Hazard to Aerial Navigation Can Be Measured, Tracked and Avoided

Michigan Aerospace Corporation (MAC), an advanced R&D and products company, today announced that it has begun work on a Phase I Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract titled “Volcanic Ash Detection Using Raman LIDAR: VADER.” This contract with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center will build upon MAC’s present aircraft-based optical air-data system technology, which uses ultraviolet (UV) laser light to measure air speed, direction, temperature and density. The optical air data instrumentation will be augmented to measure airborne volcanic ash loading ahead of an aircraft. Volcanic ash is a significant hazard to aircraft engines, windscreens and electronics and has caused damage to unwary aircraft on multiple occasions and disrupted air travel for thousands of travelers, costing millions of dollars. This occurred in 2010, when Iceland’s volcano Eyjafjallajökull disrupted air travel over Europe for weeks, and more recently this month, as Mexico’s volcano Popocatepetl disrupted flights to and from Mexico City.

VADER can continuously monitor ash conditions in front of commercial and military aircraft, providing warning of dangerous conditions ahead in time for the crew to alter course. Compact versions of VADER can be mounted aboard Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs), which can then be used to scout the airways during major eruptions to determine when conditions are safe for flight. With enough data from aircraft distributed over a wide area, commercial and military aviation could effectively map ash conditions and permit a faster return to normal flight operations without sacrificing safety. Also, VADER will allow for the scientific study of volcanic ash plumes, since the instrument will yield ash loading and particle size distribution. Finally, such instrumentation will be useful for the characterization of large atmospheric instabilities, such as storms and hurricanes.

VADER will operate from behind a flush-mounted window and has the potential to be combined with MAC’s other UV-based optical air data system, turbulence-detection, and ice-forming droplet detection technologies. Such a combined sensor system would detect volcanic, turbulence and icing hazards ahead and report airspeed along with air, temperature and density routinely, providing commercial aircraft with a valuable new optically-based multi-function warning/air data system. This will increase commercial aviation safety and enhance pilot awareness of the air situation ahead of the aircraft.

“We are developing a fully integrated atmospheric intelligence package for flight safety,” says Peter Tchoryk, CEO of Michigan Aerospace. “With this funding, we are getting closer to achieving a compact, multi-function optical solution that is applicable to manned and unmanned aircraft.” The project will be led by MAC’s Vice President for Research and Development, Dr. Dominique Fourguette.