Drone vs Volcano: A photo captures technology’s frailty compared to the immense power of nature

Playing with fire. (Andrew Studer)
Playing with fire. (Andrew Studer)
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Drones have helped us get close up looks at some of the most dangerous places in the world, places otherwise inaccessible to humans. A photo of a drone flying terrifyingly close to a boiling stream of lava demonstrates just that—and it managed to fly away unscathed.

Portland-based photographer Andrew Studer captured this incredibly timed image on about Jan. 28, which shows lava gushing out from the sea cliffs on Hawaii’s Big Island, at a location called Kamokuna Ocean Entry. Nicknamed the “firehose,” the lava was streaming from the Kilauea Volcano. Studer posted the image on his Facebook page May 1.

Getting close.
Getting close.
Image: Andrew Studer

The drone seems tiny compared to the size of the lava stream, as if it was a fly brushing shoulders with Niagara Falls. But it might have appeared closer than it really was due to lens compression, a typical optical distortion that happens when shooting from afar, at a long focal length.

“The drone hasn’t been manipulated in any way,” Studer says, adding that he only modified the sharpness to show more details in the image. ”But because of the compression, it definitely looks closer to the volcano than it really was.” He says he captured the picture with a telephoto lens from a view point about half a mile (about 800 meters) away, and the drone might be flying roughly 100 to 150 feet (about 30 to 50 meters) from the jet. He also caught it on video.

Images published on the same day by the US Geological Survey show the same stream of lava, which became exposed after a volcanic delta collapsed into the ocean a few weeks earlier. A volcano photographer familiar with the territory, who reviewed the photo, says he was not surprised the drone remained intact.

“The lava is very approachable at about 2,200 degrees [Fahrenheit],”says G. Brad Lewis, or about 1,200 degrees Celsius. “A flow so stable like that wouldn’t affect the drone very much.” He adds that the machine would have to be flying less than three meters from it to be affected by the heat, because “there’s usually a pretty good breeze down there.”

Janet Babb, geologist at the Hawaiian Volcanoes Observatory, says the drone’s probability to survive would also depend on whether it was flying upwind or downwind at the time. It would likely have been hit by exploding debris, she says.

Not all drones are so lucky. Filmmaker Sam Cossman, who was filming a lava lake with a drone in Nicaragua for a National Geographic documentary, writes in an email that his drone ”lost control around 50 feet above the lake, before the props melted, causing it to tumble down to its demise, and ultimately caused the lithium-ion [battery] to explode with a green flash.”

It is generally illegal to fly drones in US national parks, which includes the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Studer says he doesn’t know the pilot, who happened to be standing close by and seemed to be filming with his drone camera. He doesn’t want to encourage people to break laws in national parks, Studer says, but simply wanted to show the sheer scale of the lava flow.