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Israel-Norway volcano project gets large grant from EU

Israel’s Elbit and Norway’s Nicarnica Aviation aim to help pilots navigate volcanic ash with funding from the Eurostars program

A pilot wears an Elbit Skylens system (Courtesy)
A pilot wears an Elbit Skylens system (Courtesy)

The European Union is pitching in to support a joint project by Israel’s Elbit and Norway’s Nicarnica Aviation that will enable commercial airline pilots to cope with volcanic ash – a common phenomenon that has resulted in numerous near-accidents, delays, and a near-total shutdown of European airspace for almost a week in 2010.

The two firms last year signed a memorandum of understanding to develop the AVOID (Airborne Volcanic Object Imaging Detector) system to help pilots avoid flying into ash-contaminated areas, and ensuring that they can continue to fly safely if they do come across ash. Last week, the EU’s Eurostars research program approved funding for the project.

To create AVOID, Nicarnica integrated its ash detection system into Elbit’s ClearVision sensor-based vision system. The sensors capture and display on a screen terrain and airport lights in darkness and reduced visibility, integrated into a global terrain database using Nicarnica’s technology detect ash and integrated the information into the Elbit database, thus showing pilots where the ash clouds are – and are not, enabling them to reroute flights to avoid getting caught up in a cloud.

The deal was in contrast to a decision earlier this week by Norwegian insurance firm KLP Kapitalforvaltning to exclude Germany’s Heidelberg Cement and Mexico’s Cemex their products were used in construction of West Bank projects.

There are active volcanoes all over the world, and they can erupt at any time – as did Indonesia’s Mount Galunggung in 1982, with the ‘ambushing” a British Airways flight and causing all four engines on the 747 to shut down. AVOID is to be integrated into Elbit’s Enhanced Vision System (EVS) cameras, providing pilots with the ability “to detect hazardous volcanic ash particles in the airspace up to 100 km ahead of the aircraft day or night,” the companies said. That would give pilots as much as ten minutes warning, giving them enough time to change routes in order to avoid the cloud.

The system would have proven very useful in 2010, when Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted. For six days, Europe’s airspace was almost completely shut down, as the volcano spewed ash, rocks, and dust into the atmosphere, making flying hazardous. Even after the initial shutdown period, airspace in numerous countries was closed sporadically over the following months.

All flights were canceled because there was no way for pilots to know where ash clouds would show up. With a system like AVOID, at least some flights could have been rerouted – thus limiting the losses to the eruption, which were estimated at about $2 billion.

The Eurostars program provides funding for transnational innovative research for projects that have partners from two or more Eurostars countries. The program is publicly financed with a total budget of 1.14 billion euro and is currently supported by the 34 countries (including Israel) that are members of Eureka, the European R&D organization, and the European Union.

Yoram Shmueli, General Manager of Elbit Systems’ Aerospace Division, said that “Working with Nicarnia is another step in implementing our strategy to provide our customers additional applications and operational capabilities using our cutting-edge ClearVision EFVS family of products.” According to Ove Bratsberg, CEO of Nicarnica Aviation, the project “will take us closer to realizing the goal of an on-board ash detection system and offering it worldwide within the shortest possible time. This will help the aviation industry avoid the economic damage created by crises such as the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption that crippled European aviation for several days.”’

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