How would you do this? Hazardous KAP

edited June 2009 in Safety
Back when I first got into doing KAP, one of the places I was just itching to fly was Volcanoes National Park. Before I even had my BBKK in-hand, I'd emailed the park superintendent and asked if I could do KAP there. The answer was a very clear, very emphatic no. I got a lot of good advice here, some of which included NOT taking that approach at places like national parks. But at that point I'd asked, I'd been answered, and to this day Volcanoes National Park is one of the more photogenic spots on the island I've never visited.

A lot has happened in the meanwhile. Now I've actually done some KAP, I've learned a lot about kite flying in general, and the volcano even started erupting. The most recent addition to this list is that I've been invited to do KAP at the park. In particular, I've been invited to do KAP over Halema`uma`u Crater, one of two active vents of the Kilauea Volcano, in order to photograph the lava lake at the bottom of the vent.


Of course I said yes!! I've been waiting for a couple of years to get a chance to fly in the park at all, and I figure getting a chance to fly over an active volcano is a once in a lifetime event. But this also raises some questions. The volcano is pumping out a whole host of sulfur compounds and acid gasses. At the very least, sulfur dioxide, sulfuric acid, and hydrochloric acid are things I'll need to deal with. There's also a strong possibility of hot cinder and glass particles. So it's not zero risk. But the prevailing wind direction actually makes for a nice launch spot, and even with the low line angle on a Flowform will probably let me keep the kite and line above the volcanic plume. Here's a webcam that's pointing at the area I've been invited to fly:

For kites I'm either using my 6' rokkaku or my Flowform 16. Both of these are nylon kites. My line is #200 Dacron, so that throws polyester into the mix. Both of these show low chemical resistance to sulfuric acid and hydrochloric acid, though the tables I looked that up in didn't indicate if this was exposure to acid gas or to a liquid solution. But both also melt at low temperature, so any exposure to hot ash or hot glass particles will probably cut my line.

For the record, I do not consider any of my gear to be expendable. Willing to risk my gear hanging it over water or over rocks? Yes. Doing something that I think stands a good chance of destroying my kite, my line, or my camera? Absolutely not. So the bulk of my planning is focusing on how to mitigate risks to my gear. If I can't figure out how to do it safely, I'm not doing it. I'll CRY, but I'm not doing it.

That being said, this is the plan:

For the camera, the plan is to put a sacrificial UV filter on the end of the lens, and to bag the whole rig with a 2-gallon ziplock bag all the way up to the pivot axis. My rig has Brooks's pan gear reduction on it, so the pan axis is a bolt rather than a servo. I may swap the bolt out for a stainless bolt for the sake of the rust this could cause. In any case I should be able to get a pretty good seal on the bolt. I don't know how the Picavet lines will hold up if exposed to a gas cloud, so I was planning on adding a stainless safety tether between the top of the Picavet and the kite line. So long as the kite and line don't fall apart, this should let me get my rig down even if I have gear failure with the rig.

I'm interested in taking pictures in all directions, but if in doubt I'm going to skip the BBKK rig for my lightweight ortho rig. The rangers who are arranging all this want pictures of the lava pool more than anything else, so the ortho rig should do fine. But given the choice I'd like to be able to do vertical panoramas from that vantage point. If there's any problem bagging the BBKK rig, though, the ortho rig is a lot easier to make airtight.

I don't plan to launch a kite unless I know there's good wind and that my line angle keeps my kite and line well clear of the plume. I also don't plan to launch if there's an active fountain in the crater. These can throw hot lava and glass WAY up into the air. (I'm guessing I won't be allowed to go down to the crater's edge if this is happening, anyway.) Other than this I really don't know how to ensure the safety of my kite or line.

What else should I be thinking about? I'm guessing this is going to happen in the next couple of weeks, possibly next weekend, so I don't have a lot of time to prep and test changes to my gear. But now I'm wishing I'd made that Tupperware pendulum rig for photographing whales!!

Anything anyone can think of, no matter how wild, please let me know. I'm not out on a limb on this one, I'm dangling in space.



  • Tom,
    Can you fly with wire, rather than line?
  • I traded email with one of the rangers who will be in on this, and he said the level of the lava lake is 1000' below the rim of the caldera where I'll be standing. So by the time things get up to that height, they're at ambient temperature. Heat really isn't an issue. The big issue is the corrosive gasses, which are visible. If the kite and line are clear of the plume, all good. If the kite and line are in the plume, they're being exposed. The rangers are equally interested in getting everything down safely, so they're fine with the idea of not hanging a camera on the line if the conditions are not right.

  • edited June 2009

    I think it will be easier than you think. Acid vapor works a much slower than a solution -- it will do bad things (mostly to metals / electronics) but it takes time. I'd bag the camera. For the exposure times your discussing you should be alright using a gallon bag and a rubber band around the lens adapter and pan pivot. Hopefully the rest of your rig won't look like this:

    paint can

    The lines and kites should be fine. 98% sulfuric will hydrolize dacron, but dilute vapor won't have an effect. Some dacron is waxed which might make you feel a bit more secure. Nylon is bit more susceptible but all the UV you've been giving them is probably more worrisome. The volcanologists could probably tell you if they notice certain types of clothing not standing up. If the wind is good for KAP it should push the plume away from you and your kite won't see anymore vapor than you will. If the wind dies or you're going for close-ups, that's another story.

    You could probably monitor for vapor with dry or slightly damp pH paper on the rig (the red/yellow metacresol purple stuff responds to vapor but I'm not sure how fast).
  • I'm wondering if there isn't something you could coat parts of your rig with in order to keep the vapor off of it? This may not be a helpful idea, but what about first covering the delicate parts with plastic and then spraying some kind of grease or oil on the rest? I know with my grill they recommend spraying cooking spray on it to prevent rust. Would spray cooking oil give a layer of resistance to acid?

    Maybe not a good idea, but only suggestion I could think of :D
  • edited June 2009
    I think Scott's idea of spray is great -- a Teflon spray would be quite appropriate, would it not?

    Despite my views stated on the current thread about the evils of kevlar line -- I think this is a case where some 200# braided kevlar would be just the ticket. Heat-resistant and stroooooong.

    Good luck, Tom! What a great opportunity!

    Tell ya what -- if you want to protect the camera and risk the rig, I'll cover the cost of any rig parts that get damaged from chemicals.
  • Lot's of good suggestions on how to protect gear.

    I'm wondering what the risks might be with respect to personal safety. I've been walking out there on Kilauea alongside surface lava flows and I'm wondering if there will be any near the spot(s) where you'll be flying from. If so, it would be great to have a spotter with you that can keep an eye on the ground, while you're focusing on the kite and camera. An assistant could also be keeping an eye on any tricky footing situations so that you don't stumble and cut yourself on sharp lava rock, as well as on ground temperature, if necessary. Even where the lava was not flowing on the surface, I remember smelling people's boots melting and regularly checking the temperature of the ground with my hand to make sure it wasn't too hot. If it was, just stepping onto an outcropping with an extra foot of elevation usually sufficed. I don't know how far you'll have to walk, but an assistant could also help you carry some of your equipment too. Make sure to bring plenty of water.

    If the wind changes, is there a risk of breathing dangerous particulates and/or gases? If so, do you have appropriate masks and/or respirators to protect you? If you don't, the Park Service folks may have some they'd be willing to loan you for your session.

    Other things that are crossing my mind:
    - do a test run or two with your protective measures in place to make sure they don't interfere with the normal functioning of the camera and rig. For instance, make sure that the protective bag stays out of your gears.
    - will there be any tricky exposure situations such as areas of bright lava in the middle of dark shadows? If so, try to simulate the conditions beforehand and make some tests with a variety of camera settings to make sure you get decent photos.

    It really sounds like the opportunity of a lifetime, Tom. I wish you luck and hope it all goes without a hitch! Enjoy!!
  • edited June 2009
    I hadn't surfed around the HVO site in a while. I think the timelapse movies are the best part of the volcano observatory website. There's also some "nightshot" mode video (in the image section) that tells you how near infrared might help you see through the plume.

    I should say that a great deal of my faith in the situation relates to your working with the park service. No one should ever try to work near active volcanoes without the support of people who regularly work there (and ultimately have the support of volcanologists). They help make this the safest, best studied active volcano in the world and one that (with their assistance) you can get closer to than any other.

    They also should be able to answer all the questions you have better than us (how do they protect remote instrumentation and cameras from volcanic aerosols and vapor? what is the life expectancy of remote instrumentation? Are special precautions taken for remote instrumentation? Are specific fabrics known to be items you don't wear or use near the volcano? ). They may even let you do a science experiment and leave some dacron and nylon up on the rim for a week (although I think this goes against every fiber of the park employees I've known).

    They may have some suggestions on camera settings also as you won't be the first to photograph the vent. A ground check might also tell you whether or not it's worth trying your polarizer to see through the plume to the lava lake and fountain (may depend on the angles you want).

    And don't stay on the rim too long. They don't have significant explosive events very often (and I think they're most likely to happen during transitional phases of the eruption) but those little pebbles, cobbles, boulders, and divits at your feet are the result.
  • Michael, I'll be escorted the entire time, so my guess is they'll pull the plug before major risk to personal safety becomes an issue. No surface flows where I'll be, but the loose cinder is a fall hazard. I'm glad you raised the point about a wind shift. I'll ask about respirators. (Egads... I'll have to shave. I look like an even bigger dweeb when I shave.) I'll also ask about hard hats and steel toed boots.

    Thanks for the chemical resistance info, tgran. That makes me feel TONS better. I probably will use a Teflon spray on all my rig bits, but I'll still probably bag it. But knowing that I'm doing more damage through UV exposure than I would through chemical attack makes me feel tons better about my kites and line. I'll ask about camera settings, too. They do weekly helicopter flights, so their photographer might be able to tell me what they've been using. On a whim I grabbed all the numbers I could find on the geometry of the crater, the vent, the lake, etc. and threw it all into CAD. The A650IS I'll be using has a 35mm minimum focal length I've been gritting my teeth about for over a year now. But after running these numbers I'm pretty darned happy with it. Worst-case, the highest line angle I can fly and still get over the vent is 40 degrees. That keeps me within FAA regs and the 1000' of line on my winder. That's pretty typical for my me-to-rig angle with a FF16. If in doubt, I'll tack on extra tail to lower the line angle. That's a configuration I've used a number of times out on the reefs, so I'm comfy with it. That should make the lava lake about 900 pixels wide on the camera. If the flying angle goes down to 20 degrees, which isn't unheard of if the wind is light, it should be closer to 1350 pixels wide on the camera. So the field of view really should favor good views of the lake, if I can see through the plume. But it makes aiming pretty critical.

    Brooks, I appreciate your offer, and I'll take ya up on it! My guess is the aluminum parts will be happy as clams in that environment, considering the anodizing process uses sulfuric acid to grow the oxide layer. But knowing my track record these days, if I wind up tripping over a boulder while landing my rig, can I, uh, get another set of leg brackets? I installed my last spare a few weeks ago.

    One encouraging thought in all this is that my wife is about as excited as I am. She's planning to drive us down when the day comes, and has promised to take copious pictures from the vantage point of the Hawaii Volcano Observatory. So one way or the other there will be pictures from all this. I just hope she can keep from laughing long enough to hold the camera steady!

  • Tom, my artist brother Andy lives in Kurtistown, right down the road from the volcano, if you need a helper -- or a base camp. droidl at mac dotcom .

    I'll send some leg brackets tomorrow.
  • Tom,

    After reading this post I have decided that the situation is to risky for you to do. You are an accomplished astronomer and KAPer.

    Therefore, in the interest of science and your well being, I will do the job for you.

    Please send the tickets to my home address. Accommodations at a B&B near the Volcano winery will be adequate for slumming it. Several days for, er, uh, test runs, at the Hilton Waikoloa should also be useful.


    Have a (pun only mildy intended) blast! What a great opportunity!
  • edited June 2009

    I had in the recent past Kapped some live volcanoes in Vanuatu, in the South Pacific.

    Well, despite the volcano's heat I had no problems with the kite line or the kite itself, but instead I had big problems with the wind, and I lost a cannon S70 there that was replaced by my travel insurer.

    The problem with the wind originates when the heat of the volcano causes an upwards thermal, but soon it refries forming an invisible motion that reassembles a mushroom. What I had was the kite going up very quickly, and then drifting to the side to go down as a comet.

    Even running on the top of the cold lava, and pointing against the prevailed wind I was not able to recuperate hight, and the camera banged against the ground crashing the lens, and the telescopic mechanism. The conclusion was that I had not enough time up in the air to feel the environment, and because that the pics ( just 2 or 3) came out blurred. The worst was to loose the camera for the rest of the trip without another camera to replace it.

    The risk is yours of course, but if I put myself in your pants, I probably would try it, but I would fly my kite for much, but much much longer than I did, before I attach the rig on the kiteline. This is to make shure of the kite behaviour in DIFFERENT ALTITUDES, Which is crucial to deal with the kite in such turbulent environment

    Hope you can realise it, which has been one of my Kap dreams for a long long time.

    This is my two cents, Wish you sucess.

  • edited June 2009
    Hi Tom

    If you're worried about your gear, ask them if they have a budget (most parks will have a budget for environmental monitoring and the cost of a beginner's KAP set-up is peanuts compared to their other budget items). Build them their own rig and teach them how to use it. Then your only risk is your personal saftey :)

    Let's face it, once they've been out KAPPING and seen the results, Brooks is going to get a phone call.

    PS - I'm jealous
  • Thanks, Brooks! I appreciate both the leg brackets and the pointer toward your brother. I'll drop him a line when I get the dates firmed up, if for no other reason than getting a free kite show at the volcano.

    RJoe, erm... Yeah. I appreciate that offer, too, but I'm pretty good at doing my own slummin'. ;)

    Roger, I was wondering what the heat would do to the air. I'll make sure they understand why I'm planning to fly a bottle before flying my rig. I hadn't really planned on that 'till now, so thanks for bringing this up. Another concern I've got about wind is that there's a cliff wall upwind of the spot where I'll be flying. It's a good distance away, and is probably a ratio of 1:30 or 1:40 comparing height:distance, but the wind won't be completely clean. I'll plan to test the kites some distance from the crater, try a bottle, and then try to walk the whole mess over to the edge to see what the plume does to the air. I'll plan to test at a variety of altitudes as well. You're right. It'll depend a lot on how high the kite is and how far out over the vent it is.

    Super G, that really is my hope, in the end. I'd like them to see that KAP can be done well, can be done safely, and that it offers an inexpensive platform for short distance remote sensing in general. I'd be more than happy to help them build out their own rigs and get them comfortable with the equipment. And I hope this leads to more opportunities for doing KAP on the Big Island!

  • Hi Tom,
    If you need 2 assistants for this expedition, you know where to reach us ! Seriously we would love to join and participate in your Vocanoe Kite Show!!
    Pierre & Heidy
  • Convection cells do seem like they might be a significant problem (both over the lake and over active flows lower down. This session might be best done in a stronger wind where the plume and convection cell is strongly deflected downwind.
  • Reading this old thread, I wonder if the expedition went ahead and if so, are the results online somewhere?

  • I'm afraid to say it never happened. Or rather it hasn't happend YET. That trip didn't materialize, but I've had a couple of other leads since. Kinda hoping it hits critical mass at some point and I'm able to give it a go. Fingers crossed!

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