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Lava scientists’ drone guides lost resident through jungle

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Lost in a jungle, surrounded by lava and guided to safety by a drone flying overhead.

It’s not a futuristic high-tech movie, but the scene in Leilani Estates Sunday after a resident got “trapped at their residence” on Luana Street.

The Department of Interior’s Kilauea response team was on a mission to map the Lower East Rift Zone when scientists using an unmanned aircraft system, or drone, spotted a resident as lava from Kilauea Volcano continued to devour the rural subdivision in lower Puna.

The resident was able to “follow the drone to safety,” according to the USGS in a press release Wednesday.

Researchers had been using drones to monitor a flow headed toward Highway 132 and identified a new outbreak of pahoehoe lava rapidly moving north into a residential area down Luana Street at around 7 p.m.

Emergency responders were notified to evacuate the area between Makamae and Nohea streets to the north of Leilani Avenue. The drone was shooting video of the progress of the flow as police and firefighters began clearing residents off the streets.

Then the team of scientists overheard radio transmissions about the trapped resident.

For 2-1/2 hours, scientists operating the drone, along with emergency responders, helped the individual move through the jungle toward Nohea Street, where the drone was hovering. The name of the resident wasn’t disclosed.

“While he was making his way through the jungle, the … team was able to track him visually (he was using a cell phone flashlight) and information about his location was relayed to the ground searchers,” the USGS said. “After about 10 minutes of providing direction information to both the stranded person and the first responders, the search team was able to make contact and guide him to safety.”

Scientists were able track the rate and direction of the flow along Nohea Street with thermal video imagery and gas sensors in real time and send live video feeds to emergency personnel on the ground. They also were able to count the number of structures destroyed. About 75 homes have so far been overrun by lava.

“It’s not usually our mission to save people. We’re scientists. We monitor earth’s activities,” said USGS spokesman Paul Laustsen. “We’re there to help monitor the flows and try to understand what’s going on with lava that’s coming down. This was kind of a happenstance where we were on the scene and able to assist emergency responders.”

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