Sensors allow planes to fly through volcanic ash

(CBS News) A massive volcanic eruption in Iceland disrupted air travel around the world and now scientists are recreating that event, in the name of aviation safety. They've produced the world's first man-made ash cloud.

The experiment was all about trying to recreate the conditions from that big ash cloud in 2010 that caused chaos, shutting down airspace for almost a week, stranding 10 million people and costing airlines around $1.7 dollars.

So teams went right to the source and scooped up ash from that very volcano. Using a specially-modified aircraft, they blew it out of the back, dispersing one ton of Icelandic ash into the atmosphere off the coast of France at an altitude of 9,000 feet. That created an ash cloud 800 feet high and around two miles wide.

Then a second test plane, fitted with a newly-designed detection system, flew straight towards the ash cloud, identifying its density and measuring it from around 40 miles away.

A smaller aircraft flew into the cloud to take measurements that backed up the results.

The new sensor's inventor is Dr Fred Prata. He told CBS News' Charlie D'Agata that his sensor will allow planes to remain flying through ash.

"If there are cases where there is ash over an airport, we don't fly, but the majority of the time it's dispersed in the atmosphere. People want to go about their business; they want to go on their holidays. This will allow them to do that," he said.

The idea is that aircraft fitted with the new sensors will alert pilots to skirt around danger zones, rather than causing aviation officials to shut down whole areas of airspace like they did back in 2010.

"What you can't see with a naked eye, you can pick up on the infrared and you can pick it up from as far as 100 kilometers away from the hazard, so you've got plenty of time to take avoiding action," said pilot Chris Foster.

Easy Jet, the airline that helped develop the sensors, said that they hope to fit their fleet by the end of the year, but as far as industry-wide requirements, that remains an open question.

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