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NASA Uses Drones To Study Costa Rican Volcano (VIDEO)

Apr 02, 2013 11:11 AM EDT

Last month NASA researchers flew an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) equipped with cameras and sensors into the sulfuric plume and over the summit crater of Turrialba Volcano, near San Jose, Costa Rica, the space agency reported on its website Monday.

Costa Rica's volcanoes provide "suburb natural laboratories" for testing and developing volcanological UAV systems, NASA said.

The goal of the study, which consisted of 10 flights between March 11-14, was to study the chemical environment of the volcano, improve the remote-sensing capabilities of satellites and better computer models of volcanic activity.

Research scientists at NASA's Ames Research Center negotiated the transfer of three Aerovironment RQ-14 Dragon Eye UAVs from the U.S. Marine Corps The small UAV weigh 5.9 pounds, have a 3.75-foot wingspan and twin electric engines, and can carry a one-pound instrument payload for up to an hour within a volcanic plume, NASA reported.

"This project is great example of how unmanned aircraft can be used for beneficial civilian purposes - in this case for better understanding Earth system processes and the impact of volcanism on our atmosphere," said Matthew Fladeland, airborne science manager at Ames. "By taking these retired military tools, we can very efficiently and effectively collect measurements that improve NASA satellite data and aviation safety."

NASA scientists hope the computer models derived from the study will help safeguard the airspace system, improve global climate predictions and mitigate environmental hazards for people who live around volcanoes.

NASA also has a drone program aimed at studying global warming.

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