Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) is working with Australian company, Integrated Avionic Systems, to commercialise the world’s first detector to warn pilots of volcanic ash clouds in their flight paths.
In the past 30 years, more than 90 jet aircraft have encountered ash clouds emitted from erupting volcanoes. Ash clouds are almost invisible to radar.
Silicon compounds within these clouds can cause costly damage to aircraft, ranging from abrasion of windows and composite surfaces to engine destruction.
CSIRO has constructed a prototype volcanic ash detector and has worldwide patents for the technologies developed. The instrument may also be suitable for detection of clear air turbulence and hazards such as low-level wind shear as well as for terrain avoidance.
The unit, which its inventors hope will eventually become standard equipment on all new aircraft, uses a passive infrared sensing array to scan the airspace ahead of the plane.
Operating on multiple IR frequencies, it is able to determine what sort of particles and in what concentrations are in the atmosphere.
Volcanic ash consists mainly of silicates, and since these have a different way of refracting IR radiation than the water droplets in clouds, the scanner can be programmed to pick out the debris and display it on a cockpit screen.
With the scanning and mapping being done in real time, the aircrew have a precise fix on where the hazards lie and a chance of avoiding them.
‘The Australian aviation industry is especially concerned about flights over the numerous active volcanoes in Japan, South-East Asia and New Zealand,’ said Dr Colin Adam, former Chief Executive of CSIRO. ‘The detector will give pilots five to ten minutes to take evasive action if an ash cloud appears in their flight path.’
The joint project dubbed Airborne Hazard Detection Technologies, will design, certify and manufacture volcanic ash detectors in Australia, and establish new technologies using infrared techniques.