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I'm a geographer.

Andrew McGonigle, 35, a Scottish physicist and volcanologist, is in the process of developing a model helicopter that can measure gases released before a volcanic eruption. The technology could not only eliminate the dangerous task of taking hand measurements from the crater, but also provide enough data to predict eruptions weeks, even months, in advance. Natalie Hoare spoke to him in Dubai, where he was presented with a US$100, 000 prize at the biennial Rolex Awards for Enterprise


By monitoring the gases released underground, we can find out about the magmas, which can help us with forecasting. As magma rises, there's a decrease in pressure, causing various gases to be released. Carbon dioxide is the first out, usually when the magma reaches about ten kilometres [below the surface]. If you can measure this gas when it reaches this mark, then we have an early means of inferring that the magma will reach the surface and an eruption is probably imminent.

Remote-controlled helicopters provide a potentially new and exciting way of doing things. [In the past], this measurement has been very difficult to make, as there's a high concentration of C[O.sub.2] in the background atmosphere. [To eliminate this], you can either deploy highly sensitive sensors on the crater rim, or you mount the payload on a remote-controlled helicopter, as we've been doing, and fly it into the gas plume.

We've known about the relationship between C[O.sub.2] and eruptions for some time, but this is probably the first serious experimental validation of that theoretical concept. We're extending that by enabling the measurement to be made from the helicopter, without anyone having to go near the crater rim.

British remote-controlled helicopter champion Dave Fisher has been piloting the model, which has a bunch of equipment strapped to it and requires great skill to fly. So far, we've proved the concept in the most cost-effective way using an off-the-shelf model that has a range of a few hundred metres. The next step is to see if we can make the measurements using a model that anyone can fly. The prize money will enable us to buy a future-generation helicopter that has a flight interface that can be programmed to fly to various GPS co-ordinates or navigated manually.

Six hundred million people worldwide are viewed to be living close enough to a potentially active volcano that if it goes off, they could be at risk. Every year, between 50 and 70 volcanoes go off, and at any one time, there are between 20 and 30 going off around the world. To give a rough, ball-park figure, 100,000 people die from volcanic activity every century.

The inspiration for the project came from one of my colleagues, Dr Andy Hodson [a glaciologist at the University of Sheffield], who was mapping glaciers, looking for things called cryoconites, which are little organisms that live on the ice. His original work used a model helicopter to fly up and down a glacier to map how much of this stuff there is on it.

At school, I loved physics and geography. I did my undergraduate degree in physics, but by the time I did my PhD, I really wanted to get into geography, which is such an odd thing for a physicist to want to do. I really wanted to get involved in something environmental, so I developed lasers for monitoring pollution in the atmosphere [spectroscopy].

After my PhD, I nearly left science to become a management consultant or something. I just couldn't find the right opportunity outside physics. Then, one night, I found a journal article on spectroscopy of volcanic gas plumes written by Clive Oppenheimer, who was in the geography department in Cambridge. And I thought: 'Hang on a minute. I've just done a whole PhD on spectroscopy, and applying that to volcanic gas plumes sounds absolutely brilliant!' So I got in touch and ended up working on a project concerning UV spectroscopy of volcanic gas plumes.

I think you never get used to working with volcanoes. It feels like such a privilege. They're one of the few places on Earth where you can look down and see with your naked eye the result of processes that are unfolding thousands of kilometres beneath your feet. I find that endlessly fascinating.

In some ways, working on a volcano has all the benefits of a good old walk in the Scottish Highlands, but with the sheer spectacle of the fire. I've walked on 15 of the world's active volcanoes, most recently on Stromboli, which is known as 'the lighthouse of the Mediterranean' because it sometimes explodes metronomically, every ten minutes or so. I suppose I get a sense of where I really stand in the universe when I'm next to a volcano--I feel my dimensions.

Curriculum vitae

1973 Born in Edinburgh

1991-95 First degree in theoretical physics, University of St Andrews

1996-2000 PhD in laser physics, University of Oxford

2001-02 Research assistant, University of Cambridge

2002-05 Postdoctoral fellow, University of Cambridge

2005-present RCUK academic fellow and senior research fellow, Department of Geography, University of Sheffield

2008 Rolex Awards for Enterprise laureate
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Title Annotation:Andrew McGonigle's model helicopter
Comment:I'm a geographer.(Andrew McGonigle's model helicopter )
Author:Hoare, Natalie
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Feb 1, 2009
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