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Airbus finds clearer skies in artificial volcanic ash cloud

AVOID Sensor mounted on A340: Airbus photo

In a test involving an artificial cloud of real volcanic ash from Iceland, but dumped in the air near Europe’s busy skyways, Airbus has just flown a device that easyJet may fit to its airliners from late next year to help it avoid dangerous concentrations of jet engine damaging particles.

The sensor, called AVOID, was mounted on the side of an A340 and flown toward a cloud made by a tonne of volcanic particles released over the Bay of Biscay by an A400M while a light plane flew through it to confirm the degree to which they were present.

The samplings made by the plane, with a propeller engine which is inherently less susceptible to volcanic ash damage than a jet engine, were able to be compared in real time to the remote soundings being made by the AVOID sensor, which was flown at a distance of 60 kilometres.

Airbus A400M dumping real volcanic ash in AVOID test: Airbus photo

The more technical aspects of the tests are touched on in this Airbus media release.

The AVOID sensor program arose from the massive disruption to air travel over Europe in particular in April 2010 caused by eruptions from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano.

In June 2011 eruptions from the Puyehue-Cordón Caulle complex volcanic fissure in Chile also caused prolonged disruption to air services throughout the higher and middle latitudes of the southern hemisphere, including to the southern parts of Australia and New Zealand and as far north as some tropical islands.

The accurate measurement of potentially dangerous concentrations of those particles in those plumes was impossible with the radar equipment used  by air traffic control systems as well as the weather radars on airliners, and the plumes themselves were not visible to the naked eye at night, and sometimes not even obvious in daylight at some sun angles.

But it became apparent that if the particle density could be accurately measured and tracked, there remained large areas of air space through which airliners could have safety flown during these periods but which remained unflown because of the risk of the very costly if not dangerous consequences of engine damage.

In the trial over the Bay of Biscay the cloud created by the ash dumping quickly dispersed and vanished to the casual eye, but continued to be visible to the sensor in the range of particle concentrations seen during the worst of the Icelandic eruptions in April and May of 2010.

The extent of that problem is made obvious in the UK Met Office large scale map of  denser plumes from the Icelandic eruption between 14-25 April 2010 (below).

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