Video: Adventurers and Drones Go Into the Volcano for Science

“While I was perfectly aware of the danger, it was hard not to be mesmerized by the rare chance to experience the incredible energy of the Earth’s underlying forces,” says Sam Cossman, who one month after quitting his tech job found himself peering into the lava lake of a volcano in the South Pacific. Ambrym’s crater, Marum, located along the Ring of Fire in the Vanuatu Archipelago, is home to one of only seven permanent lava lakes in the world. He wore a custom-built industrial proximity heat suit to protect him from the 1,000-degree F temps and splattering molten rock.

The adventurer and filmmaker was following his dream of using the latest technology to aid in cutting-edge exploration (watch his recent short film). As expedition leader, he assembled the team—including climber and photographer Brad Ambrose, videographer Conor Toumarkine, drone expert Simon Jardine, and geobiologist Jeff Marlow—to use drones to create a first of its kind 3-D map of the volcano. Unfortunately, not all the drones survived. But the resulting data will help scientists better understand volcanic activity.

We asked him to tell us about seeing a volcano like never before.

What was it like to look over the volcano’s edge?

It’s an out-of-body experience where your brain has a hard time processing what your eyes are seeing. Blasted by the intense heat—more than 1,000 degrees F—of a roiling lake of lava the size of a football field from just fifteen meters away, I found myself contemplating my own mortality. Listening to the deafening splashes of molten rock was like listening to the heartbeat of the planet. While I was perfectly aware of the danger, it was hard not to be mesmerized by the rare chance to experience the incredible energy of the Earth’s underlying forces.

The blasts of heat carrying toxic gases were strong enough to knock me off my feet and were so hot that they melted my face shield and respirator. The volcanic activity fluctuated from moment to moment, sometimes splashing lava above the lip where I was standing and littering the ground around me with red-hot lava bombs.

The experience was both terrifying and inspirational and left me feeling a heightened sense of gratitude for the fragility and brevity of life.  It served as a wake-up call to chase my dreams and make a difference.

Do you think risk, or risking your life, is an inherent part of adventure?

My dad instilled this thought in me since I was a young boy, “If you want to launch big ships, you have to go where the water is deep.”  I believe adventure is any experience that has an uncertain outcome that requires you to step out of your element and push past personal boundaries to accomplish a task. The possibility of death is certainly on one end of the spectrum of risk and happens to be a component to many of my adventures. That said, the art of adventure is a lifestyle, and by no means is the possibility of death a prerequisite. 

What was the job you left and how did you have the courage to make that change?

Previously I worked with a tech start-up in Silicon Valley that builds software for adventure companies.  It was a wonderful product and team, but my first trip to the volcano in September 2014, reignited my passion for adventure and filmmaking.  I knew deep down that if I didn’t take the leap to pursue this dream, I would have always be left wondering what if….

Did you have a lot of savings tucked away?

No, when I quit my job, I had a few thousand dollars in my bank account.  Teetering on the edge of financial ruin was a scary place to be.  I was very fortunate however, to partner with and be sponsored by Kenu.com, a mobile photography company.  Without their support, the expedition would not have been possible. Not everyone agrees with my decision to throw in the towel on a promising career in exchange for such a nebulous pursuit, but if you want something badly enough, sometimes you just have to take a chance. Only time will tell, I suppose, but I believe this to be the right path.

Photograph courtesy Sam Cossman
A small drone flies over molten lava in Ambrym crater in the Vanuatu Archipelago; Photograph courtesy Conor Toumarkine

Tell us why this drone footage is special?

I believe we are at the dawn of a new age of exploration, one that greatly benefits from the use of modern technology and more contemporary set of field tools. Our usage of drones contributed to the successful completion of our mission. The drones enabled us to navigate around the gas plumes and perpetually shifting clouds (something that satellite imagery is unable to do) to shoot a series of thousands of images which could be stitched together with photogrammetry software to create the first true to scale, 3-D model of a volcanic crater and lava lake. With drones and GPS, we are able to reproducibly report real-time measurements and dimensions of the crater and track change over time, which improves our knowledge of the volcanic process.  We were also able to extract volumetric data and identify new hotspots which helps informs risk levels.

How did you use the drones?

In partnership with DJI and Pix4D, I leveraged the Phantom drone as a critical tool for advancing the scientific goals of our expedition. The Phantom served as our eye in the sky, identifying obstacles, hazards, and optimal descent routes. Additionally, the technology aided in identifying previously unknown vents and other hazardous eruptive features.

The drone was also useful in identifying collection sites for time-zero (red hot) lava sampling.  To collect samples, we approached the lava lake in very close proximity (less than 15 meters away where the ambient temperatures can exceed 1,000 degrees F). The drone helped us determine the optimal window of timing for collection by providing real-time reporting of shifting wind directions of super heated toxic gases and determining deadly lava splash footprints in designated sampling zones.

So is there life inside the crater?

Geobiologist Jeff Marlow got us to collect time-zero lava samples with the goal of understanding how microbial life of extreme environments colonizes newly formed earth. This has implications for how life could form in other extreme environments on our planet and beyond.

Additionally, we collected samples for analog testing the recently selected Mars 2020 Mission Rover instrument, SHERLOC, which will be used to search for signs of past life on Mars. Such a discovery could inform how humans can use natural resources available on Mars for survival and would likely transform the future exploration of another world.

Photograph courtesy Sam Cossman
A man wearing a protective suit descends the rim of the lava lake in Marum, Vanuatu; Photograph courtesy Conor Toumarkine

Tell us about your special suit that protected you from the heat of the lava lake?

In order to approach the 2,000 degree F lava in close range, I wore a custom-built industrial proximity heat suit with an aluminized fiberglass shell and Nomex, fire retardant liner. The suit is built to withstand radiant temperatures of up to 3,000 degrees F.  I worked with and was supported by NEWTEX, a pioneer in the niche thermal management apparel industry. The heat-protective face shield is constructed from a polycarbonate, gold-plated lens to filter out strong infra-red and ultra-violet radiation while still absorbing visible light.  This is the same material used on spacecraft and astronaut visors.

You are not a scientist, correct? How do you define your role as an adventurer?

Correct, I’m not a scientist. I believe my role as an explorer/filmmaker is to unearth, create, protect, and inspire. I’m personally fascinated by the world’s unknown and misunderstood phenomenon. By levering tech to document my journeys in an innovative way, I hope to create extraordinary content that reveals mysteries of the world which are capable of driving positive change, promoting environmental stewardship, and inspiring others to chase their own dreams, whatever they may be.

 

Comments

  1. tia
    indonesia
    February 20, 2015, 8:59 pm

    it’s so amazing.. i pround with you all. crew is so work hard to make this video. thanks…

  2. sabiha anwar
    India Cuttack Orissa.
    February 21, 2015, 12:46 am

    A very amazing n daring step you have taken,I salute you for showing such courage.

  3. 홍길동(John Doe)
    대한민국(Republic of koea)
    February 21, 2015, 2:02 am

    매우 멋진 광경입니다.(It’s very amazing!)

  4. Yaowapa
    Thailand
    February 21, 2015, 3:34 am

    Very dangerous.

  5. ravinder
    bangalore, india
    February 21, 2015, 7:50 am

    Excellent presentation , thanks a lot .

  6. Ghassan Abid
    Pakistan
    February 21, 2015, 12:42 pm

    Lahore, Pakistan.
    22:40
    Truly amazing!

  7. Jitendra Singh Chauhan
    India
    February 21, 2015, 8:55 pm

    It’s hilarious SAM….Keep on chasing once dreams is the way of life …should be the only way of life!!!!Amen

  8. Jordan Ross
    Grand Forks BC
    February 22, 2015, 9:47 am

    Excellent!

  9. aa
    wwv
    February 23, 2015, 3:44 pm

    wwowww;9

  10. Terry Wilson
    Fergus Falls Mn.
    February 23, 2015, 4:35 pm

    I used to love reading national Geographics magazine but I think now it’s a platform for you to expound on your godless ideas of evolution and the thought of global warming get back to the basics

  11. 利浩峻
    Guangzhou Guangdong China
    February 24, 2015, 9:31 am

    这篇文章令人很惊讶,谢谢作者,

  12. Glödhett | BOV
    February 24, 2015, 10:06 am

    […] Read an interview with filmmaker Sam Cossman here. […]

  13. abadi ginting
    Medan indonesia
    February 24, 2015, 10:52 am

    seharusnya anda ke kampung kami, karena 4 tahun belakangan ini g.sinabung tak henti hentinya batuk..

  14. Stephanie Alderson
    San Francisco
    February 24, 2015, 11:52 am
  15. […] better understanding of the volcano and the life that exists around it. Here’s a video that National Geographic published today, which provides a look at how the camera drones were used to capture the crater, one of only seven […]

  16. […] a better understanding of the volcano and the life that exists around it.Here’s a video that National Geographic published today, which provides a look at how the camera drones were used to capture the crater, one of only seven […]

  17. Geoff Mackley
    New Zealand
    February 24, 2015, 11:45 pm

    Every word in this story is a lie, from Sam Cossman “leading an expedition, to, finding the route down with a drone !” , everything, We took him there as an add on to our expedition, we rigged the cliff and Bradley Ambrose, er “Climber A” took him down multiple times, this guy arrived with zero climbing skill and left with zero climbing skill, more would be needed to climb a ladder ….. to fail to acknowledge those who got him there when he could not do so himself is not what any real “adventurer’ would do …….

  18. […] a better understanding of the volcano and the life that exists around it. Here’s a video that National Geographic published today, which provides a look at how the camera drones were used to capture the crater, one of only seven […]

  19. […] “While I was perfectly aware of the danger, it was hard not to be mesmerized by the rare chance to experience the incredible energy of the Earth’s underlying forces,” Cossman said in an interview with National Geographic about the project. […]

  20. […] comodi e guardare questo spettacolare video di Sam Cossman. Qui potete vedere altre foto di questo […]

  21. Rizwan Ali
    Islamabad Pakistan
    February 26, 2015, 9:35 am

    Impressive documentary. This is another side of the nature.

  22. Jeffry W. Myers
    Seattle, WA
    February 26, 2015, 12:14 pm

    From a professional photographer’s perspective, I am dazzled by the risks, footage and unity of intentions and adventures you have undertaken! Please continue to follow your inner guides. Your fans, like me honor your quest and the vicarious immersion into areas rarely explored. Jeffry W. Myers

  23. […] comodi e guardare questo spettacolare video di Sam Cossman. Qui potete vedere altre foto di questo […]

  24. Tina Wade-Lucas
    New York
    February 26, 2015, 4:04 pm

    Amazing! I tip my hat to ALL the Adventurers, Researchers, Scientists, Explorers and funders to all the aforementioned. Thank you for your courage and vigilance. Giving the world so much information about our world and worlds beyond. Applause!

  25. […] alike go to get up close and personal with an actively erupting volcano — as can be seen in recent drone footage[2] and descriptions from a group including Dr. Jeff Marlowe[3]. They are looking at the Ambrym […]

  26. Mary Morgan McFerrin
    Central Texas, USA
    February 27, 2015, 4:46 pm

    Thanks, National Geographic, for the pics and overview of this exciting exploration. The world would certainly be a duller place without all your efforts! I am eternally grateful for all your endeavors to educate the 99%!

  27. Oscar Hidalgo Herrera
    March 1, 2015, 9:24 am

    This is fantastic to be able hacercar few meters ?
    Very dangerous such approximation .
    Thanks for the effort .

  28. […] National Geographic shares breathtaking drone footage of spewing lava from the active volcano on the island of Vanuatu. “It’s like listening to the heartbeat of the planet…” More via iflscience. […]

  29. […] Read more: Adventurers and Drones go into the Volcano for Science […]

  30. Alex Weldt
    Chile
    March 5, 2015, 3:04 pm

    Extraodinary view of active lava within crater. Very importante contribution to better comprehention of these phaenomena.-
    Cogratulation to the riskfullteam that accomplished this documental film.-

  31. Muhammed Adam Dawud
    Ghana
    March 5, 2015, 5:44 pm

    It is really awesome Mr.Sam Cossman and by the way thanks for your courageous.

  32. CAROLINE
    United States
    March 5, 2015, 6:23 pm

    BEAUTIFULL….THANKS A LOT

  33. Igan S. Sutawidjaja
    Bandung, Indonesia
    March 5, 2015, 8:30 pm

    It is a great movie..I proud to all of you

  34. richard h
    Indonesia, Jakarta
    March 6, 2015, 12:13 am

    waoo,.. it’s amazing..

  35. […] den Artikel von National Geographic auch nicht vorenthalten – den könnt ihr unter diesem Link nachlesen. Der Filmemacher Sam Cossman hat mit seinem Team ebenfalls einen Vulkan auf […]

  36. kailash kala
    New Delhi, India
    March 9, 2015, 2:33 am

    thanks for showing the amazing movements

  37. Clive Mainwaring
    S/W France
    March 10, 2015, 5:13 am

    The whole presentation in itself was awe inspiring, let alone the self determination of every member of the team to bring this item to the notice of the general public.
    With regard to the possible dangers, accidental or otherwise, may I offer you a very respectful and gracious thank you for this super and mind boggling display of Mother Nature, and her on going developement, deep in the bowels of the Earth.

  38. R.PADMANABAN SOCIAL SCIENCE TEACHER
    INDIA TAMILNADU STATE KARUR DT KATTAI SCHOOL
    March 10, 2015, 9:24 am

    Goodmorning sir, your work is very hard work. God is great. Really I will see volcano inside the part. Sir i am a teacher in Geography Subject so please send other photo send my email. Thanking you sir.

  39. ALEXANDRE PEPIN
    Brazil
    March 18, 2015, 3:37 pm

    Amazing… when and where will it be aired?

  40. Pierre
    Netherlands
    March 22, 2015, 6:45 am

    How did you protect the Phantom and the GoPro against the heat? And how close could you move the Phantom to the boiling crater?

  41. マグマ | TAJIMA+
    March 25, 2015, 8:37 am

    […] 出典:http://adventureblog.nationalgeographic.com/2015/02/20/video-adventurer-and-drones-go-into-the-volca… […]

  42. […] short video showcases one of our many internship opportunities that await you as a Geographic Science major in the Department of Integrated Science and Technology at […]

  43. […] personalities. For example, Romo said, the company will host Sam Cossman, who became famous for exploring an active volcano with drones, later this month. Cossman is expected to give a virtual lecture about his experiences, and then […]

  44. […] personalities. For example, Romo said, the company will host Sam Cossman, who became famous for exploring an active volcano with drones, later this month. Cossman is expected to give a virtual lecture about his experiences, and then […]

  45. […] personalities. For example, Romo said, the company will host Sam Cossman, who became famous for exploring an active volcano with drones, later this month. Cossman is expected to give a virtual lecture about his experiences, and then […]

  46. […] personalities. For example, Romo said, the company will host Sam Cossman, who became famous for exploring an active volcano with drones, later this month. Cossman is expected to give a virtual lecture about his experiences, and then […]

  47. […] personalities. For example, Romo said, the company will host Sam Cossman, who became famous for exploring an active volcano with drones, later this month. Cossman is expected to give a virtual lecture about his experiences, and then […]

  48. Dave
    United States
    May 3, 1:30 pm

    What little we are shown looks excellent but where is the full blown DVD / Movie / TV Episode on this? They spend more time talking about what they did than showing us the results. Basically, you start off with high hopes only to have them dashed. You have to do better than that to make a good impression with the audience.