May 18, 2009 in Region

New sensors monitor Mount St. Helens

Associated Press
 

JOHNSTON RIDGE, Wash. — Humans aren’t the only ones pondering Mount St. Helens these days. A new “smart” monitoring machine can not only record second-by-second data on the currently slumbering volcano, it can also analyze the information and decide what to send to scientists first.

During an eruption, the monitors also will give scientists more and better information from areas previously too dangerous to install equipment.

So if the volcano rumbled back to life 29 years after the devastating May 18, 1980, eruption, scientists could deploy the monitors and quickly gather all kinds of information about the event and the possible danger.

The machines, called spiders because of their stabilizing legs, are sturdier and record more information than previous machines. But the real claim to fame is that the monitors’ computer-programmed “brains” can decide what some data means and which information is most important, said Rick LaHusen, an instrumentation engineer with the U.S. Geological Survey.

If the seismograph senses movement, for example, it will “watch” for a few seconds to see if more movement indicates an earthquake. Or, if the barometer senses an explosion, the machine is programmed to send that message out first because officials need to quickly alert passing airplanes to divert and avoid engine-clogging ash.

If a machine is damaged, the others in the network also work to redirect the information, meaning the system is self-healing, LaHusen said.

“It’s pretty cool,” LaHusen said Friday from the Johnston Ridge Observatory. “We took the scientific need and built something from scratch.”

The smart spiders were developed by the USGS, Washington State University and the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Graduate students at WSU designed the computer program that gives the spider its brains, USGS designed the structures and sensors and NASA worked on connecting the machine to overhead satellites to gather information and direct specific monitoring.

Work on the new spiders began two and a half years ago and is expected to take three years total. A trial run of five machines was conducted last fall and a full-fledged test of 16 machines working in tandem will begin in June.

Previous spider monitors could only record a single type of information, meaning several had to be deployed to gather the full picture of the mountain’s activities. Each monitor also had to be installed separately, increasing labor and equipment.

The smart spider does it all from a single site. It simultaneously records volcanic earthquakes, deformation of the ground, lightning from volcanic ash clouds and air pressure waves from explosions and then uses a stronger version of Bluetooth technology to transmit the information back to scientists. The smart spiders also are made out of heavier metal and have a lower center of gravity, making them more resistant to being crushed by snow or ice or being blown over by heavy winds.

While not as sensitive as the larger, permanent monitors around the volcano, the smart spiders are still quite precise. The Global Positioning System time stamps information to the nearest millisecond and can calculate position within less than half an inch.

The smart spiders also are self-contained and can be dropped in place without the need to dig holes to protect them. That allows scientists to drop them into crater hot spots by helicopter without putting any personnel on the ground and to put them right on top of ongoing eruptions (The technology also can be used to monitor landslides, LaHusen said).

Each spider costs about $3,000 — less than what the older model runs — and run on 1 watt of power. A traditional night light takes about 15 watts, LaHusen said. Energy is saved by having the machines transmit information short distances from one machine to the next — about one mile — before it’s sent farther — about 50 miles — by one of the more powerful hubs. The machine’s battery also is designed to last a year to minimize maintenance.

While fancy, the smart spiders won’t replace more sensitive monitoring equipment. Instead, they’ll augment it, especially during activity or eruptions when it’s dangerous to work in the crater but when up-to-the-minute information is more critical than ever.

“These are tools for once there’s some initial unrest to fill in the gaps between stations,” LaHusen said. “And to fill in monitors that have been destroyed (during eruptions).”

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