Aerial Survey Unveiled: Your Ultimate Guide to High-Flying Data Collection

Oblique Photogrammetry
August 31, 2023
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We work with many of the companies leading the industry in aerial survey data acquisition around the world. We have a steady pulse on what sensors our clients are flying and where our clients experience challenges and success. 

3D Lidar image of terrain
Cooper Aerial

We also work closely with most of the key manufacturers and on their new and previous generation models. 

With technological leaps, remote sensing equipment has taken the stage, revolutionizing accuracy, efficiency, and data quality. 

In this guide, we'll delve into the world of aerial survey equipment. From airborne LiDAR to gyrostabilized mounts, we'll unlock the secrets of these high-flying tools and share benefits and things to know about each type.

Airborne LiDAR for Manned Aircraft

Imagine an aircraft equipped with laser vision—it's not science fiction, it's airborne LiDAR. This technology works by emitting laser pulses to scan the ground below, capturing detailed elevation data with pinpoint precision. 

Industry titans like Leica Geosystems, RIEGL, and Teledyne Optech lead the pack, delivering state-of-the-art laser technology to support many different applications. 

Riegl LMS-Q1560 lidar system installed in aircraft
RIEGL LMS-Q 1560 Lidar

By mounting LiDAR sensors on survey aircraft, we tap into a multitude of benefits that ground-based surveys simply can't match.

First and foremost, the vantage point from the sky offers unparalleled coverage. Aircraft can swiftly cover large areas in a single flight, making them ideal for aerial survey tasks like terrain modeling, forestry analysis, flood mapping, urban planning, and even corridor mapping. 

This efficiency not only saves resources but also facilitates timely decision-making for disaster response or urgent environmental assessments. This efficiency often makes surveys with helicopters or aircraft more cost-effective than using drones to survey the same areas. 

The elevated perspective allows for the creation of high-resolution, 3D representations of landscapes, enabling planners, ecologists, and engineers to make informed decisions.

While the benefits are impressive, airborne LiDAR using manned aircraft does come with its share of challenges and considerations. One of the primary challenges is data processing complexity. The sheer volume of data collected during an aerial survey flight can be overwhelming, requiring specialized software and hardware for efficient processing and analysis. Ensuring accurate registration and integration of LiDAR data with other geospatial information is crucial for generating actionable insights.

Cost is another factor to consider. Acquiring and maintaining aircraft, equipping them with LiDAR sensors, and employing skilled operators and technicians can be a significant financial investment. For this reason, we predict a trend toward renting vs owning for both aircraft platforms and sensors. 

And, as always, weather conditions and flight regulations can impact aerial survey schedules, potentially delaying data collection and analysis.

Airborne LiDAR for Unmanned Aircraft (Drones)

Drones have transformed the aerial survey game, providing a flexible, and less expensive method to bring LiDAR capabilities to smaller-scale surveys such as small area mapping, infrastructure inspection, corridor mapping, forestry management and monitoring mining sites. 

Phoenix Ranger lidar installed on UAV

Phoenix Lidar Systems, LidarUSA, RIEGL, and GeoCue are a few of the primary manufacturers offering high accuracy and reliable LiDAR systems. 

We often consult with our clients to help determine which drone and LiDAR combo are best for their applications. With UAV surveys, considerations like payload capacity and flight time play a crucial role in the decision-making process.

Medium Format Cameras 

Medium format cameras are the unsung heroes of aerial survey projects, capturing images that not only mesmerize the eye but also hold vital information for mapping and analysis. Phase One are at the forefront of crafting these high-precision sensors.

These cameras, characterized by their larger sensor size compared to standard digital cameras, are the go-to tools for professionals seeking high-resolution imagery for various applications. 

Medium format cameras are sometimes used alone for photogrammetry and orthophotography, and sometimes integrated with LiDAR to add a layer of detail for topographic mapping, archaeological surveys, and 3D modeling. 

Many of our clients combine multiple cameras with both nadir and oblique orientations. Nadir images are those taken vertically downward, directly under the aircraft, providing a top-down view of the landscape. These images serve as the foundation for creating accurate orthophotos and terrain models. 

Medium Format Aerial Survey Camera
Phase One Camera

Oblique images are captured at an angle, showing the landscape from a tilted perspective. This adds depth to the imagery, allowing for the visualization of vertical features like buildings, trees, and structures. 

The combination of nadir and oblique images is often essential for comprehensive mapping. While nadir images deliver accurate geometric information required for precise measurements and cartography, oblique images offer a more realistic depiction of the terrain, enhancing the interpretation of complex scenes. 

This is especially valuable in urban planning, where understanding the verticality of structures is crucial, or in archaeological surveys, where visualizing historical sites from various angles aids in analysis. 

Large-Format Cameras for Wide Area Mapping

Vexcel Ultracam Eagle Mark III large format aerial survey camera in front of an aircraft.
Vexcel Eagle Mark 3

When it comes to capturing vast expanses, large-format aerial survey cameras are the answer. These cameras offer higher resolution capabilities, and installed in the appropriate aircraft, minimize the need for excessive flight overlap, which can be time-consuming and resource-intensive. Vexcel Imaging,  Leica Geosystems, and Phase One are the leading manufacturers of large-format aerial cameras, delivering high-resolution imagery while minimizing the need for extensive flight overlap. 

This efficiency is essential for land cover assessment, where capturing vast expanses swiftly and accurately is crucial. Disaster response efforts are also empowered by large-format cameras, enabling rapid assessment of affected areas to facilitate quick decision-making.

However, the sky-high challenge with large-format imagery lies in data processing and storage. The sheer volume of high-resolution imagery demands robust storage solutions and sophisticated data processing pipelines. 

Multi or Hyperspectral Cameras

Adding more colors to the picture can lead to valuable insights, and that's where multi or hyperspectral cameras come into play for aerial surveys. Headwall Photonics and Specim are the brands we see most often come through our inventory.

Headwall VNIR Multispectral aerial survey system components on a table
Multi/Hyper Sensors

These cameras capture images beyond the typical RGB spectrum, allowing for specialized analysis across industries like agriculture, environmental monitoring, and mineral exploration. They enable applications ranging from disease detection in crops to identifying pollution sources and assessing vegetation health. 

Flight Management and Positioning Systems

Getting accurate survey data requires precise navigation, and that's where flight management systems (FMS) and positioning systems come in. 

What is an FMS? 

FMS is a software-based tool that enables precise flight planning by defining the optimal path and altitude for data collection. This path ensures complete coverage of the survey area, minimizing the risk of data gaps or overlaps. 

Once in the air, the FMS guides the aircraft along the predetermined path, ensuring that every nook and cranny is captured accurately, and ensures that the data collected is aligned with the aircraft's position and attitude. This is particularly crucial for projects that require multiple passes or data from various sensors to be integrated seamlessly. 

What is a Positioning System? 

Track'Air TECI-4 system

For aerial surveys, we need a device that combines the capabilities of both a GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System) receiver and an IMU (Inertial Measurement Unit). The GNSS is used to determine position and velocity. The IMU measures acceleration and angular velocity. Put together, a positioning system provides a highly accurate and reliable estimate of the user’s position, velocity, and orientation, and this is critical information to match to the LiDAR data or imagery collected to make accurate maps. 

Lead’air, Novatel, and Applanix are the key players here. Whenever a client asks us about purchasing a standalone sensor for their aerial surveys, we always ask if they will also need an FMS or IMU, and if so, we recommend a solution best suited to the sensor and their workflow.

Gyrostabilized Mounts

Ever tried to take a steady photo from a moving vehicle? Imagine that challenge multiplied in the world of aerial imaging. 

How can you ensure that a LiDAR or camera are held stable while an aircraft, helicopter, or drone are constantly shifting in their pitch (nose or tail up), yaw (nose side to side), and roll (circular) axes? 

Somag GSM4000 Gyrostabilized Mount
GSM 4000

Gyrostabilized mounts are the answer, offering technology that reduces vibrations and ensures crisp, clear imagery. 

Somag is the standout in crafting these stabilizing solutions for air, land, and marine applications. Their three axes gimbals compensate for arbitrary movements, prevent image smearing, and increase ranging accuracy of LiDAR. 


In the realm of aerial surveys, the equipment takes center stage. From airborne LiDAR that scans the earth to drones equipped with hyperspectral cameras that reveal the invisible, these tools are the backbone of professional survey data acquisition. You can see our catalog of preowned and new equipment for purchase or lease at

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