Successful high-altitude testing for volcanic ash-detection technology

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With the threat of volcanic eruption to commercial airspace as real as ever, the industry has been testing new methods to stay safe and avoid disruption for business and passengers.

easyJet and Nicarnica Aviation have entered a partnership with the European aircraft manufacturer 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 took place in July and initial test flights at altitudes of up to 40,000 feet (about 12,200 metres) were successful. The tests included mounting equipment externally on the aircraft fuselage, with recording equipment and real-time monitors placed inside the cabin allowing viewing of the sky ahead.

Test flights have been performed near the 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.

Plans also included tests in any volcanic activity at Stromboli or Etna with aircraft flown to Italy to test the equipment at commercial jet flight altitudes and speeds. Test aircraft were also flying 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.

In the event of a volcanic eruption, Avoid gives vital, real-time information on the amounts of ash in the atmosphere. For UK airspace, when incorporated into the safe fly protocols now agreed by the industry and overseen by the Civil Aviation Authority and other ash-measurement data and prediction models operated by theƊMeteorological Office, this could enable aircraft to fly safely to and from London and the rest of the UK.

One of the programme’s priorities after the disruption caused by Icelandic volcanoes in previous years was to provide assurance for flights for the 2012 London Olympic & Paralympic Games.

Ian Davies, easyJet’s engineering director, said after the initial tests: “Now that the first phase of testing is well under way, easyJet and Airbus foresee being able to provide Avoid ash-detection support this summer.”

The inventor of the Avoid system, Dr Fred Prata of Nicarnica Aviation, said: “The idea of an onboard 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.”

Axel Krein, senior vice-president of research and technology at Airbus, said: “We are all working towards reducing the impact of volcanic ash clouds and, under these conditions, the infrared technology being developed in Avoid could prove to become valuable in terms of safely managing air transport in the European Union, and also optimising flight paths.

“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,” he added.

Padhraic Kelleher, head of airworthiness at the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) , 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 [that] airlines need to avoid would be reduced.”

In recognition for their work on Avoid, Ian Davies and Dr Prata have been named Flightglobal’s Aviators of the Year. The 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.

The Avoid system created by Dr Prata of the Norwegian Institute for Air Research (NILU) consists of infrared technology – developed by the US military – fitted to aircraft to supply images to pilots and an airlineƕs operations control centre. The concept is very similar to weather radar systems that 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, and would benefit passengers by minimising disruption.

Ian Davies is the technical director and head of engineering at easyJet where he is responsible for the airworthiness of the airline’s 204 Airbus A320 family of aircraft. He runs the team of about 250 support managers and engineering staff that ensures easyJet aircraft are always kept in a safe and highly maintained condition.

Davies discovered the work of Dr Prata while the first Icelandic eruption was taking place. He convinced him to collaborate with easyJet to develop the technology for use on easyJet aircraft and in the wider commercial airline industry.

Since the start of his involvement he has become recognised as an industry expert on the subject of volcanic ash and its effects on aircraft, and participated with a European team of expert scientific research agencies as a full partner with the aim of testing the effects of volcanic ash on turbine engine components. This should provide viable evidence of turbine engine tolerance limit to ash and further increase our knowledge of how to operate safely in contaminated airspace.

Davies is a licensed aircraft engineer with over 35 years of experience in civil aviation and has worked for easyJet for almost four years. Prior to his appointment at easyJet, he was director of engineering at BMI British Midland for seven years.

Dr Prata is a director of Nicarnica Aviation (a spin-off company of NILU), that was set up to develop and commercialise technology for the detection of volcanic ash and other hazards to the aviation industry. Dr Prata holds a doctorate from Oxford University in stratospheric dynamics.

 

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