Drones. Whether they're used to make reconnaissance flights over Syria for the US military or by tourists in London's Trafalgar Square to scale Nelson’s column (before almost crashing into me on the way back down), they seem to be everywhere these days. In fact, I recently played around with one at an experimental volcanology site in Buffalo, New York before it was rather dramatically consumed in the fires over Stromboli – the volcanic 'Lighthouse of the Mediterranean' – later that year. 

And as it turns out, short of hiring wingsuit-wearing daredevils to fly into the craters of active volcanoes, drones are the most phenomenally useful way for volcanologists to look at these extreme environments up close without being accidentally flambéed.

Just recently, a group of tech-savvy explorers led by filmmaker Sam Cossman teamed up with drone expert Simon Jardine (along with his drones capable of lifting an IMAX camera!) on an expedition to the Marum crater at Ambrym volcano in Vanuatu, an island nation to the east of New Zealand. The crater contains one of the world’s few lava lakes: a tempestuous, broiling, bubbling pit of magmatic doom, flinging molten projectiles up into the air and sending streaks of fresh molten rock up into the sky as gigantic flares.

Lava lakes are one of the few places on Earth where volcanologists can see the creation of fresh lava at its source, allowing them to record important information about their eruption rate, explosivity, geochemistry and gas content.

But as you may have surmised, these lakes are incredibly hot – often over 1000 degrees Celsius (1832°F)! They belch out highly acidic gases into the air, and sweeping air currents (both hot and cold) rapidly ascend and descend, fuelled by the raging heat from the lake below. Without protection, a scientist standing too close could receive a sudden superheated air blast to the face. And that's where drones, like those piloted by Jardine and overseen by Cossman at Marum, come in really handy.

These drones are clever little things: they record high-definition footage, photographic images, thermal readings and chemical signatures of the lava lake and its noxious emissions – all whilst battling those powerful, unpredictable air currents. Cossman’s team even managed to use its collection of photographic imagery to build up a 3D virtual model of the crater, allowing others to tour this extreme environment without singeing their eyebrows.

Over the course of the expedition, several drones were destroyed by either the turbulent air currents flinging them into the rock faces or the acidic gases corroding the mechanical instruments over the course of a few hours. But ultimately, the little plastic copters managed to map Marum like never before, providing an extremely valuable swath of volcanological information.

Mapping is one thing ... but drones have other potential scientific uses – like searching for life. In terrestrial environments that are inaccessible to humans or very difficult to reach, drones can help researchers safely track orangutans in Sumatran junglessecretive nesting ospreys in Montana or Australia's endangered koalas. Even microbial life could be detected. Extremophiles – microbial organisms that have evolved to exist in very hot, very cold or very toxic places – are often found in volcanic regions, including acidic lakes, underwater volcanoes and, yes, perhaps even on the rim of lava lakes.

Searching for such traces of life was one of the goals of the Marum expedition. "We were there to investigate how quickly microbial colonisation happens on rocks. We certainly wouldn't imagine that there is life in the lava lake itself – it's just way too hot ... but the instant the rock cools to below 120°C, it's considered a habitable environment," says geobiologist Jeffrey Marlow, who was part of the expedition. 

By looking for the telltale signs of microscopic colonies (such as the methane gas produced by certain bacteria or their evolutionary cousins, the archaea) drones could reveal the presence of life in the most extreme of environments without endangering a solitary scientist.

Drones are indubitably the new delivery systems: delivering parcels to your door, humanitarian aid to disaster zones and even scientific data to your laptop. 

Top header image: ierdnall, Flickr