High altitude testing volcanic ash detection technology

Paul Boughton
EasyJet and Nicarnica Aviation have entered a partnership with Airbus to test the AVOID (Airborne Volcanic Object Imaging Detector) ash detection equipment on their A340-300 test aircraft at the speed and altitude of commercial aircraft.

The first phase of testing is taking place from 4 - 14 July and initial test flights at altitudes of up to 40,000ft have been successful.  The tests on the A340 include 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 flight environment and then the performance of the detection system without the presence of volcanic ash.

If volcanic activity happens during this test phase at Stromboli or Etna the aircraft may then 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 then the test aircraft will in the next few days fly 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 Civil Aviation Authority 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.[Page Break]

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.

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) fitted to aircraft to supply images to pilots and an airline’s operations control centre. The 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, thus allowing them to make small adjustments to the plane’s flight path to avoid any 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.[Page Break]

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.

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.

At the end of testing and an EASA certification process the AVOID system will be ready to go into mass production.   

Ian Davies, easyJet Engineering Director commented: “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.”[Page Break]

Dr Fred Prata of Nicarnica Aviation, said: “The idea of an on board volcanic ash detection for commercial aircraft first came to me about 20 years ago, so it is with great satisfaction and excitement 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.

“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: “We are all working towards reducing the impact of volcanic ash clouds, and under these conditions, the infra-red technology being developed in AVOID could prove to become valuable in terms of safely managing air transport in EU, and also optimising flightpaths.
“This is why Airbus supports development of such technologies helping to allow the airlines to take necessary decisions for a safe flight under the full knowledge of the overall situation.”
Padhraic Kelleher, CAA Head of Airworthiness 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.”

Last night at Farnborough, in recognition for their work on AVOID, Ian Davies and Dr Fed Prata were named Flightglobal’s Aviators of the Year.  The prestigious award is given each year to the individual or team who has done most to advance the cause of safety and operational best practice in the field of aviation.  Also on the shortlist were Andre Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard of Solar Impulse, Mark Stucky, test pilot from Scaled Composites and US Marine Corps pilots Major Richard Rusnok and Lt Col Matt Kelly.

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 CAA guidance of safe flying zones.

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