Xing and collaborators travel to Ecuador to monitor the Tungurahua Volcano

Being Smart: Innovative Monitoring Systems Help Researchers Look Inside Volcanos

Volcano Equipment

Modern science went to the mountain this summer. The mountain is the Tungurahua Volcano in Ecuador. CSE assistant professor Guoliang Xing along with other U.S. and Ecuadorian collaborators worked on installing low-cost seismic monitoring stations on the volcano, which has been in the eruption process since October 1999.

By deploying a large number of these portable stations it will be possible to reveal the internal structure of the volcano. "This is an intriguing research project,” says Xing who specializes in low power sensor networks. “It must incorporate elements from signal processing, to mesh networks, to distributed algorithms into a small package that can reliably operate unattended for several months at a time."

Xing wants to use his expertise in sensor networking to help solve critical problems in various areas, including health care, energy and environmental challenges. He also is interested in working with people in different fields, like the volcanologists involved in this volcano project.

The trip in August 2012 to the volcano located near Baños, Ecuador, provided an opportunity to test the prototype monitoring stations under actual field conditions. It also gave the researchers firsthand knowledge of the issues that will be faced when deploying 500 stations around the entire volcano. The prototype monitoring stations deployed during the field study were developed by Xing, his postdoc Rui Tan, and CSE PhD students Mohammad-Mahdi Moazzami and Dennis Philips.

Each of these prototypes utilizes a seismic sensor and a Smartphone embedded in a weather-proof case to collect and process seismic information of volcanoes. It has a backup power system that guarantees autonomy for several days. It also has a small GPS module inside that gives the exact position and time that will be recorded along with the seismic data. “By leveraging the built-in sensing, localization, and communication capabilities of off-the-shelf Smartphones, we were able to develop these prototypes in a timely manner and at low costs,” says Xing.

The research is part of a $1.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a new way to perform four-dimensional tomographic imagining of an active volcano in real time. Xing is working with WenZhan Song, an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science at Georgia State University, Jonathan Lees, a professor in the Department of Geological Sciences at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Dr. Mario Ruiz at the Ecuadorian Geophysical Institute.

The goal by 2015 is to install 500 portable monitoring stations that are all networked together, putting Tungurahua in the forefront of research of volcanoes. The monitors that were tested on the trip to Ecuador this summer responded well to tests and recorded the seismic signals of real earthquakes occurred on Tungurahua during the period.

One of the keys to this project is the cost. A conventional station to monitor volcano activity costs more than $20,000. Using the new technology the monitors will cost less than $500/station. “By installing hundreds of such inexpensive stations, we can increase the seismic monitoring resolution by an order of magnitude or more and visualize three-dimensional fluid dynamics of a volcano conduit system in real-time, enabling new scientific discoveries on the geology and physics of active volcanism, and the implementation of new early warning systems,” explains Xing.


In the future, volcanologists will not have to visit the stations to collect data. The seismic data will be automatically collected and processed by a network of sensors, and finally useful information will be transmitted to a gateway for further analysis. Currently, many of the most threatening, active volcanoes are monitored only by fewer than 20 stations, limiting scientists’ ability to understand complex volcano dynamics.

Xing is enthused about the results so far. “This project is exciting, and it has a high impact because it will help to develop inexpensive, portable sensor network technologies that can be deployed in many hazardous volcanoes for real-time, long-term monitoring.”

The article can be found at, and an English translation of the article is available at

(Date Posted: 2013-10-10)