Drone tech could help airliners avoid volcanic threats

Global Business

Alaska officials raised the Aviation Color Code to the second highest level after last weekend’s volcanic eruption.

Volcanic ash can pose a major threat to jet airliners.

Now researchers are looking to a new type of drone to help them avoid the ash.

CGTN’s Hendrik Sybrandy explains.

Black Swift Technologies builds custom drones in Boulder, Colorado.

“We build the autopilot, we build the user interface, the ground station and the airframe itself, Black Swift Technologies President Jack Elston said.

For six years, Elston has provided unmanned aerial vehicles for the scientific community. Now he wants to go where few if any drones have gone before.

Black Swift was recently awarded a contract by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration to measure the ash and plumes of volcanoes like Bogoslof, which just erupted in Alaska.

“They’d like to better identify that region around the volcano, what the particulates look like, and what kind of safety warnings they have to issue to the aircraft in order to keep people safe around the volcano without hopefully canceling all the flights,” Elston said.

The world aviation industry was severely shaken by the eruption of a volcano in Iceland in 2010. The danger posed by abrasive volcanic ash to jet engines and other parts of planes forced the closure of much of European airspace for nearly a week. 100,000 flights were cancelled, 7 million passengers affected. But were those measures necessary.

“Maybe there were areas that they could still safely get around,” Black Swift Technologies Chief Technology Officer Maciej Stachura. “They just didn’t know that because they didn’t have the data, so having the data just gives you the ability to better forecast where these particles are, and what’s harmful and what’s not.”

Satellites only provide a sporadic, top-down view of volcanoes. Black Swift’s SuperSwift drone is designed to provide NASA with much more detailed observations.

“So we’re building them a platform to support a larger array of instruments,” said Elston. “It’ll stay aloft longer and then go to higher altitudes.”

Despite an aviation alert issued after this volcano, this flight board shows air traffic in and out of Alaska has been mostly on-time and normal. But that won’t always be the case.

Black Swift believes its drone could help provide a more informed response to events like this one, not to mention severe weather of other kinds.

“If we can prove we have a system that can reliably and robustly fly into these areas, it opens up a lot of other things we can do with this, this aircraft, this system,” Stachura said.

The company will spend the next two years tackling various engineering challenges.

It hopes its drone will offer more visibility into these forces of nature, provide better warnings, avoid property losses, and potentially save lives, too.