In the event of a volcanic eruption sending ash towards UK airspace during the Olympic Games, new detection technology could give vital, real time information on the actual amounts of ash in the atmosphere.
When incorporated into the safe fly protocols now agreed by the industry and overseen by national civil aviation authorities, and supplemented by other ash measurement data and prediction meteorological models, this could enable aircraft to fly safely.
Volcanic ash closed most European airspace for five days in 2010 – the highest level of air travel disruption since the Second World War and saw thousands of UK airline passengers stranded.
A year on from the Icelandic eruption, easyJet announced it was testing the AVOID (Airborne Volcanic Object Identifier and Detector) system in the hope that it would give the UK carrier the ability to navigate around future ash clouds without incurring risk.
AVOID at all costs
The AVOID system is effectively a weather radar for ash. The system comprises of infrared technology fitted to aircraft to supply images to pilots and an airline’s flight control centre. These images will enable pilots to see an ash cloud up to 100km ahead of the aircraft and at altitudes between 5,000ft and 50,000ft. This will allow pilots to make adjustments to the aircraft’s flight path to avoid any ash and therefore greatly reducing any future disruption to air travel.
easyJet and the developer of AVOID Nicarnica Aviation have now entered into partnership with European airframer Airbus to test the ash detection equipment on a A340-300 test aircraft at the speed and altitude of commercial aircraft.
The first phase of testing took place between 4-14 July and initial test flights at altitudes of up to 40,000ft have, according to the participants, proved successful. The tests on the A340 included mounting the equipment externally on the left side of the aircraft fuselage, with recording equipment and real-time monitors placed inside the cabin allowing viewing of the sky ahead.
The flights have been performed near Airbus’ home base at Toulouse, France, to first assess the sensor’s physical behaviour when mounted on the aircraft and exposed to the flight environment in addition to the performance of the detection system without the presence of volcanic ash.
If volcanic activity occurs during this test phase at Stromboli or Etna the aircraft could well be flown to Italy to test the equipment at commercial jet flight altitudes and speeds against any volcanic ash emitted.
Alternatively, if the meteorological conditions allow, the test aircraft will be flown over the Atlantic Ocean west of Morocco to prove the equipment can detect the fine particles of sand at altitudes of up to 20,000 feet and a distance of up to 50km, using the Saharan Air Layer as a proxy for volcanic ash.
The AVOID equipment has been fitted to the Airbus test aircraft, which the UK Civil Aviation Authority has asked to be made available during the period running up to and during the forthcoming Olympics. Now that the first phase of testing is successfully underway, easyJet, Nicarnica Aviation and Airbus have been able to commit to providing this ash detection support.
In the event of a volcanic eruption sending ash towards UK airspace, AVOID would give vital, real time information on the actual amounts of ash in the atmosphere. When incorporated into the safe fly protocols now agreed by the industry and overseen by the CAA and other ash measurement data and prediction models operated by the Met Office, this could enable aircraft to fly safely to and from London and the rest of the UK.
Ian Davies, easyJet engineering director said: “Now that the first phase of testing is well underway, easyJet and Airbus foresee being able to provide AVOID ash detection support this summer for the London Games.
“The threat of major volcanic eruptions disrupting air travel remains as real as ever. Currently both Katla and Askja volcanoes in Iceland have been put on heightened alert as increased seismic activity has been detected. An eruption from either would be around ten times greater than Grimsvotn and Eyjafjallajökull and could result in widespread air closure.”
Dr Fred Prata of Nicarnica Aviation, said the idea of an on board volcanic ash detection for commercial aircraft first came to him about 20 years ago, so he is more than satisfied that easyJet and Airbus have now tested the system on an A340 aircraft.
“The trials over Toulouse showed us that AVOID works well at high altitude and normal cruise speeds. AVOID imaged clouds 100 nm ahead of the A340 demonstrating for the first time that passive infrared cameras can provide sufficient warning time. A real-time display system on an iPad was used throughout the flights to inform the team of the nature of the clouds ahead,” he said.
“The next step is to test the system in the vicinity of an ash cloud or possibly to image Saharan dust, which has a similar infrared signature to ash and is also a hazard to commercial and military aircraft.”
Axel Krein, SVP Research & Technology at Airbus said the infra-red technology being developed in AVOID could prove to become valuable in terms of safely managing air transport in European Union, and also optimising flightpaths.
“This is why Airbus supports development of such technologies helping airlines take necessary decisions for a safe flight under the full knowledge of the overall situation.”
Padhraic Kelleher, UK CAA airworthiness chief said: ”We now have a range of tools available to reduce the impact of volcanic ash, such as improved forecasting. However, this does not guarantee that disruption will be minimised as much as it safely could be. The CAA therefore welcomes the easyJet, Nicarnica Aviation and Airbus work. If AVOID can deliver the capability promised, then the amount of airspace airlines need to avoid would be reduced.”
How AVOID works
The AVOID system can be likened to a weather radar for ash. Created by Dr Fred Prata of the Norwegian Institute for Air Research (NILU), the system comprises of infrared technology developed by the US military which is fitted to the aircraft to supply images to pilots and an airline’s operations control centre.
The images enable pilots to see an ash cloud, up to 100km ahead of the aircraft and at altitudes between 5,000ft and 50,000ft, thus allowing them to make small adjustments to the aircraft’s flight path to avoid an ash cloud. The concept is very similar to weather radars which are standard on commercial airliners today.
On the ground, information from aircraft with AVOID technology would be used to build an accurate image of the volcanic ash cloud using real time data. This could open up large areas of airspace that would otherwise be closed during a volcanic eruption, which would benefit passengers by minimising disruption.
AVOID was successfully tested in the skies over Mount Etna and Stromboli in November and December 2011 on a Flight Design CT aircraft at altitudes of up to 12,000ft.
Next phase of testing
The next phase of testing will be to fly the Airbus A340 aircraft near a major volcanic eruption later this year – volcanic activity is likely to take place in areas such as Indonesia, Alaska, Japan and, of course, Iceland, the home of Eyjafjallajökull, which caused unprecedented closure across European airspace in April 2010.
AVOID in action
At the end of testing and an EASA certification process the AVOID system will be ready to go into mass production. easyJet believes that if 100 aircraft – 20 of which would be easyJet’s -across Europe were to be fitted with AVOID equipment, this would provide comprehensive coverage of the continent enabling airlines to supply monitoring information to the authorities to support the new processes and procedures that were introduced after the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010. This vital information would enable all airlines to continue to fly safely in line with the UK CAA guidance of safe flying zones.
In the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Volcanic Ash Contingency plan for Europe and North Atlantic, ash contamination levels were classified into three groups – although the global aviation agency did acknowledge that all modelled ash concentrations are subject to a level of uncertainty. UK CAA guidance on ash contamination levels can be found here.
Area of Low Contamination: An airspace of defined dimensions where volcanic ash may be encountered at concentrations equal to or less than 2×10-3 g/m3, but greater than 2×10-4 g/m3.
Area of Medium Contamination: An airspace of defined dimensions where volcanic ash may be encountered at concentrations greater than 2×10-3 g/m3, but less than 4×10-3 g/m3.
Area of High Contamination: An airspace of defined dimensions where volcanic ash may be encountered at concentrations equal to or greater than 4×10-3 g/m3, or areas of contaminated airspace where no ash concentration guidance is available.
TOOLS FOR THE JOB
EVITA, or the European Crisis Visualisation Interactive Tool for ATFCM has been developed by Europe’s air navigation agency Eurocontrol to become the principal communications channel for airlines operating in Europe during crisis situations which affect a significant amount of airspace during longer periods of time.
If detection technology such as AVOID does prove successful in a real operation scenario, data would no doubt be fed through to a tool such as EVITA.
Already, it brings together volcanic ash concentration data provided by the Volcanic Ash Advisory Centres in London and Toulouse and Danger Areas declared via NOTAM by national aviation authorities in addition to the standard functionality of Eurocontrol’s existing Network Operations Portal website produced by its Central Flow Management Unit.
“It is a tool to support decision-making of airlines, state regulators, ANSPs etc,” says Eurocontrol’s Zarko Sivcev who helped to develop EVITA. “It should provide indications of which sectors and aerodromes are impacted by volcanic ash for national aviation authorities and ANSPs. Airlines will further be able to identify and plot their flights, which are likely to be impacted by volcanic ash .”
The tool’s use is not solely restricted to ash contamination but could equally be applied to crises involving nuclear emergency, pandemics and security alarms, indeed anything that has an adverse impact on the airspace.
“It should serve as a ‘one stop shop’, and therefore should reduce the risk of information overload,” says Sivcev.
In its current form it delivers a graphic depiction of how airspace is currently affected as well as offering how airspace will likely be affected in future as the crisis evolves. The tool will also be developed further to display data at the rate it is received and will also have enhanced dynamic features allowing the user to zoom and choose different overlays as well as produce static snap shot of tailor made chart.
EVITA will further support the depiction of impacted areas and provide coordinates and could also be tailored to be airline-specific, detailing which of the operator’s flights are impacted, by which ash concentration and give estimates of the duration.