Science, Tech & Environment

VIDEO: Scientists working to develop ash detection technology for aircraft

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This jet flying over Mount Etna has been fitted with new technology to help with airborne detection of ash clouds. (Photo courtesy of Düsseldorf University of Applied Sciences.)

A volcano in Iceland erupting back in 2010 sent giant plumes of ash into the sky, drifting southeast toward Europe and leading to a massive closure of the contient's airspace for nearly a week.

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Millions of travelers in Europe and beyond were stuck on the ground. It didn't go over well. 

“It demonstrated our reliance on flying and on what, in extreme circumstances, can go wrong,” said Tom Hall, the London editor for Lonely Planet. “It felt for some time that there wasn’t really a plan, and it exposed the Achilles heel somewhat of the idea of just getting on a plane and flying from one place to another.”

The next time that volcano erupts, though, there just might be a plan. Fred Prata could only watch as “better safe than sorry” became the European catch-phrase. 

Prata’s a senior scientist at the Norwegian Institute for Air Research, and he’s a world authority on volcanic ash clouds. Prata himself was stuck in Los Angeles at a conference because of the ash-related shutdowns in April 2010.

Airlines lost an estimated $200 million a day. Others suffered as well. In Kenya, for example, merchants couldn’t send fresh flowers to markets in Europe.

European officials were criticized for rushing to shut down so much airspace, based on the fear that the ash might bring down a plane.

“The authorities didn’t have enough information, and they weren’t able to manage the situation,” Prata said. “So they did what any regulator would do. They did these blanket groundings, which weren’t really justified in retrospect.”

Ian Davies, an engineer for the low-cost British carrier EasyJet, called Prata around that time, and asked him to come talk about what they could do in the future.

“He came, and we decided there was enough there we could collaborate on, to develop a detector such that if we had another disruption, we could minimize the disruption caused to our passengers,” Davies said.

Prata's been working for the past 20 years on something that he now calls the Airborne Volcanic Object Infrared Detector, or AVOID. The technology involves mounting two infrared cameras on a plane. The cameras snap pictures — about 25 images per second — as the plane travels.

Because ash looks different under infrared than water droplets or ice, it’s not hard to distinguish it. Computer systems can take the data and determine the “ash dosage” a plane is likely to experience.

The trick, Prata said, is to make the data useful to pilots in the air.

“I’m a scientist and I can interpret them, but if you show that to a pilot who is busy with many other things, it’s just simply not sensible,” Prata said. “So, we’re looking at ways of, I won’t say ‘dumbing it down,’ but making it more useful. If we can present it something like he’s used to seeing already, like a radar image, then the learning curve is much lower and the acceptance is much higher.”

Prata said the AVOID system is not designed to replace satellite imaging for ash clouds. It would just provide another stream of data for forecasters and controllers. He added that there’s no need for every plane to be outfitted with the cameras. Planes that are equipped could feed the information back to the ground.

The data could help authorities make better decisions about when and where other planes should fly in the event of an eruption. Last month, Prata tested the system on a small plane above Italy’s Mount Etna. He worked with Konradin Weber, a physics professor at the University of Duesseldorf in Germany. Weber said the advantage of the AVOID system is that it can detect dangerous ash levels miles before a plane flies through them.

“You get the warning at an early point, so you’re able to fly around the plumes,” Weber said.

Next up, the scientists said, is to work with Airbus and EasyJet to test the system on passenger aircraft. Prata estimates that each system would cost about $30,000 to install. That’s a small price compared to the billions lost two years ago.

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