easyJet to test AVOID detection technology with own ash cloud

AVOID_20111118_P1080248UK carrier easyJet and partners Airbus and Nicarnica are planning to create their own volcanic ash cloud as part of test to develop vital detection technology.

A tonne of ash – specially dried to the consistency of dried talc – that has been collected by the Institute of Earth Sciences in Reykjavik has now been flown from Iceland to England for the experiment.

One of two Airbus A340-300 test aircraft will then disperse the ash creating an artificial ash cloud for the other Airbus to detect and avoid using the AVOID (Airborne Volcanic Object Imaging Detector) ash detection equipment.

The experiment which should take place in August will happen when the Seviri and Calypso satellites are aligned to be able to image the ash cloud from space which will check whether the AVOID technology is working to the best of its ability.

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 100 km ahead of the aircraft and at altitudes between 5,000ft and 50,000ft. This will allow pilots to make adjustments to the plane’s flight path to avoid any ash and therefore greatly reducing any future disruption to air travel.

EasyJet believes that if 100 aircraft (20 of which would be EasyJet aircraft) across Europe were to be fitted with AVOID equipment, this would provide comprehensive coverage of the continent.

Manfred Birnfeld, senior flight test engineer for Airbus,  said: “We are all working towards reducing the impact of volcanic ash clouds, and the technology being developed in AVOID could prove valuable in identifying airspace free of ash contamination and provide data for pilots and airlines on the precise localisation of ash clouds.

“This is why Airbus is supporting the development of AVOID and we hope this system will contribute towards three dimensional, dynamic mapping tools to allow the airlines to take necessary decisions for a safe flight under the full knowledge of current location of ash clouds.”

Initial testing at altitudes of up to 40,000ft of the new technology took place during a two week period over Sicilian volcano Mount Etna in 2011, and the airline at that time said the AVOID system was on schedule to be in commercial use by summer 2012.

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.

Those flights were performed near Airbus’ home base at Toulouse, France, to first assess the sensor’s physical behaviour when mounted on the aircraft and exposed to flight environment and then the performance of the detection system without the presence of volcanic ash. Later tests were then carried out on Saharan dust clouds and water vapour.

Following the widespread disruption in April 2010 of the Eyjafjallajökul volcano in Iceland which crippled aviation across Europe, airlines are now permitted to make a safety case to fly through low and medium concentrations of ash, subject to the approval of their respective national civil aviation authority.


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