Ash cloud detector invented; could prevent travel drama

It's estimated 10 million travelers the world over were thrown into chaos in 2010 when Iceland's Eyjafjallajõkull volcano erupted unleashing giant ash clouds that circled the globe. Planes were grounded amidst fears the ash could be sucked into the turbines causing engine failure.

I hear the words "could cause engine failure," and I mentally grip my tray table. I suspect many of you feel the same. Better safe than sorry when flying is a pretty good rule of thumb in my humble opinion.

Close to two years on, scientist Fred Prata, with Nicarnica Aviation has created a system aimed at better understanding the risk posed by ash clouds so that pilots can strategically fly around "hot" spots. It even comes with a creative name for it — AVOID — the Airborne Volcanic Object Imaging Detector.

AVOID works by using two infrared cameras attached to the wings of an aircraft. At 30,000 feet the cameras can see dangerous levels of ash up to 60 miles away. The data is matched with satellite data to create real-time 3D images of the cloud, giving pilots tactical information to adjust course and fly around any danger spots.

The system has recently been tested on light aircraft flying around Italy's Mt. Etna — a known ash offender (at lesser levels) — for years. Plans are underway to test on larger aircraft.

Budget European airline, EasyJet, is banking on this device, with plans to install it on one jet in 2012 and plans in the works for up to 20 others. A good move given scientists expect Icelandic volcanoes to erupt again — and with a force that makes the previous blasts look like a hiccup.

Also a good move for the airlines, given the travel disruptions of 2010 are estimated to have caused millions of dollars in losses every day they were grounded.

Looking back at the data collected during the Icelandic disruptions it shows that despite the massive safety groundings, only two percent of the airspace contained what some call "dangerously" high levels of ash. EasyJet's Head of Engineering Ian Davies told Sky News: "Airspace would probably have been open a vast majority of the time, in other words, we closed lots of airspace that we would not have had to, if we had this technology."

Despite the new technology there is a lot to consider — above and beyond skittish passengers such as myself. The Institute of Mechanical Engineers warns the 3D imaging does not make a plane ash proof or any safer — how much ash could cause a problem is disputed. Additionally, it is unclear how air traffic controllers would deal with planes making evasive maneuvers is unclear.

I love new technology as much as the next gal, but until they develop a completely invincible aircraft like Wonder Woman's invisible plane I will make the personal choice to stay grounded during volcanic eruptions. Should I be at the airport when it happens you can find me on my laptop over at Starbucks.

Sky News via DigitalTrends


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