EasyJet, Airbus Plan Volcanic Ash Detection Test

 - May 20, 2013, 9:15 AM
EasyJet, Airbus and Nicarnica Aviation plan a final test in August of the airborne volcanic object imaging detector. (Photo: Easyjet)

UK-based low-cost carrier EasyJet, Airbus and Nicarnica Aviation (a spin-off of the Norwegian institute for air research) plan a final test in August of the Nicarnica-developed airborne-volcanic-object imaging detector (Avoid) in a bid to prevent the sort of major air traffic disruption the eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull caused in 2010.

The trial will involve two Airbus aircraft, one capable of dispersing ash. Earlier this month, EasyJet transported one metric ton (2,200 pounds) of volcanic ash to England for the research effort, collected by the Institute of Earth Sciences in Reykjavik. The partners plan to fit a second Airbus with the Avoid system and fly it through the artificial ash cloud created by the first.

The experiment must take place when the Seviri and Calypso satellites align, allowing scientists to view the ash cloud from space and thereby helping to prove the accuracy of the technology. “We will know exactly how much ash we have placed in the atmosphere, and also its concentration and composition; Avoid will then measure it,” explained Nicarnica chief technology officer Fred Prata.

The Avoid system works in a fashion “similar to weather radars,” according to Prata. It uses infrared technology to supply images to pilots and air traffic controllers. The images will enable pilots to see an ash cloud up to 100 km (54 nm) ahead of the aircraft and at altitudes of between 5,000 and 50,000 feet. The Avoid software converts the image signal into ash concentrations, from less than 1 milligram to more than 50 milligrams per cubic meter.

During the Eyjafjallajökull crisis, experts determined that flying in areas contaminated with less than 2 milligrams per cubic meter was safe. Among other hazards, volcanic ash can cause engine malfunction or even flameout, and the blockage of airspeed sensors.

Avoid may bring a major improvement in how real eruptions are handled. “We hope this system will contribute toward 3-D, dynamic mapping tools, [thus bringing] knowledge of the current location of ash clouds,” said Manfred Birnfeld, an Airbus senior flight-test engineer. According to EasyJet’s estimations, fitting Avoid devices to 100 aircraft (20 of which would come from EasyJet) across Europe would cover the continent. Today, volcanic ash advisory centers use mainly ground and satellite remote sensing to build dispersion models and forecasts. The resulting information lacks precision and, therefore, cannot detect with certainty safe areas for flying.