Volcanic Ash: It’s a big deal

AVOID-Closeup
AVOID sensor on A340 – Source: Airbus

In late 2013, UK air carrier EasyJet, aircraft manufacturer Airbus and Nicarnica Aviation of Norway teamed up to test new airborne technology that enables pilots to “see” volcanic ash from the cockpit. The system is a really big deal and I suspect it will be coming to an airliner near you in the next few years. 

Background

Airliners and business jets have all sorts of equipment and sensors to help pilots avoid the hazards of flying. Highlights include:

These Big Three go a long way in keeping us safe, but Mother Nature has one more weapon in her arsenal that we need to protect ourselves against… volcanic ash. Anytime a volcano erupts, it sends plumes of finely powdered ash skyward. The ash is composed of pulverized rock and volcanic glass. This fine powder, suspended in the atmosphere, is destructive to airplanes. The ash melts into liquid glass when it enters an engine and adheres to critical engine components, eventually causing engine failure. The powder also acts like a sandblaster to the airframe and cockpit windshields.

The really frustrating part is that pilots don’t have a way to “see and avoid” this airborne sandpaper.  We rely on text reports of volcanic eruptions and estimates of ash cloud locations and altitudes based on forecast winds and satellite imagery. While this information is very helpful, it’s not up-to-the-minute. Eruptions often take place in remote areas of the planet and it takes time for volcanologists to notice them. That’s no help when your flight is cruising happily over the same remote area. In 1982, British Airways Flight 9, a Boeing 747, flew into an ash cloud near Jakarta. The ash snuffed out all 4 engines. As the aircraft descended below the ash cloud, the crew was able to restart 3 of the engines and make a safe landing in Jakarta. After landing, taxiing the jet was impossible due to the opaque, sandblasted windshield. The British Airways incident is by no means unique.

Europe and Atlantic airspace shutdown

Eyjafjallajokull ash cloud - Source: NASA
Eyjafjallajokull ash cloud – Source: NASA

The ash cloud from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull (bonus points for pronunciation) shut down air traffic across the Atlantic ocean and 20 European countries for nearly 2 weeks in April of 2010. It was the largest air traffic shutdown since World War II (source: Wikipedia). During the latter part of the shutdown, many air carriers suspected that ash concentrations where low enough to resume safe flight but were forced to remain grounded by aviation authorities whose concerns were certainly understandable. EasyJet, the largest carrier in the UK, along with other Euro and US carriers lost over a billion dollars in revenue due to the shutdown.

Norway’s Nicarnica Aviation has recently developed an airborne sensor based on infrared technology that detects ash clouds and displays them in the cockpit similar to the way weather radar displays moisture. The system is called Airborne Volcanic Object Imaging Detector (AVOID). A partnership has formed between Nicarnica, EasyJet and Airbus to test and certify the new tech. Once certification is complete, EasyJet will be the launch customer for the system.

A400M dispersing ash
A400M dispersing ash. Source: Airbus

This past week, the trio of companies made history by creating the first man-made volcanic ash cloud. One ton of ash collected from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull was dispersed from an Airbus A400M. A second aircraft, an Airbus A340 fitted with AVOID, flew towards the cloud and was able to identify and measure its concentration from a safe distance of 40 miles away.

One really cool feature of AVOID is its ability to send the data it gathers to ground based stations where it can be used to help other pilots. AVOID is a very exciting development that should help minimize the economic impact of future volcanic eruptions.

Links (because you want to learn more!):

Nicarnica Aviation AVOID Product Website
Airbus AVOID Partnership Press Release
EasyJet AVOID Press Release

Video – Detecting volcanic ash clouds with AVOID
Source: Airbus YouTube Channel:

Video – EasyJet, Airbus Team Create World’s First Man-Made Ash Cloud
Source: GNC Global News YouTube Channel:

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