An artificial ash cloud test designed to assess new technology enabling aircraft to detect and avoid volcanic ash in the atmosphere has been conducted by European companies.
The test was a part of a joint project of Airbus, EasyJet and Nicarnica Aviation, a Norwegian company specialising in remote sensing, aiming at developing sensor detection equipment that could be fitted on planes.
The companies believe the technology could prevent a future Europe-wide aviation paralysis similar to the one that took place after the eruption of Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokull in 2010.
"The team has just executed a unique scientific and engineering experiment conclusively demonstrating that low concentrations of ash can be identified by the AVOID sensor," said Dr Fred Prata, inventor of the technology.
During the test, an A400M Airbus test plane dispersed one tonne of Icelandic ash into the atmosphere at the altitude between 9,000 and 11,000ft (2,700-3350m). A second aircraft, fitted with the AVOID technology, flew towards the cloud. The sensors managed to detect the volcanic ash from a distance of around 40 miles away, sending a signal to the pilot to avoid the cloud.
Another research aircraft, a Diamond DA42 from Dusseldorf University of Applied Sciences in Germany, was used to fly into the cloud to provide measurements to verify the data acquired by the AVOID system.
"We are at the beginning of an invention which could become a useful solution for commercial aviation to prevent large-scale disruption from volcanic ash," said Airbus’s head of engineering Charles Champion.
The AVOID system works similarly to a weather radar warning pilots about dangerous situations along the route. The system consists of an infrared sensor mounted on the aircraft supplying images to pilots and ground air-traffic control centres.
The pilots can spot the ash cloud at a distance of up to 100km ahead at altitudes between 5,000ft and 50,000ft, allowing them to decide early about adjusting the plane’s flight path to avoid the cloud.
On the ground, information from aircraft with AVOID technology would be used to accurately map the volcanic ash cloud using real-time data. Air-traffic controllers could then instruct aircraft to fly in safe areas, minimising disruption caused by the volcano. In 2010, due to the lack of accurate data, most of the airspace in affected regions was closed for safety reasons.
The team says the tested system fulfilled their expectations as it showed the detected cloud had similar density to that following the 2010 Eyjafjallajokull eruption, meaning it would be capable of providing an early warning in such a situation.
"The threat from Icelandic volcanoes continues and so we are delighted with the outcome of this unique and innovative experiment,” said EasyJet's engineering director Ian Davies.
"This is a key step in the final journey of testing the technology and moving towards commercial certification. EasyJet will now work towards a non-integrated stand-alone system, which we aim to fit onto a number of our current fleet of aircraft by the end of 2014," he added.
Hard microscopic ash presents several risks for travelling aircraft. It can quickly cause significant wear on propellers and turbocompressor blades, and scratch the cockpit windows, impairing visibility. Fuel and water-system contamination, jamming of gears or engine blaze could occur, putting the lives and safety of passengers at risk.
As the volcanic ash particles have a low melting point, they melt quickly in the combustion chamber, sticking on the turbine blades, fuel nozzles, and combustors, which can eventually lead to a total engine failure.