Over forty British and international journalists flew into Catania, Sicily, recently to watch the final days testing of EasyJet’s state of the art Airborne Volcanic Object Imaging Detector system, “AVOID”.
The carrier has completed two weeks of intensive testing in Sicily where a specially fitted Flight Design CT microlight aircraft flew over Mount Etna, the most active volcano in Europe, as well as the nearby volcanic island of Stromboli for over thirty hours.
AVOID is essentially a wing-mounted tactical awareness device which can provide real-time imagery of hazards ahead of a jet aircraft.
Two almost instantaneous infrared cameras feed information back to the cockpit if they detect hazardous volcanic ash particles in the airspace up to 100km ahead of the aircraft, day or night, allowing enough time for the flight path to be diverted. Information is also relayed to ground control to allow other aircrafts to avoid the ash clouds.
The inventor of the AVOID system, Dr Fred Prata decided to develop the technology after hearing about KLM flight 867, the B747 aircraft which momentarily lost all four engines while travelling over Alaska when it hit volcanic ash.
The damage to KLM flight 867 cost around US$80 million. It is “this kind of thing that we are trying to avoid with this new technology,” said Dr Prata.
EasyJet says it initiallyplans to fit ten of its own aircraft at a cost that will climb into the “tens of millions of pounds” but believes it will be worth the cost. It added that the more planes that can be fitted with AVOID technology, the better ground control will be able to map future ash clouds.
The technology still requires further testing, however.
“The plan is to fly it faster, higher and in low visibility” where “the system will really show its talents,” according to Dr Prata. He said that it is important to test “areas where there was not ash,” in order to keep the risk of false detection as low as possible, adding that no test has resulted in a false detection as yet.
EasyJet and Dr Prata hope to be able to conduct further tests with Airbus on board an A340 aircraft at 30,000ft in order to reach its potential range of 100km. The technology will then be put through the certification process with the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) ready for installation by the end of 2012.
The Icelandic volcano cost EasyJet around £50 million in lost revenue when it erupted in 2010.