A network of light sensors that can detect volcanic ash in our skies has been installed across the UK to warn of eruptions and increase passenger safety while avoiding flight delays.

The Met Office, which is responsible for the technology that forecasts the weather and assists with flight controls, is installing ten LiDARS across the UK.  The LiDARs, which are particle sensing Light Detection and Ranging Systems are part of a £3 million projected funded by Department for Transport (DfT).

Ash from the Eyjafjallajoekull eruption grinded UK flights to a halt ©iStock/Elena Kalistratova
Ash from the Eyjafjallajoekull eruption grinded UK flights to a halt ©iStock/Elena Kalistratova

Once detected by the sensors, ash data will be sent to the UK’s Volcanic Ash Advisory centre where it will be analysed with information from satellites to provide a real-time picture of ash distribution in UK and European skies.

It is hoped this new technology will avoid the kind of disruption experienced during the European volcanic ash cloud, which grounded UK flights in 2010 for several days.

Aviation Minister Robert Goodwill said: "The 2010 volcanic ash cloud led to flights being grounded for days at a time, not just here in the UK but across Europe and further afield, with knock on effects on international airports around the globe. It had a significant impact on travellers, the aviation industry, and wider economy.

"This new equipment, funded by the DfT, will allow the UK's Met Office to track ash clouds more easily and predict how they might spread more accurately. That could play a big part in minimising disruption to flights during any future incident."

How does LiDAR work?

LiDAR works by probing the atmosphere using light from a pulsed laser source. Backscattered light from suspended aerosols is collected using a telescope, as a receiver, and analysed.

This provides a profile of the vertical distribution and characteristics of particles in the atmosphere. Each unit will be collocated with a sun photometer to support ongoing research into more accurate and timely estimates of particle concentration levels.

How the UK avoided worse delays during the 2010 ash cloud

During the 2010 volcanic ash incident, the UK’s aviation bodies and air traffic services worked with the Met Office to reconfigure a network of older laser-based equipment that was originally set up to measure cloud heights. This was used to observe the ash in the atmosphere, as a makeshift tool. This new laser network will be able to distinguish ash from other particles in the atmosphere, providing a more accurate analysis.

Ian Lisk, head of the natural hazards team at the Met Office, said: "The new LiDAR network will significantly improve our overall ability to monitor and forecast the distribution of volcanic ash over the UK."

"Our forecasts are used by partners at the National Air Traffic Service to make decisions on flight safety across UK airspace, based on the safety thresholds set by the Civil Aviation Authority and the International Civil Aviation Organisation."

The LiDARs should be operational by Spring next year, the Met Office said.