WSU Joins with NASA, USGS CVO in High-Tech Monitoring of Mt. St. Helens
VANCOUVER, Wash. - Using sensor software written by a team of researchers at Washington State University, a dozen high-tech robotic pods forming a network built to operate in hostile environments are currently being used in hot spots inside and around the mouth of the most deadly and active volcano in the continental United States.
Built to operate in extreme temperatures and in treacherous terrain, the so-called "spider" network was lowered in mid-July by helicopter onto the slopes of nearby Mt. St. Helens, where it forms a virtual wireless network of pods that are in communication with each other and the Earth Observing-1 (EO-1) satellite, operated by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, Md.
The research project is part of a NASA plan to develop a sensor web to provide timely data and analyses for scientific research, natural hazard mitigation and the exploration of other planets in this solar system and beyond. It reflects the work of a team of engineers, students, volcanologists and geologists that includes the U.S. Geological Survey staff at the Cascades Volcano Observatory who designed and built the spider network's hardware; Washington State University, where the sensor software to make the spider network smart, self-organizing and self-healing was written; and NASA, which developed software to make the spiders able to detect events to trigger space observations by the EO-1 satellite.
"This project demonstrates that a low-cost sensor network system can support real-time monitoring in extremely challenging environments," said Wenzhan Song of WSU Vancouver. Song is the principal investigator for the technology research project, which also draws on participation from the U.S. Geological Survey and from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
"This interdisciplinary, multi-institutional project, in advancing the state-of-the-art in wireless networks and environment monitoring, has provided great research, educational, and training opportunities for both our undergraduate and graduate students," said Behrooz Shirazi, co-principal project investigator and a WSU chair professor and director of the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in Pullman.
Each pod contains a seismometer to detect earthquakes, a GPS receiver to pinpoint its exact location and to measure subtle ground deformation, an infrared sounder to sense volcanic explosions and a lightning detector to search for ash cloud formation. The main instrument box is the size and shape of a microwave oven, and sits atop a three-legged tripod, which served as the inspiration for the scientists to begin referring to the system as the "spider network." It is powered by batteries that can last for at least a year.
"Taking data from the ground on site and from above by satellite gives you a great picture of what is going on inside the volcano," said Steve Chien, principal scientist for autonomous systems at JPL, in Pasadena, Calif.
The scientists believe networks such as these could one day be used to respond rapidly to an impending volcanic eruption.
"With these high-tech instruments, we can rapidly respond during periods of volcanic unrest to supplement our permanent monitoring network or quickly replace damaged stations without excessive exposure to personnel," said Rick LaHusen, an instrumentation engineer with the U.S. Geological Survey at the Cascades Volcano Observatory, Vancouver, Wash.
In 1980, a tremendous eruption at Mount St. Helens caused considerable loss of life and damage. More recently, in 2004, the volcano came back to life and erupted more than 100 million cubic meters (26 billion gallons) of lava accompanied by a series of explosions that hurled rock and ash far from the vent. If eruptions like these ever occur again, a sensor network could be quickly put in place to provide valuable real-time information to scientists and emergency services.
"We hope this network will provide a blueprint for future networks to be installed on many of the world's unmonitored active volcanoes, so educated and reliable estimates can be made when a town or a village needs to be evacuated to reduce the risk to life and property," said Project Manager Sharon Kedar of JPL.
Chien said, "Hostile environments like Mount St. Helens are proving grounds for future space missions, such as to Mars, where we may someday have similar sensor networks to track a meteor strike, dust storm or Mars quake, as a virtual scientist on the ground."
WSU Vancouver is celebrating 20 years of bringing quality education, research and service to the citizens of Southwest Washington. The campus is located at 14204 NE Salmon Creek Ave., east of the 134th Street exit from either I-5 or I-205, or via C-Tran bus service. WSU Vancouver offers 16 bachelor's degrees, 10 master's degrees, one doctorate degree and more than 36 fields of study. Learn more at www.vancouver.wsu.edu.
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