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No more volcanic ash plane chaos?

Foto: Colourbox

The eruption of Icelandic Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 ejecting enormous ask plumes into the air, lead to severe problems for air traffic, grounding millions of passengers and leaving airlines with a loss of billions. Now, Nicarnica is testing an ‘ash camera’ with easyJet, developed by Dr. Fred Prata from NILU. By use of such a device, a chaos with the 2010 dimensions could be greatly reduced in the future.

When Fred Prata came to NILU five years ago he brought along the idea for an ‘ash camera’, which he had been working on for 17 years. In Norway he found both an advanced research environment and the financial mechanisms and support for further development of his idea. After five more years of work and a little help from mother nature, the market is keen to utilize such technologies and the test flights with the camera over Etna and Stromboli at Sicily show good results.

AVOID senses ash in more than 100 km distance
The infrared camera AVOID can detect ash in a distance of up to 100 km, even at night time. This is made possible by a technology that visualizes particles in the ash cloud. Silicate, the primary component of volcanic ash, can cause severe damage to aircraft as they can melt to various engine components causing an engine stall. Volcanic ash can also damage the windscreen, instruments and electrical components onboard. To avoid damage and prevent accidents it is important for the pilot to know in advance if the ash cloud is crossing the plane’s route.

‘The pilot receives information about the particles’ composition in the air and can make minor adjustment to the flight path in order to bypass it’, explains John Ackerman. He is Director of Innovation at NILU and Business Director at Nicarnica Aviation AS, a subsidiary of NILU that is marketing the new camera. ‘This will give the pilot 5-10 minutes to assess whether to continue or change direction and bypass the ash cloud to prevent potential harm’.

Test flight with big media interest
After several weeks of test flights, Fred Prata attracted a good deal of attention when he was presenting the ash camera on Tuesday, 6th Dec 2011 to a broad international audience of journalists at Sicily.

CNN, BBC, Reuters, National Geographic and other international media was at place when a proud Fred Prata explained that Nicarnica Aviation will deliver cameras to the British air company easyJet that is going to equip up to 20 new Airbus A320 with the Norwegian technology in 2012. Just as Norway, Great Britain is exposed to ash from Icelandic volcanoes, but easyJet is confident that the new camera will make it possible to maintain some level of continued operation in case of any further volcano eruption, such as Katla.

Ackerman adds that Nicarnica Aviation has a dialogue with Airbus and Boeing, but shall now finalize the testing period to perfect the technology. ‘Afterwards the AVOID technology will be available to all companies’, he emphasizes.

See more videos of the test flights and interviews with Fred Prata: