A prototype volcanic ash detector that has been fitted to a British Airways 747 aircraft could help prevent future air travel disruption.
The ZEUS device developed by the Met Office and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) is capable of detecting tiny amounts of ash in the atmosphere by distinguishing between the level of electrostatic charge on the aircraft when flying in normal conditions and when volcanic ash is present.
The device has been fitted on a British Airways 747 and data has already been successfully downloaded from its first flight to Johannesburg. The jet will continue to fly on long-haul routes around the world for a year, collecting data for analysis.
The eruption of Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 grounded over 100,000 international flights, and cost airlines more than £2bn, but the scientists behind the new detector hope the data it gathers could help prevent a repeat by improving ash forecasting and also helping airlines plan their flight and engineering operations better.
Ian Lisk, Met Office head of natural hazards, said: "While further development is still required, we are delighted with progress with this prototype volcanic ash sensor to date and the findings we have so far received from the tests are very promising."
It is hoped that by correlating information from ZEUS flight data – including weather conditions, speed, altitude and location – scientists will be able to build better a picture of volcanic ash distribution.
Aircraft engineers could also use this data to schedule post-flight inspections of engines and aircraft systems that may have been affected by volcanic ash.
An early prototype of Zeus has been flying on the NERC/Met Office dedicated research aircraft and a Flybe Dash-8 Q400 passenger aircraft since 2012, gathering background data from around Europe.
EasyJet announced in July that it would introduce on-board volcanic ash detectors that enable pilots to spot dangerous ash clouds 100km ahead of the aircraft.
Captain Dean Plumb from British Airways said: "We were very keen to be involved in this pioneering research. Aircraft regularly encounter small quantities of ash in flights around the world, perfectly safely, and pilots use expert forecasts to avoid more dense ash clouds.
“ZEUS has the potential to provide a clearer picture of ash distribution and could be used to inform decision-making processes in the event of future volcanic eruptions."
An international team of researchers lead by Queen's University Belfast recently published a study in the journal Geology containing the first evidence that ash clouds can travel across the Atlantic Ocean.
Academics have traced ash found in sites across Europe, including Sluggan Bog near Randalstown in County Antrim, to so-called White River Ash resulting from the eruption of the Alaskan volcano Mount Bona-Churchill in AD 847.
Chemical fingerprinting was used to match the White River Ash to tephra layers in Ireland, Norway, Germany and Greenland that for 20 years was believed to have come from Iceland – the source of most ash in Europe.
"If this was to happen again, which is not improbable, it would have massive implications for airspace. This is a very large area and is very busy with travel. There could be large-scale disruption," said Dr Sean Pyne-O'Donnell, one of the authors of the paper.
“The usefulness is the awareness that such a thing can happen. Airlines are always interested in risk management. This allows them to be better prepared for such eventualities."