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What Is Aerial Reconnaissance?

By Kenneth W. Michael Wills
Updated May 21, 2024
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Aerial reconnaissance is the act of gathering intelligence about a subject matter through the deployment of various types of aerial vehicles to survey an area from above the ground.Using both manned and unmanned aircraft, aerial reconnaissance is performed by a variety of entities and individuals to include military organizations and other government agencies, scientific organizations, meteorologists, geologists, architects and archaeologists, to name a few. Applications include mapping terrains, gathering strategic intelligence for military planning, gathering information related to geological features and functions, tracking weather conditions and systems, and capturing aerial photography to aid in development projects.

Central to gathering the required data and intelligence in aerial reconnaissance is the use of cameras to capture the right photographs that can later be analyzed and interpreted. Usually, photographs are taken from a variety of positions and altitudes, allowing the reconnaissance aircraft to capture a wide-range of data that analysts can compare when interpreting results. Such photographs include oblique, which involves taking photographs from an angle; vertical, which involves snapping pictures from directly over a target; and ortho, which are used in geographical information systems. Shifting altitudes are used to capture the best vantage point — or with military reconnaissance — to help avoid detection. These pictures are adjusted geometrically so they can be used for making accurate maps.

Video is also another component of aerial reconnaissance that helps to automate the data collection process. Sophisticated technological applications video is captured and often transmitted in real-time to ground intelligence units who can view the action at the target as it is happening. Combined with unmanned aircraft, a degree of safety is achieved while simultaneously being able to watch movements on the target as they happen. Most widely leveraged in military intelligence activities, video is gaining ground in other applications, most notably for mapping areas for specific interests, such as potential pipelines or crop fields. Gathering real-time intelligence in target locations can help planners determine usage of the area by local human and animal populations.

Aircraft typically used in air reconnaissance include, airplanes, unmanned drones, helicopters, hot-air balloons, blimps and rockets. Deployment of various types of aircraft depends on the type of data that needs to be gathered and the challenges presented in gathering that data. With some military applications, for example, unmanned aircraft is often used to survey targets where a known enemy is present or active. Using unmanned aircraft in this situation allows intelligence teams to utilize video to get close to the enemy, while observing real-time actions. Tracking enemy movements, however, might require high-altitude aircraft, in particular if the chance of the enemy detecting an unmanned drone is high.

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