In April 2010, Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland spews huge clouds of ash that were blown across Europe, disrupting air travel.

Aircraft Volcanic Ash Sensor Successfully Tested

EasyJet, Airbus, and Nicarnica Aviation created what they called the world's first significant artificial ash cloud in order to test the AVOID sensor's ability to detect and estimate concentrations of volcanic ash in the atmosphere.

The airline EasyJet announced Nov. 13 that it and two partner organizations have successfully completed final tests of a new type of sensor named AVOID (Airborne Volcanic Object Identifier and Detector) that will allow aircraft to detect and estimate concentrations of volcanic ash in the atmosphere. Developing this capability is critical because of the threat of Icelandic volcanoes spewing vast ash clouds that cross over Europe, as happened in April 2010 when the Eyjafjallajökull eruption caused more than 100,000 flights to be cancelled. The cancellations caused a $2.6 billion loss for the aviation industry, acording to EasyJet.

The testing by EasyJet, Airbus, and Nicarnica Aviation involved what they called the world’s first significant artificial ash cloud, when more than a ton of volcanic ash was released from an Airbus A400M aircraft flying above the Bay of Biscay. An Airbus A340-300 fitted with the AVOID sensor was flown toward the cloud and successfully identified the ash from a distances of about 35 miles and accurately measured its concentration. A third, small aircraft was flown into the cloud to corroborate the AVOID measurements.

"The threat from Icelandic volcanoes continues and so we are delighted with the outcome of this unique and innovative experiment. Finding a solution is as crucial now as ever to ensure we never again see the scenes of spring 2010 when all flying ceased across Europe for several days,” said Ian Davies, EasyJet's engineering director. "This is a key step in the final journey of testing the technology and moving towards commercial certification. EasyJet will now work towards a non-integrated stand-alone system which we aim to fit onto a number of our current fleet of aircraft by the end of 2014."

"The team has just executed a unique scientific and engineering experiment conclusively demonstrating that low concentrations of ash can be identified by the AVOID sensor. The highly successful outcome of this complex experiment, which involved delivering 1,000 kilograms of fine ash into a small airspace, controlling four aircraft, and coordinating the measurements from two of the aircraft is a testament to the commitment and skills of EasyJet and Airbus engineers and a great example of industry and science coming together to solve an important problem," said Dr. Fred Prata, the AVOID technology's inventor, of Nicarnica Aviation. The sensor uses infrared technology to supply images to pilots and an airline’s operations control center, allowing pilots to see an ash cloud up to 60 miles ahead of their aircraft and at altitudes between 5,000 and 50,000 feet, Prata said.

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