August 1, 2013—Optical products and engineering company Michigan Aerospace Corporation (Ann Arbor, Mich., U.S.A.) announced on July 24 the start of a NASA contract to develop an aircraft-based optical air data system for airborne volcanic ash detection. The Phase I Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract, entitled “Volcanic Ash Detection Using Raman LIDAR,” or VADER, will use ultraviolet lasers to monitor the velocity, direction, temperature and density of airborne volcanic ash from commercial and military aircraft. The amount of the contract was not disclosed.

Volcanic ash can cause damage to aircraft engines, windscreens and electronics. In 2010, air travel over Europe was suspended and/or disrupted for several weeks due to ash from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano. In July, flights to and from Mexico City were disrupted by Mexico’s Popocatépetl volcano.

The VADER system will continuously monitor ash conditions from behind in front of aircraft, to provide advance warning of dangerous conditions so that the crew can alter course. Compact versions of VADER will be mounted on unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) to monitor air safety conditions during major volcanic eruptions and enable faster reopening of flight paths.

VADER will also conduct scientific studies of volcanic ash plumes, including ash loading and particle size distribution. The instrumentation will be useful for characterizing large-scale atmospheric instabilities such as storms and hurricanes.

Peter Tchoryk, CEO of Michigan Aerospace, commented, “We are developing a fully integrated atmospheric intelligence package for flight safety. With this funding, we are getting closer to achieving a compact, multi-function optical solution that is applicable to manned and unmanned aircraft.”