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  • IR Detectors to Help Pilots AVOID Volcanic Ash
Dec 2011
KJELLER, Norway, Dec. 20, 2011 — A camera designed to detect volcanic ash particles from a large distance may help airlines become more capable of avoiding large volcanic plumes in the future.

The ash cloud resulting from the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland cost Europe an estimated €6.5 billion (about $8.5 billion). In large concentrations, volcanic ash can stall jet engines, degrade pilot vision, or wreck windscreens and electronic systems. At some point in the future, Eyjafjallajökull’s bigger companion, Katla, may erupt, causing even more trouble for European airlines and headaches for passengers.

Next summer, however, the fourth-largest airline in the world — easyJet — will begin using the camera. Dubbed AVOID, the instrument can detect volcanic ash particles in the airspace up to 100 km ahead of the aircraft, giving pilots 5 to 10 min to steer away from an ash cloud. The camera is just as effective at night as during the day.

Senior scientist Fred Prata at the Norwegian Institute for Air Research and his new volcanic ash-detecting camera, AVOID. (Photo: Bård Amundsen)

AVOID’s developer, Norwegian Institute for Air Research (Norsk institutt for luftforskning, or NILU), describes the system as a tactical awareness device that provides real-time imagery of hazards ahead of a jet aircraft. Two fast-sampling infrared cameras collect data, which proprietary software converts into ash concentrations. Levels from <1 mg/m3 to >50 mg/m3 are detectable. When coupled with GPS and airspeed data, “ash dosages” can be quickly determined and displayed in real time, according to the institution. The information also can be relayed to air-traffic control centers or to other aircraft not equipped with the AVOID system.

After 10 days of successful flight tests around Mount Etna and Stromboli volcano in Italy, NILU senior scientist Fred Prata presented AVOID to the European media. It already is being installed on 20 new Airbus A320 jetliners on order from the UK-based easyJet.

Five years ago, when native Australian Prata’s idea of developing a volcanic ash camera was received with little interest in his home country, the researcher brought his idea to Norway and NILU.

“Here, I found an advanced research environment, which has been a terrific help to my efforts to develop and realize my concept,” Prata said.

“The Norwegian volcanic ash camera functions perfectly for us,” said Ian Davies, head of engineering and maintenance at easyJet. “When Katla volcano does blow, the conditions will be ten times worse than what we saw in 2010. But our planes will still be in the air.”

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