Quick Deploy Boxes flip the switch on seismic station deployment

Diana Roman and Kathleen McKee install a QDP on the Stomboli volccano in 2018
EPL volcanologists Diana Roman (left) and former postdoc Kathleen McKee at Stromboli installing one of the Carnegie Quick Deploy Boxes developed with support of the Brinson Foundation. 
Wednesday, August 04, 2021 

You’ve flown in a helicopter, hiked miles up an active volcano, and finally, you’ve arrived at the seismometer you installed last year. You uncover the plastic box that houses your equipment, which you’re counting on to have a year’s worth of data stored. You cross your fingers and open the chassis only to find your equipment submerged in oily water. Corrosion abounds. Aside from the loss of equipment, you’ve lost important data that your research depends on. You may even have to start over or wait for another period of volcanic activity, which could take years.

You’ve just met face-to-face with a seismologist's worst nightmare: “battery soup”

Diana Roman, a staff volcanologist at the Earth and Planets Laboratory, has had her fair share of battery soup experiences, “The loss of the equipment is horrible, but it’s also the loss of data. It means you burned your time in the field, spent your funding, and now you’re sitting there with no data at the end of the field season.”

Water and electronics don’t mix. Most seismic stations use something called a “station box” which houses the data logger, battery, power regulator, and seismometer hook up. But station boxes aren’t perfectly environment-proof and each instrument requires a wire to pass through the box in some way.

Says Lara Wagner, a staff seismologist at the Earth and Planets Laboratory, “Everywhere there is a cable, there’s a hole in the box. And that is always a problem.”

One of Lara Wagner’s data loggers completely corroded after water leaked into a station box. Image Courtesy of Lara Wagner/Carnegie Institution for Science

Waterproofing seismic stations fight "battery soup"

Over the past few years, Lara Wagner and Diana Roman set out to develop a station box that could beat battery soup: the Quick Deploy Box (QDB). These boxes were based on the previous success of the PASSCAL Instrument Center’s MEVO box, which is designed for quick deployment in the extreme environment of Antarctica. 

According to Wagner, the Carnegie box needed to fill the following criteria:

1. It had to be waterproof.

2. It had to be "field-brain" proof, so it’s impossible to install incorrectly up when you’re exhausted in the field. 

3. There could be no loose small parts you can drop and lose.

4. It needed to be grab-and-go. That is, they wanted to be able to ship the whole station in a single, compact box so that most of the prep work could be done from the comfort of the lab. 

After years of in-house engineering, collaboration with Leeman Geophysical, and generous funding from the Brinson Foundation, scientists at the Earth and Planets Laboratory now have two models of QDB at their disposal. Version one is the full package, it contains the seismometer, data logger, and all of the support equipment in one easy-to-transport box. The newer models, which recently arrived on campus, are designed for larger seismic sensors that will ship separately.

At this point, the boxes have been put through the wringer. Says Wagner, “We soaked the box in mild sulphuric acid. We sent one to Alaska and set it out in gale-force winds. One baked in the Nicaraguan sun. We set up a mini-array in our backyards in the summer.” She continued, “In all cases, the boxes stayed working and waterproof.”

A speedy setup means better science

QDBs lined up awaiting deployment. The sensor and the solar panels are connected to the recorder and battery inside the waterproof Pelican case via waterproof pre-installed bulkhead plug fittings. Everything fits in the box for shipping except the battery, and everything in the box stays in the field for easy demobilization at the end of the project. 

Reducing waterlogged equipment isn’t the only benefit of using the QDBs. 

Roman says the QDBs are invaluable to her time-sensitive work. When it comes to eruptions and earthquakes, the faster you can get a seismometer installed the more likely you are to record an important event like an aftershock.

To install one traditional seismic station can take weeks of planning and shipping, three to four people, and the better part of a day of labor.

QDBs, on the other hand, are under the weight and size limits for airplanes, which means scientists don’t have to ship them separately—the equipment arrives with them on the plane. They reduce field costs, time spent, transportation time, and truck rentals. Plus, they are easier to deploy, which means scientists can go in a team of 2 and have a seismometer installed in an hour. 

This means the team can react more quickly and collect data from eruptions and seismic events all over the world, not just in places where they already had seismometers set up.

“The QDBs lower the bar on the decision of whether I should or shouldn’t go to a volcano that just started erupting,” says Roman. She continues, “I wouldn’t have gone to Iceland in June if I didn’t have two of these boxes on the shelf.” 

What’s next for QDBs? 

Field Seismologist Steven Golden prepares one of the 25 new Quick Deploy Boxes that arrived on campus in June 2021. 

The QDBs have already proven essential for Carnegie’s volcanology program. Carnegie received its first QDBs in 2018 and the entire volcanology team took them to the Stromboli volcano in Italy for a large-scale deployment. Most of them are currently in Chile awaiting deployment at Villarrica Volcano this winter.

Now, the geophysics team is prepping the 25 new QDBs that arrived on campus in July 2021 for their debut as part of Lara Wagner’s MUSICA project

MUSICA is an interdisciplinary project that aims to use seismology, tectonics, thermochronology, and geodynamics to study the unique tectonic setting in present-day Colombia. The goal is to gain a better understanding of the evolution of the Colombian continent and continental evolution as a whole. In order to do this, the team will need to set up a large dense seismic array across the three Cordilleras of the Colombian Andes. The QDBs will be essential in the successful deployment of the ambitious 75 station array. This project has been postponed due to COVID but is likely to kick back off again in 2022.