Ground-based geomatic surveys

BGS Research

Ground-based geomatic surveys

Geomatics is the discipline of electronically gathering, storing, processing and delivering spatially related digital information. This broad term applies to both science and technology and integrates a number of more specific disciplines and technologies:

  • cartography
  • geodesy
  • geographic information systems (GIS)
  • mapping
  • navigation
  • photogrammetry
  • positioning
  • remote sensing
  • surveying

The BGS has pioneered the use of ground-based (terrestrial) techniques for a variety of geoscientific applications since 1999. These have been used on a variety of projects such as:

  • monitoring actively growing volcanic lava domes and rapidly retreating glaciers
  • coastal erosion and platform evolution
  • inland and coastal landslide modelling
  • mapping geological structures and fault boundaries
  • rock stability and subsidence feature analysis
  • creation of surrogate outcrop models for oil field reservoir rocks
  • geo-conservation projects, such as archiving and analysis of important outcrops, quarries and other temporary exposures

In fact, we have carried out over 300 surveys at more than 150 sites, both in the UK and overseas.

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Terrestrial LiDAR scanning

Modern terrestrial LiDAR scanners (TLS) have significantly increased the level of resolution and accuracy achievable and the speed of data acquisition. The ability to capture and measure changes in geological features with time-by-repeat surveys has revolutionised ground-based geomatic research.

LiDAR scanning technique
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Basic terrestrial LiDAR scanning technique. © BGS/UKRI.

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We use Riegl and Faro terrestrial light detection and ranging (LiDAR) scanners because of their flexibility, range and portability. We have a very long-range scanner that can make measurements at distances of over 2000 m; a medium-range scanner that can make accurate measurements at distances of up to 800 m, and a high-speed, short-range (300 m) scanner that can take measurements at a rate of 972 000 points/second with an accuracy of ±3 mm.

Our newest model is the Riegl VZ-1000, which can scan up to 1400 m with an accuracy of ± 8mm and a measurement rate of 62 000 points/second. A high-resolution digital camera coupled with a Leica Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) enables coloured point clouds and textured triangulated surfaces (orthophotos), with intensity and depth information, to be captured, accurately geo-referenced and processed.

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As a tool of modern geoscience, the use of TLS allows unprecedented resolution and accuracy.

Terrestrial LiDAR scanning (TLS) has been carried out on over 170 different sites, both in the UK and overseas. You can download more information about the TLS locations.

Our research

BGS Pegasus backback
Pegasus Backpack survey at Hollin Hill, Yorkshire. © BGS/UKRI.

We were one of the first companies in the UK to purchase the Leica Pegasus Backpack, a wearable, reality-capture sensor platform. The backpack combines five 4 MP cameras, offering a fully calibrated 360° × 200° view, with two 16-channel LiDAR profilers capable of scanning 600 000 points/second at a range of 50 m and a triple-band GNSS and inertial measurement unit (IMU) capable of a positional accuracy of 20 mm, in an ultra-light carbon-fibre chassis weighing 13 kg.

The Pegasus Backpack offers great speed and portability advantages over existing terrestrial LiDAR systems, which can weigh in excess of 30 kg and are extremely bulky to carry, enabling us to carry out 3D mapping of long coastal (or inland) sections, landslides and other unstable surfaces, ice sheets and glaciers, railway lines, roads and other linear features.

We can carry out building information modelling (BIM) using both imagery and point-cloud data to document outdoor, indoor and even underground areas. Disaster responders will be able to capture data in 3D, on foot in danger zone areas.

Simultaneous localisation and mapping (SLAM) technology and a high-precision IMU ensure the achievement of accurate positioning even during GNSS outages and, with the addition of the external light-source, precise scanning of tunnels and cave systems is possible. The backpack can also be vehicle mounted, for mobile mapping, or pole mounted, for lowering into voids or sinkholes.

This system allows for faster capture of critical data, leading to better-informed decisions, on site if necessary.

Pegasus backpack, Wales
Pegasus Backpack mounted on an e-trike on Tenby Beach, Wales. © BGS/UKRI.
Surveying glacial foreland, Iceland
Surveying set-up deployed on the glacial foreland, Falljökull, Iceland. © BGS/UKRI.

By using a combination of repeat TLS surveys, on-ice based GNSS and ground penetrating radar (GPR), we have been able to see the full picture of glacial retreat for the first time. This work has shown that the margin of the Falljökull glacier, in south-east Iceland, has ceased moving and is now undergoing stagnation.

However, field and photographic evidence shows that the icefall remains active, feeding ice from the accumulation zone on Öraefajökull to the lower reaches of the glacier. To accommodate this continued forward motion, the upper section of the glacier below the icefall is undergoing intense deformation (folding and thrusting) and, as a result, is being thrust over the lower, immobile section of Falljökull.

This type of behavior has never been described before and could have implications for how other steep, mountain glaciers around the world are responding to changes in the climate. Because of this, Falljökull glacier has been called the ‘zombie’ glacier.

Landslide slumps, Aldbrough
Multiple landslide slumps and embayment development. Aldbrough, North Yorkshire. © BGS/UKRI.

We use our laser systems to monitor actively eroding sections of coast around England. The techniques we have developed are ideal for this application as TLS is particularly suited to measuring vertical cliff sections.

Measurements from an aeroplane or satellite measure only the top edge of the cliff, whilst measuring them in the field is often very dangerous. Our technique enables the measurement of changes in the whole cliff section from a safe distance, which can be used to model how internal processes within the cliff slope affect coastal erosion.

Our work at Aldbrough, in North Yorkshire, has shown that the cliff is disappearing at a rate of 3 m a year; this erosion is caused by both landslides and the direct action of the sea crashing against it.

Terrestrial LiDAR scanning
Terrestrial LiDAR scanning of the lava dome. Soufrière Hills volcano, Montserrat. © BGS/UKRI.

There can be few more hazardous situations than that of monitoring a volcanic andesite lava dome for signs of an impending collapse. Partial collapse of a lava dome generates hot, fast-moving, pyroclastic density currents. Monitoring in such circumstances requires that measurements are taken from a distance that minimises the threat from eruption and from asphyxiation by volcanic gases. The method also needs to be rapid to minimise the time spent by the monitoring team in the hazardous zone.

We have used TLS techniques to monitor the growth of the lava dome on the Soufrière Hills volcano, on the Caribbean island of Montserrat. In May 2006, our measurements helped to identify the changes in lava dome growth rate that directly preceded a total lava dome collapse.

LiDAR scans of the show caverns at the Heights of Abraham, Derbyshire
LiDAR scans of the show caverns at the Heights of Abraham, Derbyshire. © BGS/UKRI.

Scanning underground structures has always proved to be quite difficult and complex, especially related to the issues of positioning and visibility. We can use either the Faro Focus X-330 scanner or the Leica Pegasus Backpack in these situations.

In order to use the Focus X-330 at the Hellfire Caves in High Wycombe, we had to adjust to a different way of working, relying on the accurate positional control of a GNSS unit outside the cave system and the use of spherical prisms, checkerboard targets and planar surfaces inside, in order to tie all the scans together.

The Pegasus Backpack allows the user to move from an area of good GNSS coverage to one with limited or even no coverage. We used this system when mapping the show caverns (old mine shafts) associated with the Heights of Abraham Park in Derbyshire. Use of the Leica SLAM technology and the high-precision IMU ensured the achievement of accurate positioning and, with the addition of the external light-source, precise scanning of the caverns was possible.

Case studies

We have five case studies utilising various different pieces of ground-based geomatic equipment:


Everest, J, Bradwell, T, Jones, L, and Hughes, L. 2017. The geomorphology of Svínafellsjökull and Virkisjökull-Falljökull, south-east Iceland: a land system of rapid glacial retreat. Journal of Maps, Vol. 13(2), 936–945.

Gibson, A D, Forster, A, Poulton, C V L, Rowlands, K A, Jones, L D, Hobbs, P R N, and Whitworth, M C Z. 2003. An integrated method for terrestrial laser scanning subtle landslide features and their geomorphological setting. Proceedings of the Annual Conference on Scales and Dynamics, 10-12 September 2003, University of Nottingham. (Remote Sensing ane Photogrammetry Society (RSPSoc).)

Glendell, M, McShane, G, Farrow, L, James, M  R, Quinton, J, Anderson, K, Evans, M, Benaud, P, Rawlins, B, Morgan, D, Jones, L D, Kirkham, M, Debell, L, Quine, T A, Lark, M, Rickson, J, and Brazier, R. E. 2017. Testing the utility of structure from motion photogrammetry reconstructions using small unmanned aerial vehicles and ground photography to estimate the extent of upland soil erosion. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms Vol. 42(12), 1860–1871.

Hobbs, P R N, Jones, L D, Kirkham, M P, Holyoake, S J, Pennington, C V L, Dashwood, C, Banks, V J, and Reeves, H J. 2019. Establishment of a coastal landslide observatory at Aldbrough, East Riding of Yorkshire, UK. Quarterly Journal of Engineering Geology and Hydrogeology, Vol. 53, 88–100.

Hobbs, P R N, Jones, L D, Kirkham, M P, Pennington, C V L, Morgan, D J R, and Dashwood, C. 2019. Coastal landslide monitoring at Aldbrough, East Riding of Yorkshire, UK. Quarterly Journal of Engineering Geology and Hydrogeology, Vol. 53, 101–116.

Hobbs, P, Gibson, A, Jones, L, Poulton, C, Jenkins, G, Pearson, S, and Freeborough, K. 2010. Monitoring coastal change using terrestrial LiDAR. 117–127 in: Elevation Models for Geoscience. Fleming, C, Marsh, S, and Giles, J (editors). Geological Society of London Special Publications 345. (London: Geological Society.)

Hobbs, P R N, Humphreys, B, Rees, J G, Jones, L D, Gibson, A, Rowlands, K, Hunter, G, and Airey, R. 2002. Monitoring the role of landslides in ‘soft cliff’ coastal recession. In: Proceedings of an International Conference on Instability, Planning and Management, Ventnor, Isle of Wight, UK, 589–600. (Thomas Telford: London.)

Jones, L D. 2014. Measuring our changing Earth. Planet Earth, Autumn, 28–29.

Jones, L.D. 2007. The application of terrestrial LiDAR to volcano monitoring – an example from the Montserrat Volcano Observatory. Civil Engineering Surveyor, November 2007, 21–23. (UK: SURCO Ltd.)

Jones, L.D. 2006. Monitoring landslides in hazardous terrain using terrestrial LiDAR: an example from Montserrat. Quarterly Journal of Engineering Geology and Hydrogeology. Vol. 39, 371–373.

Loughlin, S C, Luckett, R, Ryan, G, Christopher, T, Hards, V, De Angelis, S, Jones, L, and Strutt, M. 2010.  An overview of lava dome evolution, dome collapse and cyclicity at Soufrière Hills volcano, Montserrat, 2005–2007. Geophysical Research Letters, Vol. 37(19), L00E16.

Ó Dochartaigh, B, E, MacDonald, A M, Black, A R, Everest, J, Wilson, P, Darling, W G, Jones, L, and Raines, M. 2019. Groundwater–glacier meltwater interaction in proglacial aquifers amid rapid glacier retreat. Hydrology and Earth System Sciences, Vol. 23, 4527–4539.

Phillips, E, Everest, J, Evans, D J, Finlayson, A, Ewertowski, M, Guild, A, and Jones, L D. 2017. Concentrated, ‘pulsed’ axial glacier flow: structural glaciological evidence from Kvíárjökull in SE Iceland. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, Vol. 42(13), 1901–1922.

Philips, E, Finlayson, A, Bradwell, T, Everest, J, and Jones, L. 2014. Structural evolution triggers a dynamic reduction in active glacier length during rapid retreat: evidence from Falljökull, SE Iceland. Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface, Vol. 119(10),  2194–2208.

Philips, E, Finlayson, A, and Jones, L. 2013. Fracturing, block faulting and moulin development associated with progressive collapse and retreat of a maritime glacier: Falljökull, SE Iceland. Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface, Vol. 118(3), 1545–1561.

Poulton, C V L, Lee, J R, Jones, L D, Hobbs, P R N, and Hall, M. 2006. Preliminary investigation into monitoring coastal erosion using terrestrial laser scanning: case study and geological assessment at Happisburgh, Norfolk, UK. Bulletin of the Geological Society of Norfolk, No. 56, 45–64.

Rowlands, K A, Jones, L D, and Whitworth M. 2003. Landslide laser scanning: a new look at an old problem. Quarterly Journal of Engineering Geology and Hydrogeology, Vol. 36, 155–157.

Rumson, A G, Hallett, S H, and Brewer, T R. 2019. The application of data innovations to geomorphological impact analyses in coastal areas: an East Anglia, UK, case study. Ocean & Coastal Management, Vol. 181, 104875.

Ryan, G, Loughlin, S C, James, M, Jones, L, Calder, E, Christopher, T, Strutt, M, and Wadge, G. 2010. Growth of the lava dome and extrusion rates at Soufrière Hills volcano, Montserrat, West Indies: 2005–2008. Geophysical Research Letters, Vol. 37(19), L00E08.

Tapete, D, Banks, V, Jones, L, Kirkham, M, and Garton, D. Contextualising archaeological models with geological, airborne and terrestrial LiDAR data: the Ice Age landscape in Farndon Fields, Nottinghamshire, UK. Journal of Archaeological Science, Vol. 81, 31–48.


If you want to discover more then please contact Lee Jones.

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