Ceilometer Siting


In the past ICAO Annex 3 SARPS recommended that a ceilometer be placed at the middle marker site 900-1200 m from the touch down zone for instrumented runways .

This had an advantage that power and comms were generally  already established at that site or were planned at that site.

This gave a reading of cloud base height at a crucial decision height on the glidepath

With addition of ILS and co-located DME, more and more aerodromes have no middle marker. The piece of land located 900 to 1200 m from the landing threshold may be outside the aerodrome airfield and a ceilometer installation may be impracticable, or very costly.

As a consequence in more and more cases an alternative location must be found.

A typical recommendation for siting the ceilometer would be :

“When instrumented systems are used for the measurement of the cloud amount and the height of cloud base, representative observations should be obtained by the use of sensors appropriately sited. For local routine and special reports, in the case of aerodromes with precision approach runways, sensors for cloud amount and height of cloud base should be sited to give the best practicable indications of the height of cloud base and cloud amount at the runway threshold in use. For that purpose, a sensor should be installed at a distance less than 500 m from the threshold. This distance can be extended up to 900-1200 m from the landing threshold in the axis of the approach end of the runway”


The user should refer to the latest edition of Annex 3 to ensure compliance.

Ceilometers for Dust Storm Profiling

Sydney Dust Storm 2009

A wall of dust stretched from northern Queensland to the southern tip of eastern Australia on the morning of September 23, 2009, The storm, the worst in 70 years, led to cancelled or delayed flights, traffic problems, and health issues,  The concentration of particles in the air reached 15,000 micrograms per cubic meter in New South Wales during the storm, A normal day sees a particle concentration 10-20 micrograms per cubic meter.

Work on the use of Ceilometers for analysis of  that  Dust Storm is decribed in the paper:

Laser ceilometer measurements of Australian dust storm highlight need for reassessment of atmospheric dust plume loads      By Hamish McGowan and Joshua Soderholm

Among the more interesting information in this paper was the curtain plot showing the increase  in backscatter when the wall of the duststorm hit,  the very high concentration around ground level and the vertical extent of the dust.  The maximum vertical extent of this plot is 1500 metres ,  or approx 5000 ft.


(Curtain Plot showing onset of the Dust Storm and estimated particle Concentration from paper: Laser ceilometer measurements of Australian dust storm highlight need for reassessment of atmospheric dust plume loads      By Hamish McGowan and Joshua Soderholm )

Ceilometers like the 8200-CHS are suitable for this type of work,  where dust storms are experienced regularly,  such as the Harmattan in sub saharan Africa,  the Churgui in Morocco,  the Khamasin in Egypt, the Shamal in Iraq or the Kali Andhi in India

High Altitude Clouds

High Altitude clouds  fall into 2 categories,

  1. Those with  a low base and vertical development are Cumulonimbus and Towering Cumulus.     At the base these are water clouds,    so the ceilometer only “sees”  a few hundred feet into the cloud.
  2. Those with a high base,  including Cirrus, Cirrostratus and Cirrocumulus and Altostratus

The Cirrus cloud family are composed of Ice Crystals,  and are very often “optically thin”and they have low backscatter coefficients,  so are difficult to detect with ceilometers,  because the laser pulse energy is limited to eye safe levels.

Altostratus may be composed of ice crystals. In some ice crystal altostratus, very thin, rapidly disappearing horizontal sheets of water droplets appear at random. The sizes of the ice crystals in the cloud tended to increase as altitude decreased. However, close to the bottom of the cloud, the particles decreased in size again

Altostratus cloud with a water phase  may have a strong backscatter signal and can be picked up as in the case below

17000 FT 26-11 TREVISO

Alto stratus Cloud at 17,000 ft

Ref 1 : Wikipedia : Alto Stratus entry.

Ref 2.  Wikipedia Cirrus Cloud entry.

Single Lens vs Dual Lens Ceilometer

All ceilometers which are set up for  long range cloud height measurement are “far sighted”,  having a blind region in front of the unit.  This is shown in the diagram below ,  and the height of the blind spot Rio is heavily dependent on the axial separation d ,  the beam divergence and the telescope angle of acceptance.  The signal is maximised at the full overlap distance Rovf as shown below.

dual overlap

Since most ceilometers are designed for the best acheivable  signal to noise ratio,  the telescope angle of acceptance is set to the limit of  focal length,  sensor active area and lens aberration.

The single lens designs,  such as the CL51 and 8200-CHS feature a low  value of d and thus a much reduced overlap height

Single lens overlap geometry

There are a number of different optical arrangements to enable the reduction of d to zero or to a small value to minimise the overlap height.

One form of “single lens” Ceilometer,  using a “split lens ” approach (reference (Vande Hey, J. ;  Coupland, J. ; Richards, J. ; Sandford, A. )

It is worth noting that earlier designs of dual lens ceilometers actually utilised the blind spot to reduce the required dynamic range to prevent overload of the return signal processing channel, and greatly reduce optical  crosstalk in the instrument itself ( known as To crosstalk)

Later ceilometers using the single lens optics,  such as the MTECH SYSTEMS  8200-CHS feature special techniques to minimise optical crosstalk and very high dynamic range analog to digital converters to enable detection of fog close to the ground without saturation of the signal

Cloud Atlas

The definitive reference to cloud types and Cloud species is the ICAO Cloud Atlas which can be downloaded for free from this site:

WMO Cloud Atlas Vol 1    WMO Cloud Atlas Vol 2

There are a number of less detailed cloud type images on the internet.   For example

Clouds Online

The Australian Bureau of Meteorology have a good references to cloud observation

Australian Bureau Chapter 13

Cloud Types Graphic

Current ceilometers have a range out to about 25,000 ft,  and other models with larger telescopes built in,.  can reach up to about 40000 ft.   For use in aviation,  at airports a range of 12,00 ft is considered adequate.

Ceilometer Laser Safety.

Ceilometers must be eye safe and meet Class or Class 1m  Laser Safety standard under the international specification IEC 60825-1  or ANSI Z136 in the USA

The phrase “eye-safe” is used below.

Class 1:   This class is eye-safe under all operating conditions.

Class 1M:  This class is safe for viewing directly with the naked eye, but may be hazardous to view with the aid of optical instruments. In general, the use of magnifying glasses increases the hazard from a widely-diverging beam (eg LEDs and bare laser diodes), and binoculars or telescopes increase the hazard from a wide, collimated beam   Radiation in classes 1 and 1M can be visible, invisible or both.

The beam from a ceilometer has a very low divergence,  which is mainly determined  by the finite size of the laser source and the ceilometer lens/mirror focal length,  but can also be effected by spherical aberration and diffraction effects in the optical path in the instrument.

Wikipedia Entry: Laser Safety

Sky Condition, How is it assessed ?

A human observer looks at the sky and estimates the coverage in 8ths ,  0 being clear sky and 8 being overcast.   The human observer then estimates cloud height and applies these estimates of cover for each layer.    It is quite obvious that if there are no breaks in the sky,  any higher layers present cannot be estimated.    The human observer also suffers from the “packing” effect of an oblique line of sight , and usually tends to overestimate cover.

For each layer the human observer will give the condition FEW,  SCATTER,  BROKEN AND overcast.

A ceilometer can only “see” cloud above it,  so can only estimate the sky condition by analysing heights over a time period.

The Sky Condition Algorithm in the 8200-CHS  is based on that developed by the US National Weather Service and used in their automated surface observing system (ASOS) units and  guidelines published by the World Meteorological Organization.

A study by the Hughes STX Corp. found that when ceilings were under 5,000 feet, this algorithm agreed with the human observer 78% of the time. With fog, the comparability was 84%, with rain it was 69%, and when snowing 74%. During rain, the NWS Algorithm reported more changes than the human observer.

However at the transition between scattered and broken cloud coverage 4 oktas humans often report too much cloud coverage. This is attributed to the “packing effect;” a condition where an observer does not see the openings in the cloud decks near the horizon due to the viewing angle.   Pilots tend to overestimate the coverage even more than ground observers because of visual compression.

The 8200-CHS algorithm is not biased by the “packing effect” because it measures only the sky conditions passing over the sensor

Details of the 8200-CHS specifications can be found here 8200-CHS Page