23 Dec 2011

New technology developed to detect ash clouds

10:51 am on 23 December 2011

Scientists in Europe have been testing new technology which they hope will help pilots detect the density of volcanic ash clouds. The device is being tested at Mt Etna in Sicily.

The impetus for the technology was last year's eruption of a volcano in Iceland that led to the closure of much of Europe's airspace.

As many as 100,000 flights were cancelled in the course of a week in April 2010. The disruption cost the aviation industry $US1.7 billion.

With funding from budget airline Easyjet, Dr Fred Prata of the Norwegian Institute for Air Research has developed a device which uses an infra-red camera to gauge the density of particular areas of ash.

Dr Prata believes the device will allow a pilot to see ash clouds between 100 and 300 kilometres ahead and at altitudes up to 50,000 feet.

Easyjet's head of engineering Ian Davies says data from a network of planes equipped with the ash-detecting device could be combined with meteorological data to create a map of where an ash cloud is going and what parts of it would be safe to fly through.

The device will now be put through its paces on an Airbus passenger flight over the Pacific.