State-of-the-Art Radar from SRI International Surveyed Kilauea Volcano | SRI International

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State-of-the-Art Radar from SRI International Surveyed Kilauea Volcano

SRI’s research and development of radar systems goes back decades. Our Signals and Space Technology Laboratory provides innovative engineering and operations solutions for use in extreme space and marine environments, as well as smaller form factor radars. This led to the development of SRI’s new state-of-the-art Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) instrument – a compact radar system developed to generate high resolution remote sensing imagery from small satellite and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) platforms.

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Recently, our team closely followed the burst of activity of the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii. Although the volcano has been erupting on a near continuous basis for the past 35 years, the persistence and volume of recent eruptions has caused alarming devastation – and could continue for months or even years.

Our team at SRI believed that the Synthetic Aperture Radar could be used to collect valuable data on the eruptions. These findings could be used by decision makers to protect people and property. So when U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists reached out and asked if our SAR system could be rapidly deployed for collections over Kilauea, we were ready for the challenge.

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SRI team members modified the SAR instrument for airborne collections and worked with local aircraft operators to initiate arrangements, all within one week of obtaining authorization to proceed. We closely coordinated with government representatives from the USGS, National Park Service, the FAA, and the State of Hawaii to enable data collection flights within the restricted airspace above the Kilauea caldera.

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Because of the rapid and well-coordinated efforts by many organizations, the SAR instrument was able to image the Halema‘uma‘u crater and the active fissure sites of the Kilauea volcano. In fact, over the course of six days, SRI personnel flew seven calibration and data collection sorties, with imagery taken before and after a significant volcanic event. The collected data could then be used by scientists to determine how much land will get buried based on lava flow rates.

By flying at an altitude of 12,500 feet we were safely above the active volcano area, which meant there were less noxious fumes and we could capture a larger geographic area in one fell swoop. This was certainly an advantage over helicopters and Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR), which requires flying a straight line to map out swaths that can be 100 meters wide, then flying back and forth in a pattern akin to mowing a lawn.  SRI’s SAR system is capable of measuring surface height to within a centimeter and, by flying additional data collection passes above Kilauea, it could precisely explore how the caldera is changing with time. This information can help scientists constrain the processes that lead to explosive volcanic eruptions and have direct impacts on the surrounding communities.

Important scientific value also comes from the fact that the radar is operating as an interferometric SAR (IFSAR). This allow precisely determination of elevation changes across collection times, key information which geologists can use in their studies of volcanos and other phenomena such as earthquakes.

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Our team was proud to contribute our technical expertise to assist people affected by the volcanic eruption.

SRI Signals and Space Technology team members who mobilized quickly to support the Kilauea Volcano project include Sam Phan, Mike Huff, Patrick Rennich, and Tyson Shimoni (who happens to be a Hawaii native).