The volcanic eruptions on Hawaii have created an opportunity for geospatial scientists looking to demonstrate the data-collection capabilities of small drones. In turn, experts say the lessons learned on the Big Island could have implications for future military drone operations.

For six days in May, geospatial software and services provider Esri teamed with the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) to track lava flow and help inform evacuation plans. They flew small craft in hazardous circumstances, in the dark and in thick smoke, in the quest for better situational awareness.

“Military people need this same kind of data. They need to know what the battlefield environment is like in order to operate effectively,” said Ben Conklin, ESRI industry manager for defense and intelligence.

Combatant commanders often must rely on satellites and large air platforms to deliver key intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data. But those tools are expensive, and it takes time, with planners sometimes having to wait hours or days to seize a window of opportunity on expensive hardware.

The Hawaii effort suggests that small, inexpensive drones could fill a key intel gap, Conklin said.

The CRASAR team flew 44 flights, including 16 night flights, using a variety of small unmanned systems including DJI 200, 210, Inspire, and Mavic Pro drones. Thermal sensors delivered real time information about evolving lava flows. Esri pulled together this data on its ArcGIS platform, using Hangar’s Enterprise Platform software to create 360-degree imaging of the situation.

The success of these efforts has military implications.

“If you think about jungles and densely wooded areas, a lot of times it is hard to get mapping from satellites and planes because you have clouds or dense canopy. That kind of environment provides an obvious use of small drones, where you can fly in underneath the cloud cover or underneath the canopy,” Conklin said.

Expeditionary forces could likewise leverage these inexpensive drones, for instance when it comes times to establish a forward operating base.

“When you establish a base, you want to map that location quickly in order to do security planning and do base operations,” Conklin said. Small UAVs that require no expertise could deliver this time-sensitive intel at the unit level.

These same assets could likewise be redeployed as needed, in order to allow that forward-base commander to adapt to changing circumstance. “As the function of the base changes, you want to be able to do that over and over again in order to adjust your observation posts and patrols. You need to keep all that up to date as the situation changes,” Conklin said.

CRASAR spokesperson Joan Quintana noted in a blog post that the Hawaii effort proved the utility of small drones in night flight. That capability could likewise be leveraged in a military context.

“Obviously, the military has pilots who can fly at night, but not every unit is supported by that. So, this creates a new kind of close-in support, something that the unit can operate at night or in smoke,” Conklin said. “From a mapping perspective, this significantly extends out your ability to know the environment around you.”

Recent development on the sensor side could prove a deciding factor, as small drones take on ever more sophisticated data-collection capabilities.

“We are seeing optical sensors, thermal sensors, infrared, and more exotic stuff like lidar. They are getting smaller and the resolution is getting better, which allows you to fly the drone higher and collect more data at once,” Conklin said.

The Hawaii effort showed the potential power of this combination – small drones loaded with high-quality sensors.

“Military operations rely on really good imagery, and small units often have a hard time collecting that data,” Conklin said. “Now these small UAVs are delivering good map data that you can actually trust and use, which means you can use it to do real operational planning.”