Low-cost airline easyJet and Nicarnica Aviation have entered a partnership with Airbus to test the Airborne Volcanic Object Imaging Detector (Avoid) ash detection equipment on their A340-300 test aircraft.
The first phase of testing, presently underway, sees equipment mounted externally on the left side of the aircraft fuselage, with 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.
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 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.”
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) 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.