Instrument Package to Measure Volcanic Ash

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The Boeing Corporation published a study documenting 90 known encounters of jet airliners with volcanic ash plumes that resulted in damage to engines and airframes. The nearly complete shutdown of commercial air traffic in European countries after the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption in Iceland was a safety concern stemming from incidents when jet airliners have suffered severe engine damage as a result of encounters with volcanic ash. Measurements of particle size distributions in volcanic ash plumes are problematic because of hazards to the research aircraft. Not only are there potential safety hazards to the occupants, but damage to the airframe and engines can be very costly. However, measurements of particle sizes in volcanic ash are needed to help ascertain whether conditions are safe for air travel, or not. Because they are virtually unaffected by volcanic ash, electric powered Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s) are ideal for investigating the properties of Volcanic plumes.

SPEC Instrument Development

SPEC is developing a custom instrument package that will measure the size, shape and composition of volcanic ash and install it on an electrically powered UAV. The instrument package, called Pele, consists of

  • A digital imaging system that provides very high-resolution (submicron pixel) real-time digital images of ash particles from 1 micron to 1 mm.
  • An optical forward-scattering particle sizing system that measures the size of particles from 0.3 to 20 microns.
  • A DRUM filter sampler that collects samples of ash particles from 0.09 to 2.5 microns for post analysis of composition.
  • An X-Ray florescence spectrometer that detects silicate in real time.
  • Meteorological, air motion and GPS position package.

The instrument package will be flown on a small, electrically-powered UAV built by Vanilla Aircraft LLC, a firm that specializes in the design and fabrication of small, electric powered, high-performance, composite-based UAV’s for atmospheric research.

Detail showing components of optical imaging system.