Airborne Geophysics, Antarctica

Lat. 90°0'0"S, Long. 0°0'0"E

Expertise and capability

The British Antarctic Survey has many decades of experience collecting processing and distributing a wide range of aerogeophysical data from across Antarctica. It operates a Twin Otter aircraft with a certified fit of airborne geophysics instrumentation that support our programme of sustained observations. In addition we are developing our capability to deploy geophysical and other remote sensing instruments from Uncrewed Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).

The instruments

The core geophysical instrument suite includes gravimeter, magnetometers and polametric ice-penetrating radar (PASIN-2). This suite can be flown with LIDAR, camera, hyperspectral or other radar systems in support.  The instrument suite has been widely employed on NERC and other grants.

Airborne platforms

Twin Otter survey aircraft

The primary geophysical survey platform is a Twin Otter aircraft. This very adaptable and robust platform is used the world over as a ‘bush’ aircraft. Its twin turbo-prop engines and ‘Short Take off and Landing’ (STOL) capability allow it to be operated from small, remote unpaved airfields. The addition of skis or tundra tyres also allows operation on snow from remote camps.  The aircraft can be operated single pilot and a long range fuel tank is also available. In general the aircraft works in the Antarctic from October through to March each year. Outside the Antarctic season the aircraft is available in the Northern hemisphere.

Installations are flexible allowing for tailored missions for gravity, radar, magnetics or hyperspectral data collection or any combinations of the systems. Hard points in the wings allow for mounting of 8 radar antennas, while a belly antenna housing can add an additional four receive elements to the PASIN radar antenna array, or support other radar systems. Pods can be fitted at the wing tips for the magnetometer installation.

The camera bay, beneath a central floor hatch, can accommodate a scanning laser used for measuring ice surface elevation. A digital SLR camera can also be fitted to provide visual references for the data sets. A hyperspectral suite of imaging equipment can be utilised in the camera bay for a wide range of survey applications such as geology or vegetation studies. Alternatively a higher frequency accumulation radar can be fitted within the camera bay, giving higher resolution images of the internal structure of the ice sheet, but with shallower penetration of the ice. The required GPS and attitude measurements to support survey operations are fed data from up to three antennas mounted on the roof of the aircraft, with data typically logged to a Javad GNSS receiver.

A airplane that is on top of a snow covered mountain.
Aerogeophysical survey aircraft at Theron Mountains

UAV survey platform

Large UAVs, such as the Windracers Ultra, can carry many of the geophysical and other Earth observation instruments noted above. In some cases such platforms have distinct advantages over traditional aircraft, for example for smaller survey areas, where slow flight is required, or where fuel is at an extreme premium. Supported by Innovate UK BAS have successfully deployed magnetic, gravity, hyperspectral and visual camera systems from the Windracers Ultra platform in Antarctica on survey missions up to 260 km long and will continue to develop this capability. For UAV operations science equipment is pre-installed on a bespoke ‘floor’ which simply slots into the UAV payload bay. Science equipment either collects data across the entire duration of the mission, or is switched on/off automatically when specific mission waypoints are achieved. Due to weight restrictions the UAV surveys are currently limited to a sub-set of the instruments at any specific time, but future advances will reduce this limitation.

Technical information

  • More information about the sensors can be found under the Facilities tab


View the BAS Polar Airborne Geophysics Data Portal to access datasets and metadata. Individual datasets can also be accessed from the Project pages.

BAS Twin Otter Aircraft in flight over the Antarctic Peninsula

Aerogravity system

BAS has developed aerogravity systems that can be mounted in its geophysical survey aircraft, or in a UAV. Over 100,000 km of gravity data has been collected since such systems …

A BAS Twin Otter aircraft over Alexander Island

Polarimetric Radar

The radar system is composed of a complex waveform generator, signal processor, data handler and data store. It includes a high power transmitter (up to 66dBm or 4kW), a low …

ANTARCTIC BLOG: Science from the air #5

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Wrapping up I have started several of my blog posts saying I am writing in various odd/unusual/uncomfortable locations…the back of a Twin Otter, or in a mountain tent high on …

PRESS RELEASE: New season – ambitious science

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NEWS STORY: Mountains frozen in time

19 November, 2014

Antarctic “ghost mountains” preserved by ice sheet A new study reveals how the rugged ridgelines of East Antarctica’s ancient and mysterious ‘ghost mountains’ have been preserved for millions of years …

NEWS STORY: Airborne geophysics in the Antarctic

27 January, 2014

In this month’s International Innovation journal Dr Fausto Ferraccioli discusses how airborne geophysics can be used to uncover the geology of Antarctica and explore some of the Earth’s final frontiers. …

PRESS RELEASE: Buried mountain range mapped

16 November, 2011

Gamburtsev Mountains enigma unraveled in interior East Antarctica The birth of the Gamburtsev Subglacial Mountains buried beneath the vast East Antarctic Ice Sheet — a puzzle mystifying scientists since their …

PRESS RELEASE: New discovery from “ghost mountains”

3 March, 2011

Ice structures found among hidden Antarctic mountains The discovery of numerous large ice structures within Antarctica’s Dome A region, the site of the buried ‘ghost mountains’, reveals new understanding about …

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Exploring Antarctica's 'ghost mountains'


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