When something is unlikely to happen, people often say that there is a greater chance of being struck by lightning. The fact is however that lightning does strike, and is one of the leading weather-related causes of death and injury.
Furthermore, important infrastructure including airports, hospitals, sports stadiums and power lines can often be affected by lighting. Electronic components are particularly vulnerable to lightning-induced transient voltages.
There is therefore a potentially huge market for accurate lightning data. National Meteorological Services (MET) in a number of Member States already provide some data, in most cases because of the incidence of forest fires. Lightning is estimated to cause up to 16% of forest fires in the EU, costing ?70 million in mitigation efforts a year.
However, this data tends to be very expensive for end users, and is often not accurate enough to make a significant difference. The EU-funded LOLIGHT (Lightning Mapping and Supercell Tracking System) project sought to address this by developing a low-cost system capable of detecting lightning to an accuracy of 100 metres.
In addition, the system can track and predict lightning events in real time, and map lightning patterns within an area of 200 km.
This project has outstanding commercial potential. The accurate and quick location of strikes can help reduce costs associated with lightning, such as forest fires. Power distribution companies also stand to benefit from this service, since they can prepare for storm-caused power outages by proactive load management plans before operations are impacted.
When power disturbances are not handled quickly, there is risk of cascading failure. When a power line goes down, the electricity that once flowed down the damaged line is forced down other paths. If those other lines are already close to full capacity, the onslaught of electricity will cause them to overload as a result of congestion, creating a domino effect that is the leading cause of massive blackouts.
The project also offers cost savings for airports and the air traffic control sector. During lightning threats, aircrafts have to re-route around the hazardous area, using up fuel and man hours. By using precise, real time monitoring, routes can be planned more accurately, benefiting both the industry and passengers.
Explore further: New insights into the one-in-a-million lightning called 'ball lightning'