EasyJet plans live trial of ash-detection technology

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EasyJet, with Airbus and Nicarnica Aviation, is preparing for the final airborne test of a volcanic ash detection system called AVOID.

The UK budget carrier has airfreighted to the test entre at Toulouse a tonne of Icelandic volcanic ash collected by the Institute of Earth Sciences in Reykjavik. The ash, dried to the consistency of fine talcum powder, will be used in an experiment planned for August.

The trial will involve two Airbus aircraft, one of which carries equipment to inject the ash into the atmosphere, creating a real ash cloud, and an A330 fitted with an AVOID wingtip pod to enable the crew to detect and avoid it at more than 30,000ft (9,150m).

The experiment will be conducted when the Seviri and Calypso satellites are aligned so that images of the ash cloud can be captured from space, to gauge the accuracy and effectiveness of the AVOID technology.

"We hope this system will contribute towards three-dimensional, dynamic mapping tools to allow the airlines to take necessary decisions for a safe flight under the full knowledge of current location of ash clouds," says Manfred Birnfeld, senior flight-test engineer for Airbus.

EasyJet likens the AVOID system to "a weather radar for ash". Created by Dr Fred Prata, chief technology officer at Nicarnica Aviation, the system comprises infrared technology, developed by the US military, to enable supply of images to pilots and an airline's operations control centre. The images allow pilots to see an ash cloud up to 100km ahead of the aircraft and at altitudes between 5,000ft and 50,000ft, enabling them to make small adjustments to the flightpath to choose airspace that is free of ash.

"This will be the perfect science experiment," says Prata in reference to the August trial. "We will know exactly how much ash we have placed in the atmosphere, and also its concentration and composition. AVOID will then measure it and demonstrate the technology."

Ian Davies, EasyJet's engineering director, says that finalising approval of AVOID is "as crucial now as ever to ensure we never again see the scenes of spring 2010 when all flying ceased for several days".

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