- By Region
Technology that allows aircraft to measure volcanic ash concentrations so they can steer clear of dangerous clouds in mid-flight has been successfully tested by EasyJet.
The system used by the low-cost carrier could improve the mapping of ash clouds, helping regulators avoid shutting down large swathes of commercial airspace in response to volcanic eruptions.
EasyJet launched a research programme last year in the wake of the massive disruption to European air travel following the eruptions of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano, which cost airlines more than £1.7bn.
In tests that took place over two weeks this autumn, the carrier mounted the Airborne Volcanic Object Imaging Detector (Avoid) device on a wing of a two-seater aircraft, which flew over Italy’s Mount Etna and the island of Stromboli, sites of regular volcanic activity.
“The flexibility and compactness of the microlight [plane] has allowed the project team to deploy quickly and measure plumes from different altitudes, distances and weather conditions,” the company said.
Thirty hours of testing demonstrated that at 20,000 ft, ash clouds could be detected from 100km away.
Ash detection technologies employed during last year’s disruption relied on data from satellites. But where those systems give scientists a good sense of the quantity of ash released by an eruption and the area over which it has spread, Avoid is unique in being able to measure the depth of clouds.
“It’s part of a suite of tools,” said Ian Davies, head of engineering and technology director at EasyJet, emphasising that the satellite data and mathematical models remain an important part of its detection efforts.
David Rothery, a volcanologist at the Open University, said the aircraft-mounted technology gave pilots more decision making alternatives. “It will make air travel safer and make it possible to close smaller parts of the sky,” he said, though he pointed out some limits: “You’re still not going to set out over the Atlantic if there’s an ash cloud in your way,” since detours on that scale would use up scarce fuel.
There are about 30 volcanic eruptions around the world every year, though few of those disrupt important sections of commercial airspace. In 1982, however, both a British Airways and a Singapore Airlines flight lost control of their engines for a period after encountering ash spewed by the Galunggung volcano in Indonesia. And in 1989, the same happened to a KLM flight from Tokyo to Alaska, thanks to ash from Mount Redoubt.
EasyJet is working with Airbus to mount Avoid devices – which are housed in teardrop-shaped pods 3ft long and about 9 inches in diameter – on commercial aircraft. Mr Davies said the government has expressed support for the company’s efforts, as have fellow UK airlines and the Civil Aviation Authority.