Airborne Remote Sensing


The 2018 Airborne Remote Sensing Campaign is currently underway from now through October 2018.

What is a NEON Airborne Observation Platform (AOP)?

A NEON Airborne Observation Platform (AOP) is an array of instruments installed into a light aircraft to collect high resolution remote sensing data. Airborne Sensor Operators (ASO) use these sensors to collect low-altitude data of much higher resolution than a satellite and from broader areas than a handheld instrument could capture. AOP data provide an essential data set to help researchers better understand and compare satellite-derived remote sensing data to ground-collected data. 

The NEON project has three AOPs that are used to capture remote sensing data over NEON field sites, and collect research-specific flight campaign data requested by the community. Access to a NEON AOP for research campaigns is dependent on availability. All requests must undergo a feasibility evaluation by NEON project staff and all associated costs with each campaign must be borne by the requestor or the requestor’s sponsor. Learn more about our Assignable Assets program.

AOP Instruments include:

  • a hyperspectral imaging spectrometer.
  • a full waveform and discrete return LiDAR.
  • 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.

Annual AOP flight schedules from 2013-2018

Last updated on March 9, 2018.

This downloadable workbook includes the NEON project's annual planned flight schedules for the Airborne Observation Platform (AOP) from 2013-2018. This information is intended to provide researchers an understanding of when we intend to collect airborne data as well as an idea of what data are already available for download. Please note that actual date ranges for data collection may vary from the information in this document due to weather conditions, technical issues, instrument availability and budget. Data become available on the data portal as they are processed.


Accessing Airborne Data

The AOP began collecting preliminary data in 2013. Data collected from each field site is considered preliminary quality until the observatory enters full operations. These data are already processed and available by request. Learn more about how to access 2013-2017 flight data via our Airborne Data page

A subset of airborne data products are now available to download from the data portal. If you are interested, we encourage you to test out accessing airborne data via the portal and give us your feedback. We hope to have the majority of our airborne data available through the portal in the next few months.

Request AOP data

Related Science Explained Videos

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

Instrument Details

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)

Frequently Asked Questions

Can the AOP fly additional areas?

Due to the intensive nature of the NEON Flight Campaigns, we are unable to include additional flight areas to the existing NEON observatory collection plan. However, an additional payload is available to support Principal Investigator (PI)-led science flights via the NEON Assignable Assets program.

What remote sensing data are collected?

Measurements taken from the AOPs include a range of physical, biological and biochemical data available both as flightlines and mosaics, including:

  • Topography (elevation, slope and aspect)
  • Canopy chemistry (lignin, nitrogen, water content, xanthophyll cycle)
  • Ecosystem structure (canopy height and Leaf Area Index (LAI)
  • Total biomass maps and vegetation indices
  • High-resolution orthorectified camera imagery

Why does the NEON project collect airborne remote sensing data?

The NEON airborne remote sensing system fills a critical hole in ecological data collection. Standardized, regular airborne data collection over the NEON field sites will allow scientists to monitor changes in vegetation patterns and canopy chemistry on a continental scale over an extended time period. These data will provide new insights into how invasive species are spreading over time and how changes in climate and land use impact forest health and their ability to sequester carbon.

Collection of AOP data is synchronized with data collected on the ground at each site. This allows scientists to develop a more comprehensive picture of how different observations scale and how measurements taken from airborne remote sensing instruments correlate with observations made on the ground.

NEON remote sensing data, along with tower sensors, soil sensors and observational field sampling, are freely available on the NEON data portal.

Are researchers using AOP data yet?

The data are already being used by scientists for many different projects. For example, a team led by Dr. Phil Townsend, an ecologist out of the University of Wisconsin, is using the data to build a spectral library of vegetation types that links physical and biochemical traits to spectral data. This will enable scientists to classify and map plant species using remote sensing data. At the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), Dr. Jess Parker, a forest ecologist, plans to incorporate AOP data into his studies of tree growth and the exchange of carbon, radiation and moisture between forests and the atmosphere. In addition, there have been several educational projects using NEON data including a late-2017 project led by Ethan White.

The NEON remote sensing team is working closely with the science community to optimize data collection for the needs of researchers. Two NEON Technical Working Groups (TWGs) have been formed to guide further data collection efforts, one on airborne sampling design and one on LiDAR. These advisory groups, along with additional discussions with researchers using NEON remote sensing data, will help refine data collection protocols and guide future decisions for expanded data collection or new instrumentation.

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