SONDA: an innovative system that enhances oceanic and atmospheric data acquisition

The “Synchronous Oceanic and Atmospheric Data Acquisition” (SONDA) project, led by idMEC, started less than one year ago and shows encouraging results. The project aims to enhance oceanic and atmospheric data acquisition, and proposes the development of an additional system to the existing observing systems. In recent months, several SONDA researchers travelled to La Palma’s Cumbre Vieja volcano, to test the first model developed by the team.

Researchers from idMEC, the University of Minho and the Research Institute for Volcanology and Risk Assessment (IVAR) – University of the Azores, are developing an innovative system that will include probes capable of continuously monitoring parameters of interest, from the stratosphere to the deep sea, and a high-altitude balloon-based transport system.

SONDA started in March 2021 and will last for 3 years. The project is funded by FCT (€250,000) and “resulted from two exploratory research projects previously developed under the scope of the MIT Portugal program – HABAIR and 2DeepScape”, shares Alexandra Moutinho, professor at the Department of Mechanical Engineering (DEM), researcher at idMEC and scientific coordinator of the SONDA project. “The teams of these projects crossed paths in some meetings, and we rapidly concluded that we should bring them together in to one project and take our goals to a new level, and hence the SONDA project came about”, recalls the Técnico professor.

The SONDA system consists of several probes and a high-altitude balloon, and will allow to collect data in an economic and integrated way, from near space to deep sea.

The research team carried out tests at Cumbre Vieja volcano

The volcanic eruption of Cumbre Vieja volcano, on La Palma, Canary Islands, was considered the longest in the history of the Spanish island of La Palma and the most destructive of the last century in Europe. The eruption on La Palma has provided a unique scenario for a demanding test of the first phase of the SONDA system. The work in La Palma resulted from a partnership between SONDA and VOLRISKMAC II, and was funded by the Mission Structure of the Azores for Space and FCT.

Professor Alexandra Moutinho shares her feelings as she stepped into this natural disaster scenario: “It was the first time I was close to an erupting volcano, and it was an exciting experience in many ways. We felt dazzled by the landscape that surrounded us and desolated knowing that the lives of many people had been affected by this natural disaster”.

On a scientific level, it has been a truly rewarding experience. In addition to testing all aspects of the project, it was possible to expose the SONDA system to adverse conditions. The ashes and gases released during the eruption reached high layers of the atmosphere and the lava reached the sea, causing an impact on the coastal zone. This scenario provided the optimal conditions for testing the probe prototypes at ground level, at high layers of the atmosphere, and in an aquatic environment, as well as the entire communication system.

According to professor Alexandra Moutinho “these tests were mainly focused on the detection and measurement of the eruptive products – that can be quite harmful to the population, namely carbon dioxide (CO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2) and particulate matter (PM) – and the monitoring of lava flows reaching the sea”.

During the volcano eruption, the team travelled to the Canary Islands in October and in December. The works were carried out in collaboration with researchers from the Instituto Volcanológico de Canarias (INVOLCAN). The team placed “a sensor network around the volcano to measure these variables continuously, and several buoys to monitor hydroacoustic and environmental parameters near lava deltas. We also launched balloons to acquire data along the eruptive plume”, points out professor Alexandra Moutinho.

The success of the first tests and the willingness to continue improving the SONDA system

The results obtained helped to improve the model and proved its success, “demonstrating the usefulness of the system in the management of a volcanic crisis”, shares the iDMEC researcher. It was possible to easily install or launch the equipment, and acquire real-time remote data on any device with internet access.

“The atmospheric soundings allowed to measure the particles and sulfur dioxide concentrations along an eruptive plume and characterise its vertical profile. The buoy test allowed to record the acoustic environment near lava deltas and to test the design and configurations of the device for communication and sensor integration”, says professor Alexandra Moutinho. “The sensor network installed around the volcano allowed continuous monitoring and provided real-time information, with good spatial and temporal correlations between different parameters”, she adds. Although the team is no longer working in La Palma, the equipment was left there and has been used to measure the concentration of dust from the Sahara Desert (calima) that has reached the Canary Island, namely La Palma.

Despite the remarkable progress achieved so far, the team aims to continue improving the system. “We will develop new solutions, whether for the atmospheric context or for the underwater context. We will continue to validate the solutions we develop, on the Continent and in the Azores, although we will hardly test it again in a context as challenging as that of the Cumbre Vieja volcano”, says professor Alexandra Moutinho.

The primary goal of the team is that the SONDA system can be used by national and international entities. “We are certainly on the right track”, says the Técnico professor.