Airborne Remote Sensing

The NEON airborne observation platform (AOP) collects annual remote sensing data over NEON field sites using sensors mounted on an airplane. The AOP consists of a hyperspectral imaging spectrometer, a full waveform and discrete return LiDAR, and a high-resolution Red, Blue Green (RGB) camera. Data from the AOP build a robust time series of landscape-scale changes in numerous physical, biological and biochemical metrics, such as vegetation cover and density, canopy chemistry, and topography, including elevation, slope and aspect. Find airborne data here.


Design: collection areas, time and data resolution

NEON conducts airborne observation flights annually over terrestrial and aquatic sites, covering a minimum area of 10 by 10 kilometers, including all field sample plots, expanded as necessary to include all field sample plots, tower airsheds and aquatic watersheds. The average of 1,000 meters Above Ground Level (AGL) AOP flying altitude provide seamless hyperspectral and gridded LiDAR remote sensing data products at approximately one-meter spatial resolution, and digital photography at approximately 0.25 meter resolution. NEON plans to conduct annual flights during the growing season, at or close to the time of peak vegetation greenness.

Integrated measurements, data products and scaling

Airborne remote sampling can bridge gaps in spatial scale between site-based measurements of individual organisms, forest stands, tower observations of atmospheric conditions and satellite remote sensing data. At NEON sites, field technicians strategically collect organismal data at individual plots throughout the growing season and tower instruments continuously collect atmospheric data within a specific airshed. NEON AOP instruments provide data that may be combined with field-based measurements to estimate ground and atmospheric conditions across sites. In situ and sensor data may be combined with AOP measurements to enable scientific study of continental-scale patterns and processes. Satellite data from other organizations may be used to fill in gaps between NEON sites or where NEON data do not exist to address ecological questions at regional and continental scales.

Key measurements derived from AOP data

NEON's airborne observation platform provides the following information:

  • Vegetation cover and dominant vegetation type
  • Vegetation structure including height and Leaf Area Index (LAI)
  • Vegetation condition
  • Vegetation biochemistry and heterogeneity
  • Canopy chemistry (Nitrogen index)
  • Topography, such as elevation, slope and aspect
  • Vegetation greenness and health (NDVI, EVI) *Vegetation indices are created at both the native sensor resolution at spectral and spatial resolutions that closely match existing MODIS and Landsat satellite-derived vegetation index products.

AOP Remote Sensing Sensors

Hyperspectral Imaging Spectrometer: 

A hyperspectral imaging spectrometer records light energy from the sun that has reflected off the ground. Data from this instrument may be used to characterize vegetation health, species composition and canopy chemistry. Hyperspectral imaging spectrometer instrument specifications include:

  • Engineered by NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
  • Collection Type: pushbroom instrument
  • Bands: measures reflected light energy in 428 narrow spectral bands extending from 380 to 2510 nm with a spectral sampling of five nm
  • Resolution: approximately one meter, at nominal flying altitude, for most NEON sites

NEON Hyperspectral Imagery collected light reflected across the electromagnetic spectrum for a total of 426 bands of information. Image: Nathan Leisso, NEON AOP

Full Waveform and Discrete Return Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) data

A LiDAR system uses laser light energy to measure the heights of objects on the ground. Data from a LiDAR system may be used to estimate vegetation height, density and species composition. It also maps buildings, power lines and other infrastructure.

High-resolution, Red Blue Green (RBG) imagery 

A digital camera records light energy that has reflected off the ground in the visible part (red, green and blue) of the light spectrum producing high-resolution photographs of the earth’s surface.

High-level data products derived from AOP data

  • Vegetation Leaf Area Index (LAI)
  • Total biomass
  • Vegetation indices (NDVI, EVI)
  • Ecosystem structure
  • Canopy biogeochemistry (multiple products)
  • Ground elevation: Digital Elevation Model (DEM)
  • Digital Surface Model (DSM)