Grounded no more: the ingenious bit of kit easyJet claims will help beat the ash cloud

The 2010 Iceland volcano cost airlines £1bn, so any way of avoiding a repeat will be welcome news

For the past fortnight, Captain Uwe Post has been flying in circles in the congenial surroundings of north-eastern Sicily. The German pilot is working for an Anglo-Norwegian project that aims to allow passenger aircraft to fly safely during and after volcanic eruptions.

Unlike normal pilots, who go out of their way to avoid active volcanoes, Captain Post appears never happier than when flying around the simmering caldera of Mount Etna, or venturing across to a fuming Stromboli, in command of a specially equipped light aircraft collecting data on ash dispersal.

Last year the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull shut down flying over Europe for days. The aviation authorities closed airspace because of fears that aircraft engines could ingest dangerous quantities of ash. The closure wrecked the travel plans of 7 million passengers and collectively cost airlines over £1bn.

This year another Icelandic volcano, Grimsvotn, caused the cancellation of hundreds more flights. There are fears that Katla, buried beneath half a mile of ice, is on the brink of producing Iceland’s most powerful volcanic eruption in nearly a century. The head of engineering for easyJet, Ian Davies, said “We think Katla is going to be a bigger problem than the other two”.

The closure of airspace in April 2010 last year cost easyJet alone £57m. The airline had to book and pay for 100,000 hotel rooms for stranded passengers, and – when the skies re-opened – charter in extra capacity to repatriate travellers.

Jet engines are highly susceptible to volcanic ash. If ash is ingested, the high temperatures inside the engines can melt the silica, which then coats the fan blades causing damage or outright failure. But research since the Eyjafjallajökull shutdown last year suggests that less than 2 per cent of the airspace declared closed by the eruption had potentially dangerous concentrations of ash.

To try to minimise future disruption, easyJet has joined forces with the Norwegian Institute for Air Research to devise a system that will allow pilots to identify, and evade, clouds of volcanic ash. 

Dr Fred Prata, a senior scientist at the institute, designed an aircraft-mounted infra-red device that can interpret the size and concentration of particles to give flight crew advance warning of potentially dangerous ash clouds from a distance of 60 miles. It is known as the Airborne Volcanic Object Imaging Detector – or AVOID for short.

“The system contains two cameras that sample very rapidly and measure infra-red radiation,” said Dr Prata. “We’re able to distinguish silicate particles from everything else in the atmosphere. It’s the silicates that melt in the engines that cause the problem, so we’re actually detecting the hazard.”

For the Airbus A320 family of aircraft as used by easyJet and British Airways, the detector can be mounted on the winglet, while on Boeing 747 Jumbo jets it could be attached to the “fifth engine” mounting.

The system is underpinned by “inversion modelling”, whereby scientists work backwards from satellite-observed patterns of volcanic ash to determine the size of the eruption. Dr Prata claims this approach provides a much more accurate prediction of the spread of ash clouds than the models used for previous eruptions. And Mr Davies has such confidence in the technology that he has vowed to avoid any more cancellations: “Next time I want it to be zero”.

But easyJet faces a race against the restless earth if it is to keep the skies open and fly through the next eruption. The instrument has yet to be tested aboard an Airbus jet, flying without passengers. Before AVOID can be used on any commercial flight, it must be certified by the European Air Safety Agency. If approval is granted, easyJet hopes to deploy the system on some aircraft from next summer.

The airline, which is sharing its findings with other carriers.  is understood to have spent up to £1m on developing the system. That figure will increase sharply if it is installed across the easyJet fleet of 204 aircraft. But Ian Davies insisted “ We will not be putting ticket prices up. We are seeking to limit our losses”.

Download Simon Calder's audio interview with Dr Fred Prata and Ian Davies here, or listen using the player below.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Suggested Topics
Sport
Brazilian fans watch the match for third place between Brazil and Netherlands
world cup 2014Brazil 0 Netherlands 3: Dutch pile on the misery in third place playoff
Sport
Robin van Persie hands his third-place medal to a supporter
Van Persie gives bronze medal to eccentric fan moments after being handed it by Blatter
News
Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
people
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
scienceScientists have developed a material so dark you can't see it...
News
Monkey business: Serkis is the king of the non-human character performance
peopleFirst Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Voices
Mrs Brown's Boy: D'Movie has been a huge commercial success
voicesWhen it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Life and Style
Once a month, waistline watcher Suran steps into a 3D body scanner that maps his body shape and records measurements with pinpoint accuracy
techFrom heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
News
Soft power: Matthew Barzun
peopleThe US Ambassador to London, Matthew Barzun, holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence. He says it's all part of the job
Sport
Joe Root and James Anderson celebrate their record-beaking partnership
cricketEngland's last-wicket stand against India rewrites the history books
News
Gavin Maxwell in Sandaig with one of his pet otters
peopleWas the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?
News
Rowsell says: 'Wearing wigs is a way of looking normal. I pick a style and colour and stick to it because I don't want to keep wearing different styles'
peopleThe World Champion cyclist Joanna Rowsell on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales Manager (Fashion and Jewellery), Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Volunteer Digital Marketing Trustee needed

    Voluntary, reasonable expenses reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Are you keen on...

    Java Swing Developer - Hounslow - £33K to £45K

    £33000 - £45000 per annum + 8% Bonus, pension: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: ...

    Corporate Events Sales Manager, Marlow,Buckinghamshire

    £30K- £40K pa + Commision £10K + Benefits: Charter Selection: Rapidly expandin...

    Day In a Page

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?