In 2010, the eruption of an Icelandic volcano led to the cancellation of 100,000 flights and a loss of over two billion dollars for airlines. This was due to the fact, that at the time, there was no way of detecting the presence of atmospheric volcanic ash, which represents a real danger for aviation.
As Gérard Rey of the French national meteorological service explains: "volcanic ash is made up of tiny particles that are not visible to the naked eye, but are very abrasive, and not only render an aircraft's windshield opaque, but also effect jet engines."
To prevent such a scenario from happening again, the French national meteorological service has just acquired a number of odd-looking boxes, containing specialised lasers and telescopes, at a cost of 100,000 euros each. The apparatus can detect the presence of suspended atmospheric particles, at up to 11 miles (17 kilometres) altitude, which appear clearly on the computer.
Throughout France, from July - a first in Europe - the French national meteorological service will have installed six volcanic ash detection systems at several of their sites. These will then remain in operation 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In terms of volcanic eruptions, this will be one way of ensuring the safety of air routes over French territory. The UK is due to do the same in the autumn.