, and if you think about Fukushima, you also have a plume."

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"Dragon eggs" are pictured with a drone at the top of the constantly-eruption Stromboli volcano in Italy. University of Bristol

In 2011, an extremely powerful earthquake struck off the Pacific coast of Tōhoku and sent a tsunami coursing through north-eastern Japan. This natural disaster caused meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant complex in one of the most serious nuclear accidents ever.

Stromboli is a small volcanic island near Sicily. Its constant minor eruptions have given the island the nickname "Lighthouse of the Mediterranean." Major eruptions have occurred numerous times, with the most recent taking place in April 2009. In spite of its continual eruptions, some 500 people are thought to live on the island.