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Nicarnica Aviations askekamera AVOID under testflyvning over Etna
Foto: Fred Prata

From NILU’s Annual magazine 2011: NILU’s Fred Prata has developed an “ash camera” that alerts airplane pilots to the presence of ash clouds, allowing the aircraft to avoid having to be grounded by volcanic eruptions. The camera is now being tested on EasyJet’s aircraft.

Fred Prata Foto: Finn Bjørklid
After 22 years of work, NILU’s senior scientist Fred Prata is very happy that his ash camera has finally become reality Photo: Finn Bjørklid, NILU

By Anne Nyeggen

When Fred Prata came to NILU five years ago, he came with the idea for an “ash camera”, an idea he had worked on for 17 years. In Norway, he found both an advanced research environment and funding for further development. After another five years of work, the camera has now been test-driven over the Etna and Stromboli volcanoes in Sicily, with good results.

AVOID detects ash from 100 kilometres away

AVOID, an infrared camera, can detect ash that is 100 kilometres away, even at night. This is possible through technology that makes particles in the ash cloud visible. The silicate particles in ash are very harmful to planes, because they can be sucked into the engine, where they can melt and clog the equipment. To avoid this kind of damage, it is important for pilots to know in advance whether or not the ash clouds from volcanic eruptions will cross their route. “The pilot gets information about the composition of the particles in the air, and can evaluate whether it is possible to fly through the ash cloud, or whether the plane has to fly around the cloud,” Prata says. “This gives the pilot 5-10 minutes if necessary to fly around the ash cloud, and can prevent potentially serious damage.”

Interest in the market

John Ackerman, business director for Nicarnica, which is marketing the camera, says that he has had interest from several airlines. “Nicarnica have discussed the camera with Airbus and Boeing, as well as EasyJet, but we’re now ready to finish up the test phase we are in so that we can perfect the technology,” Ackerman says. “After this, the AVOID technology be available to all airlines.”

A test flight with a large press turnout

After several weeks of flight-testing, the camera was presented to a planeload of journalists in Sicily in December 2011. CNN, BBC, Reuters, National Geographic and other international media were present and heard a proud Fred Prata say that Nicarnica will deliver the camera to the British airline EasyJet, which will equip 20 new Airbus A320 aircraft with the Norwegian technology in 2012. The UK, much like Norway, is affected by volcanic ash from Iceland, but EasyJet is confident that the camera will make it possible to still maintain its plane service if Katla were to erupt, for example.