Device for the avoidance of volcanic ash clouds has trial

A device that could help pilots avoid volcanic ash clouds has been successfully trialled on a small aircraft flying over Mount Etna.

The technology, referred to as AVOID (Airborne Volcanic Object Imaging Detector), could eliminate the risk of another Eyjafjallajökull crisis, which saw 95,000 flights grounded and cost BAA in excess of £28m. The flights were grounded as a precautionary measure over fears that volcanic ash would be sucked into jet engines and melt, causing them significant damage and even failure. 

The AVOID technology involves placing two infrared cameras onto an aircraft to supply images to pilots and an airline’s flight-control centre.

The device clocked up a total of 30 hours’ flight time when it was trialled in mid-November under the wing of a micro-light aircraft flying over Europe’s most active volcano, Mount Etna in Sicily, at altitudes of 12,000ft.

However, the technology is likely to have its greatest impact on commercial airlines, all of which were grounded for six days, causing flights to be cancelled due to concerns about the effects of ash on the blades of jet engines.

Dr Fred Prata, inventor of the device and a senior member of the Norwegian Institute for Air Research, told The Engineer he believes the AVOID system is fully capable of working at altitudes of up to 50,000ft.

After announcing in June 2010 that the device would be tested by Airbus within two months, the team has not yet been able to try its device on a jet aircraft due to a series of setbacks. However, it is optimistic that it will be able to test its technology such an aircraft in the near future.

‘We’re talking seriously with Airbus and we expect to do some trials on its A340 test aircraft early next year, which does not involve a lengthy certification process,’ said Prata.

‘Alternatively, EasyJet may lease one of its A319s for this project, and we consider this to be a very serious proposition. It wants to incorporate the system on its inaugural flight to Iceland, later next year,’ he explained.

The team is also planning to take the micro light aircraft to Papua New Guinea to obtain more measurements from different types of ash.

Prata added that the device will also need to satisfy regulatory requirements.

‘If you have all the information being channelled through the main avionics communications line, then there are big certification issues because you can’t have things interfering with the delicate electronics of the aircraft. It’s just like when they tell you to turn your mobile phone off,’ said Prata.

However, Prata and Easy Jet believe the way round this is to have a wireless transmitter from the pod to the cockpit.

‘Believe it or not, they’re going to link it with an iPad,’ explained Prata. ‘That sounds a bit fanciful but Airbus is actually already building docks for iPads in the cockpit,’ he said.

In terms of cost, Prata estimated the technology would be sold for between €100,000 (£85,000) and €200,000.

He said: ‘We worked out that if you look at the component costs of avionics, it’s in the same order of price as the video systems used by passengers.’

If a wireless transmitter is developed then Prata believes the implementation period could be as little as three months. However, if it has to be wired through the main system, it could be more like three years.