Airbus, easyJet and Nicarnica Aviation successfully test AVOID sensor concept

easyJet, Airbus and Nicarnica Aviation have announced the successful completion of testing for the AVOID volcanic ash technology through an experiment involving the first-known creation of an artificial ash cloud.

Initial results show that the AVOID sensor concept has been proven to detect and estimate concentrations of volcanic ash in the atmosphere

The experiment saw the test team successfully generated an artificial ash cloud over the Bay of Biscay by releasing a tonne of volcanic ash using an Airbus A400M aircraft (pictured). The ash concentration was then measured by a Diamond DA42 from Duesseldorf University of Applied Sciences flying through the ash cloud after which an Airbus A340-300 fitted with the AVOID sensor towards the ash cloud flew into it, with the sensors successfully identifying the ash from distances of 60 km as well as accurately measuring its concentration.

easyJet plans to continue development with a view to mounting standalone units on some of its current fleet of aircraft by the end of 2014 thereby providing a solution which would mean the airline industry should not encounter the widespread air space closures of 2010 again.

The dispersion of the Icelandic ash into the atmosphere was performed at between 9,000 ft and 11,000 ft, chosen to recreate conditions consistent with the 2010 eruption. The ash cloud produced was between 600 ft and 800 ft deep measuring 2.8 km in diameter. To begin with the ash cloud was visible to the naked eye, but dissipated quickly becoming difficult to identify.

The AVOID volcanic sensor detected the ash cloud and measured its density which ranged from 0.1 to 1 g/m2 – or concentrations of 100 to 1000 μg/m3. This is within the range of concentrations measured during the Eyjafjallajokul ash crisis in April and May 2010.

Ian Davies, easyJet's engineering director, commented, "The threat from Icelandic volcanoes continues and so we are delighted with the outcome of this unique and innovative experiment. Finding a solution is as crucial now as ever to ensure we never again see the scenes of spring 2010 when all flying ceased across Europe for several days.”

Dr Fred Prata, inventor of the AVOID technology, added, "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. The highly successful outcome of this complex experiment – which involved delivering 1000 kg of fine ash into a small airspace, controlling four aircraft and coordinating the measurements from two of the aircraft – is a testament to the commitment and skills of easyJet and Airbus engineers and a great example of industry and science coming together to solve an important problem."

“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,” declared Charles Champion, Airbus’s executive vice-president, head of engineering: “With AVOID we wanted to prove in the project that the ash-detection concept can work and this has been demonstrated in the test. Now we need to analyse all data gathered.”

The risk of another Icelandic eruption remains high as Magnús Tumi Gudmundsson from the Institute of Earth Sciences in Iceland, noted. “Explosive volcanic eruptions in Iceland happen on average once every five years. When winds blow from the northwest, the ash is transported towards Europe as it did during the Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2010. It was a coincidence that this did not happen in the seven explosive eruptions that took place between 1970 and 2010, instead the ash was mostly carried away from Europe by southerly winds.

“Considering the relatively long time since the last eruptions in two of Iceland‘s most active volcanoes, Hekla and Katla, both should be regarded as ready to erupt. It is not possible to predict when or where the next eruption will take place. What is certain is that it will happen,” warned Gudmundsson.

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