UASs were considered an ingestion threat to turbines; now they may provide protection against a REAL threat to jet powerplants

superswift xt aircraft
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Super­Swift XT

Scientific Data Gathering in Harsh Environments

Since 2010, global aviation has known that volcanic ash poses a great threat to a turbine engine.

That’s when Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted; Eurocontrol and the relevant civil aviation authorities issued guidance which resulted in the cancellation of more than 100,000 flights. Then, “‘[t]he only international rule around volcanoes – in capital letters – was AVOID, AVOID, AVOID,’ Dame Deidre Hutton, chairwoman of the British Civil Aviation Authority.” The EU convened a European Risk Summit, where the regulators assessed the data and used risk-assessment procedures. As a result, they created a European Crisis Co-ordination Cell (EACCC) and that group initiated a number of research projects intended to define the risk and to better predict what air traffic sectors should be avoided.

•  Established that airlines would provide risk assessments in future events and that national safety authorities would made the decision on whether it was safe to fly.

•  Organized ash simulation exercises.

Organized ash simulation exercises

In 2014, the aviation community was informed of two ways to detect volcanic ash plumes—airborne and spaced-based detection systems. Both initiatives were being advanced:

  1. Hans Schlager, head of the Institute of Atmospheric Physics at the German Aerospace Center, said in a statement: “The key issue for us is to develop an integrated monitoring and response system for future volcanic crises that can be used to respond quickly in the event of the formation of an ash cloud from Iceland.”
  1. The second, redundant is good in aviation, is being developed by Nicarnica Aviation in Kjeller, Norway. That machine is an on-board ash detector which warn the pilot in time to adjust the original flight route. Iceland’s Holuhraun eruption is serving as a real ground-based laboratory for the new technology. The sensors have also received air trials from Airbus and EasyJet.

In the early formulation of a UAS rule, the document which eventually became Part 107, one of the high level risk scenarios was the ingestion by an airline powerplant of a drone. ALPA was particularly strident of the need to protect their flights from this menace. The final rule mandated that the drones must remain 5 miles from airports. The press and the FAA reported alleged incidents of UASs incursions near airplanes and the critics doubted their accuracy.

Black Swift Technologies LLC, of Boulder, CO has reversed the threat paradigm.

nasa uas volcano studyBST is working with NASA to design a small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS) which will be able to fly into volcanoes and to better assess the risks. With this more accurate, real time data, air traffic management systems will have more accurate ashfall measurements. With that information, the flight paths can be planned better. 

The team will develop a purpose-built sUAS platform by the engineers. The sensors on board the Super­Swift™ XT will be designed to collect precise samples designed to measure gas and atmospheric parameters (e.g., temperature, pressure, humidity, and 3D winds) of the volcanic ash clouds. This tightly integrated system will consist of an airframe, avionics, and sensors specifically.

The SuperSwift™, an existing airframe, will be upgraded to achieve high altitude flights through strong winds and damaging particulates.

BST explained in detail the positive attributes of its final product:

Accurate predictive modeling of certain atmospheric chemical phenomena (e.g., volcano plumes, smog, gas clouds, wildfire smoke, etc.) suffers from a dearth of information, largely due to the fact that the dynam­ic qualities of the phenomenon evadeatmospheric chemical phenomena accurate data collection. In situ measurements are currently made through the use of ground sensors and dropsondes. Ground sensors, “such as seismometers, tiltmeters, in-ground gas monitors and near-field remote sensing instruments” have limited measurement density and provide only information about atmospheric boundary conditions. Dropsondes can provide measurements over the entire vertical profile, but are limited to sampling over a small time period. In situ measure­ments can be augmented with satellite-based remote sensing systems, such as ASTER, MODIS, AIRS and OMI. However, satellite-based data suffers from its relatively low spatial density and limited frequency of measurement. A need exists for additional targeted in situ data from volcanic ash clouds, particularly to as­sess “…particle size distribution, ash cloud height, and ash cloud thickness including spatial (horizontal and vertical) and temporal variability of ash concentration.”

The irony of this development is emblematic of the UAS industry. The innovative applications of this innovation are only limited by our collective imagination. As with past and as-of-yet unsolved challenges, technology is being constantly invented to reduce risks.

It will be interesting to see what problems can be solved by these machines.


Can a Ruggedized UAS be Used for Scientific Data Gathering in Harsh Environments Like Volcano Monitoring? NASA is Betting on It.
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