SUCCESS project profile: Diagnosing volcanic risk


18th June 2020

The SUCCESS programme is helping social scientists transform innovative and marketable ideas into a business or social enterprise.

We spoke to Dr Andrew McGonigle (University of Sheffield) about the technology he’s developed to get inside volcanoes and how the SUCCESS programme is supporting his project.  

Interview, Natural Environment, Research Commercialisation, SUCCESS and The University of Sheffield

Q: What’s the nature of your project and what are you looking to achieve?

We have developed low cost tech for taking the pulses of active volcanoes. These units are based on adaptation of smartphone cameras, and they can see the gases come out of volcanic craters, which provides a key diagnostic of underground conditions. This technology is useful in fundamental blue sky science as well as in diagnosing volcanic risk, helping to safeguard those living in the vicinity of these hazardous targets. We now want to achieve the most widescale dissemination of these units, so that they can have the greatest possible impact.

Q: What’s your background and why did you decide to focus on this idea?

I am a physicist by background and have always been really interested in how things work. This has ranged from tinkering with electronic gadgets to fathoming the workings of the most spectacular of natural phenomena, e.g., volcanoes. I suppose I ended up joining the dots and working out how we leverage new tech to understand an ancient threat in the form of volcanic activity. I am also Scottish, so have a disposition to try and find the most economic solutions. This has led to two decades of pioneering affordable solutions to volcano monitoring challenges, which are suitable for widespread dissemination.

Q: What are you hoping to get out of the SUCCESS programme?

At the moment we have done almost all of the R&D on our technology through being contracted in by partner agencies such as NASA, and volcano observatories in South America to deliver tech for them. The question now is how do we most effectively structure forward dissemination of these units to a wider range of stakeholders, with the aim of helping them do a better job in their volcano monitoring efforts. The SUCCESS programme is focused on helping to strategise the ‘how’ of delivering the maximum possible impact in this way, and that is what I hope to achieve through this ongoing interaction.

Q: What has been the most useful part of the SUCCESS programme?

The people. There is a really brilliant mixture of participants and mentors on the programme. Rubbing shoulders with the other participants is truly inspiring, and at points overawing, in consideration of some of the really brilliant ideas they have had, and their passion and good will to deliver change on that basis. The mentors too are fabulous, providing a steady stream of support, seasoned and neutral advice as well as being very accommodating through this particularly tricky period of COVID. This advice/mentorship would cost a lot of money if you had to pay for it yourself!

Q: What have you learned through the programme that you will bring back to your research?

I think we have been very fortunate to be able to grow our activity quite organically over the last few years, based on building partnerships, securing early stage funding via various contracts and research grants, and by having the right people in the right place at the right time. The programme provides a structured means to really think through the clear practical steps required to grow this activity into an enterprise of some description. This way of thinking is equally applicable to the operations of a research team as it is to a start-up business.

Find out more about the project:

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Photo credit: Brent Keane from Pexels

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