A year on from the volcanic ash cloud that closed European airspace for five days, easyJet has announced the progress of the AVOID (Airborne Volcanic Object Identifier and Detector) system. Upon revealing the latest progress, the airline called on the aviation industry to work together to avoid further disruption in European airspace from future volcanic activity.
Scenes of despair marked Portuguese airports for large periods of Spring 2010, as thousands of people were stranded due to successive batches of ash plumes being spewed from the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull, causing unprecedented disruption to air travel.
Ian Davies, Head of Engineering at easyJet explained why the airline was so serious about setting out a contingency plan to deal with future ash clouds.
“Last winter we were told that the heavy snowfall was a once in a lifetime event and then it happened again ten months later. We can’t predict exactly when another volcano will erupt and send an ash cloud into European airspace but we can say with certainty that it will happen at some stage.
“Our industry is better prepared today than it was last year, but we need to go further, easyJet is playing its part by working closely with Dr. Fred Prata and his team to progress development of the AVOID technology, and we call for more support from the rest of the industry for this and other new solutions to deal with the volcanic threat.”
The AVOID system is effectively a weather radar for ash.
Created by Dr Fred Prata of the Norwegian Institute for Air Research (NILU), the system comprises of infrared technology (developed by the US military) fitted to aircraft to supply images to pilots and an airline’s flight control centre.
The images will enable pilots to see an ash cloud, up to 100 kilometres ahead of the aircraft and at altitudes between 5,000ft and 50,000ft, thus allowing them to make adjustments to the plane’s flight path to avoid any ash cloud.
The concept is very similar to weather radar which is standard on commercial airliners today.
On the ground, information from aircraft with AVOID technology would be used to build an accurate image of the volcanic ash cloud using real time data. This would open up large areas of airspace that would otherwise be closed during a volcanic eruption, which would benefit passengers by minimising disruption.
The next phase of the project is to further validate the equipment by flying with it close to volcanic ash.
Dr. Prata and his team are monitoring volcanic activity in the Far East and Alaska. The testing is expected to take place over the next few months.
In the meantime, the AVOID system will be put through the certification process with EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency).
Talks continue with the European Union for funding to support the research and development of the AVOID system.
At the end of this process the AVOID system will be ready to go into mass production.
Officials at easyJet believe that if 100 aircraft (20 of which would be easyJet’s) across Europe were to be fitted with AVOID equipment, this would provide comprehensive coverage of the continent enabling airlines to supply monitoring information to the authorities to support the new processes and procedures that were introduced after the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010. This vital information would enable all airlines to continue to fly safely in line with the CAA guidance of safe flying zones.
Commenting on the news Andrew Haines, Chief Executive of the Civil Aviation Authority said: “We welcome this type of initiative and would encourage other UK operators to explore solutions to the problems volcanic ash poses to aircraft. Following last year’s disruption the CAA has continued to work with the international aviation community to develop both the industry’s understanding of ash and measures to reduce disruption to passengers, while ensuring high levels of safety. Passengers have a right to expect the aviation industry to do everything possible to lessen future ash related disruption.”
Brendan de Beer