British budget airline to test volcanic ash detector

EasyJet sees cutting-edge technology as a way to prevent massive cancellations

Easy Jet

So who wants to be first to risk flying on a commercial airliner that is depending on a new type of detection system to avoid flying through an ash cloud that if penetrated could well spell disaster?

Step right up EasyJet passengers, as the first opportunity looks to be yours -- eventually.

From an Associated Press story:

EasyJet said the devices - designed to be placed on an aircraft's tail fin and detect ash clouds within 100 kilometers (60 miles) - are the first of their kind and could prevent a repeat of the shutdown of European airspace in April caused by an erupting Icelandic volcano.

(2010's 25 Geekiest 25th Anniversaries)

The airline is spending 1 million pounds ($1.46 million) developing and testing the technology with aircraft manufacturer Airbus and hopes to roll out the devices in a dozen of its planes by the end of the year.

The AVOID - Airborne Volcanic Object Identifier and Detector - technology is designed to work like the weather detection systems already in use for spotting thunderstorms. A lightweight infrared device would provide images to both the pilots and an airline's flight control center, enabling pilots to see an ash cloud at altitudes between 5,000 feet and 50,000 feet.

The system will require the approval of aviation authorities, who signaled cautious support for the EasyJet initiative.

It's been estimated that the massive flight disruptions caused by the volcanic eruption in Iceland cost airlines more than $1 billion and other businesses perhaps twice that amount.

The problem of aircraft encountering ash clouds is well understood, but methods of monitoring the clouds - satellite and ground-based - have not been precise enough to prevent the kind of massive disruptions seen during the recent eruption in Iceland. From a post on Network World's Layer 8:

According to the (European Space Agecy), every year there are about 60 volcanic eruptions and over 90 aircraft have been damaged over the years after flying through volcanic ash clouds. The total cost of damage sustained by aircraft due to volcanic ash clouds from 1982-2000 is estimated at $250 million dollars, the ESA stated.  

The problem high-altitude, volcanic ash is that it can contain glass, rocks and other relatively large objects that can get into jet engines and cause them to fail. The ash can also severely damage the material of the aircraft, clog its sensors, limit the view of its pilots, and severely scratch, or sandblast, cockpit windows, landing light covers and parts of the tail and wings, the ESA noted. 

Aircraft maker Airbus is expected to begin EasyJet's trial of the AVOID technology within two months, after which, provided things go well, the system will be installed on up to a dozen planes in the EasyJet fleet.

While hoping that technology will minimize the impact of future ash clouds, EasyJet appears to still be fuming over the last one, having announced just recently its intent to lead a class-action lawsuit against the aviation authorities who grounded so many planes.

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