Do you remember when Washington's Mt. St. Helens went off on May 18, 1980, spewing volcanic ash over more than 22,000 sq. miles? Flight paths were immediately altered to avoid the ash, and several airports were closed. More than 1,000 flights were cancelled based on the accumulation of dangerous fine ash that melts inside jet engines and limited visibility.
Pumping an artificial cloud of volcanic ash into the air over the Bay of Biscay, Airbus and British easyJet airline just tested a sensor that won't let volcano eruptions impact a plane in the air. So, it's not that it initiates a cloaking device, or any such zoomy thing. Instead it relies on satellite imaging and modeling to find an ash cloud, predicts the direction the ash cloud will travel, and pretty much tells a pilot how to get away from it fast. Naturally, if it were used post-eruption, the real-time data would allow many flights that are considered just too dangerous now.
It hasn't just been Mt. St. Helens that has caused havoc; in fact, it might have been rather tame when compared to Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull 2010 explosion that caused an economic hit of approximately $2.2 billion to Europe's aviation industry, and severely affecting easyJet.
The experiment was conducted at an Airbus test center in Toulouse and proved that the Airborne volcanic object imaging detector (aptly named Avoid) could both identify and measure particulates in the atmosphere. Housed in a small capsule at the aircraft's front, real-time images can be sent to the pilot and ash can be detected approximately 62 miles ahead, at altitudes between 5,000 to 50,000 ft.
It looks like easyJet is ordering 10 based on the success of the test. The technology, developed by the US military, will be integrated into the cockpit's display in the hopes that it will keep planes from being grounded after a volcanic explosion.