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Lasers could replace pitot tubes, reducing icing threat


Researchers in Wales, England, think they’ve hit on a way to use a small, low-cost laser to determine airspeed in real time and are working on a way to make the device ice-proof. Conventional pitot tubes convert the difference between ambient air pressure and ram air pressure into airspeed. While pitot tubes are heated, sometimes that isn’t enough, and the tubes can clog with ice in severe conditions, leading to inaccurate airspeed readings that can contribute to a loss of control and crash. That phenomenon was a contributing factor in the 2009 crash of Air France flight 447, whose pitot tubes iced up as it flew through thunderstorms over the Atlantic Ocean. The prototype being developed uses a small laser, like those in some computer mice, that shines through a small window on the side of the fuselage and bounces off a reflective surface, such as the side of an existing pitot tube. Software would determine the change in the laser’s wavelength as it bounces back toward a light sensor on the fuselage. The software could then calculate airspeed. The system is being tested in a wind tunnel and could soon be scaled for a real-world test flight.