Aircraft equipped with futuristic laser scanners are to map the entirety of England in 3D to help combat flooding, cut down on fly-tipping and uncover long-lost Roman roads.

The Environment Agency has unveiled ambitious plans to recreate a digital three-dimensional image of all 130,000 square kilometres of the country – including rivers, fields and national parks – by 2020.

About 75% of the landscape has been mapped over the last two decades, but there is only sporadic coverage of upland areas.

It is hoped the new project, which will begin before the end of winter, will fill in the gaps.

Image:The data will be used to help understand flooding risks and create defence plans. Pic: Environment Agency

The quality of the image will be substantially improved too, with the scanners able to map the country at a one-metre resolution to reveal the terrain more clearly.

Once complete, the data will not only be used to understand the risk of flooding and help make defence plans, but also to catch people who illegally dump huge amounts of rubbish.

In 2014, the technology – which measures the distance between the plane and the ground to build a picture of the land – helped prosecute eight people in Cornwall after data revealed a sudden change in the terrain, which proved to be thousands of tons of dumped waste.

The data has previously uncovered Vindolanda Roman fort, just south of Hadrian's Wall. Pic: Environment Agency
Image:The data has previously uncovered Vindolanda Roman fort, just south of Hadrian's Wall. Pic: Environment Agency

Sir James Bevan, chief executive of the government agency, said: "This ambitious project will enhance our understanding of England's unique natural features and landscape, helping us to better understand flood risk, plan effective defences and fight waste crime.

"I'm pleased we are able to gather, use and share such valuable data to contribute to environmental improvements and conservation. It's just one of the many ways the Environment Agency is using technology to help people and wildlife."

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The data gathered will be freely available to the public and used by other government agencies and industries, including archaeologists hoping to uncover lost Roman roads in the North and even game developers building virtual environments for players to explore.

Eleven terabytes of data is already available online, attracting more than 500,000 downloads.

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