Ash Detector AVOID Could Prevent Future Travel Chaos

on December 08 2011 6:01 PM

Iceland was once known for its dazzling landscapes and ethereal music acts. Now, the Nordic nation is synonymous with airport cancellations and travel chaos. However, one airline may have a solution.

UK-based budget airline EasyJet claims to have successfully tested a device that can detect airborne ash from a volcano.

The airline asserts that if fitted to all aircraft, the volcanic ash detector could drastically reduce disruptions to air traffic and frustrations for passengers in the event of future large-scale volcanic eruptions.

The 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull cost airlines roughly $2 billion and underscored how vulnerable global travel is to the whims of nature. An estimated 10 million passengers were left stranded at airports not just in Europe but across the globe for more than a week.

Because Eyjafjallajökull was high in superheated gas, it sent ash billowing into airspace. A similar cloud at a lower altitude would have a negligible impact on air travel.

Eruptions at Chile's Puyehue and yet another Icelandic hothead, Grímsvötn, similarly closed airspace across the globe from the UK to Australia. 

In each instance, aviation authorities insisted that airports remain closed until the ash cleared while the airlines (losing millions of dollars for each day they couldn't fly) insisted the skies were, for the most part, safe.

Experts predict that another Iceland volcano, Katla, is ready to blow - though it could happen next week, next year, or in five years.

EasyJet is betting that when that happens, they'll be one step ahead of the pack.

Scientists at the Norwegian Institute of Air Research hope to make ash cloud cancellations a thing of the past. Their Airborne Volcanic Object Imaging Detector (with the non-accidental acronym AVOID) was unveiled in Sicily, Italy on Wednesday with a test flight over one of the world's most active volcanoes, Mt Etna.

Mt Etna frequently casts a shadow over Sicily, with a plume of black smoke that obscures the volcano's summit.

As the name suggests, AVOID's job is to detect ash clouds. The new technology involves two wing-based infrared cameras that can detect particles of ash in the air up to 60 miles away, allowing pilots to take avoiding actions.

Why can't planes fly through ash? After all, planes fly through lightning storms, heavy fog, rain, snow and the occasional flock of geese and come out on the other side just fine.

The short answer?

They would literally fall out of the sky.

The long answer?

Tiny volcanic ash particles are extremely fine and if they get into a jet engine, it can block up the ventilation holes that let in cooling air. They accumulate, melt and form molten glass inside, causing damage and raising engine temperatures to almost 2,000 F (1,093 C) - that's lava in your jet engine, which can lead to the engine cutting out completely.

The ash particles also erode the body and windscreens of the plane, making it impossible for the pilot to see to direct the plane. Furthermore, the particles can clog the fuel system.

None of this is something you want to happen when cruising at 30,000 feet.

Designed by British scientist Dr Fred Prata, the AVOID system uses heat detecting cameras, accompanied by satellite data and atmospheric modeling, to tell pilots where an ash cloud is and where it could be heading.

The relatively small, orange machine makes it possible for pilots to detect an ash cloud ahead at altitudes between 5,000 and 50,000ft. Measuring the density of the ash, it can detect safe corridors though which planes can fly.

It has two fast-sampling thermal infrared cameras which make images of anything that's in front of the aircraft, Prata told the Guardian. The two cameras have been tuned to see the signature of silicates, which are the components that make up volcanic ash.

EasyJet says its research demonstrates that ash travels in clumps - and that if you can detect where the ash is concentrated you can simply redirect plane routes to avoid them.

To be clear, AVOID does not make the aircraft ash-proof, nor does it actually improve the safety of the plane. AVOID is simply a detection system.

How air traffic controllers would deal with a sky full of planes simultaneously altering course remains an unanswered question.

EasyJet has proudly proclaimed that analysis for the two recent Icelandic eruptions showed that the majority of flight cancellations would have been prevented with AVOID technology.

EasyJet and plane-making company Airbus have agreed to work together on further testing the new technology in the coming year, and, if all goes well and certification is approved by the European Aviation Safety Agency, the airline will begin installing AVOID devices on its own planes from next summer.

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