EasyJet to trial ash cloud detector

EasyJet are to conduct trials on a new technology that will help airline pilots minimise disruption caused by ash clouds from the Eyjafjallajoekull volcano.

The AVOID (Airborne Volcanic Object Identifier and Detector) system, described as a weather radar for ash, was created by Dr Fred Prata of the Norwegian Institute for Air Research.

AVOID is a system that involves placing infrared technology onto an aircraft to supply images to pilots and an airline’s flight control centre.

According to EasyJet, these images will enable pilots to see an ash cloud up to 100km ahead of the aircraft and at altitudes between 5,000ft and 50,000ft, allowing pilots to make adjustments to the plane’s flight path to avoid any ash cloud.

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, opening up large areas of airspace that would otherwise be closed during a volcanic eruption.

‘This pioneering technology is the silver bullet that will make large-scale ash disruption history,’ said EasyJet chief executive Andy Harrison. ‘The ash detector will enable our aircraft to see and avoid the ash cloud, just like airborne weather radars and weather maps make thunderstorms visible.’

The first test flight is to be carried out by Airbus on behalf of EasyJet within two months, using an Airbus 340 test aircraft.

Subject to the results of these tests, EasyJet intends to trial the technology on its own aircraft.

‘The Civil Aviation Authority welcomes the fact that airlines are considering innovations such as this and we will do all we can to facilitate them,’ said CAA chief executive Andrew Haines.

Dr Colin Brown, director of Engineering at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers welcomed the trial but sounded a note of caution.

He said: ‘It should be remembered that it is not the pilot who directs the plane but the air traffic control staff, and thus evasive action may well be slower and less effective in order to maintain that control.

‘The ash clouds in question are in densities of around one part per billion and it stretches the imagination that infra-red spectroscopy could detect plumes at 100km distance through absorption – let alone radiation – as is needed here.

‘Indeed, even at 100km, planes travelling at 800kph would enter the cloud within minutes. It seems more likely that data could be gathered over a distance of metres and hence fractions of a second before the cloud is upon the plane.’