EasyJet unveils onboard ash detector

New technology that could minimise future disruption to planes from volcanic ash has been unveiled by budget airline easyJet.

The carrier will be the first airline to trial a new "weather radar for ash" system called AVOID (Airborne Volcanic Object Identifier and Detector).

The system involves placing infra-red technology onto an aircraft to supply images to both the pilots and an airline's flight control centre.

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. This will allow pilots to make adjustments to the plane's flight path to avoid any ash cloud.

Millions of passengers had their travel plans wrecked when airlines had to scrap thousands of flights in recent weeks due to the Icelandic volcanic ash problem.

AVOID had been created by Dr Fred Prata of the Norwegian Institute for Air Research (NILU). The concept is very similar to weather radars that are standard on commercial airliners.

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 would open up large areas of airspace that would otherwise be closed during a volcanic eruption, which would benefit passengers by minimising disruption.

Airbus will carry out the first test flight on behalf of easyJet within two months, using an A340 test aircraft. If the results are satisfactory, the airline will then trial the technology on its own aircraft with a view to installing it widely enough to minimise future disruption from ash.

EasyJet chief executive Andy Harrison said: "This pioneering technology is the silver bullet that will make large-scale ash disruption history. 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."

EasyJet plans to spend about £1 million this year on development and initial installation of the system, which it hopes to have in around a dozen aircraft by the end of the year.

Mr Harrison said: "What we don't want to do is to gain a commercial advantage over other airlines so we can fly and they can't. We are not going to exclude people from this technology. This is unusual for easyJet. We are not in this to make money. This is relatively simple low-cost technology."

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