Aerial Photography

Archaeology Index

Kite Aerial Photography Links

Kite Aerial Photography Pioneers: Arthur Batut and  George Lawrence


Kite height restriction in UK, away from airports, is 60m without CAA Permission



A brief history of aerial photography

Aerial photography (1 2) is an established technique in archaeology ( 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 ).

The National Collection of Aerial Photography


Some aerial photos taken by West Lothian Archaeological Trust trustees long before the Trust was founded.

Aerial photos taken by Rosie from a helicopter (Late 1980s, Nailsworth, Gloucestershire) and a plane (Chichen Itza, Mexico, 2000). The most memorable flight was into Venezuela, beyond Angel Falls, in a plane which was heavily infested with cockroaches!

Cade tracking the flight path from Barbados to Union Island with the pilot (early 1990s). A few years later, Cade flew into Bolivia on a 5 week expedition.

A photo taken by John on another helicopter outing over the village of Bussage, Gloucestershire (Late 1980s).

Taken by John or Rosie from a balloon over Bristol.  c.2000

Rosie with her Apperley kites on Minchinhampton Common, near Stroud, in 1999. This is the area where our daughter Heidi now flies.

The Rokkaku (left) was the first kite we used for kite aerial photography.


Aerial photographs taken from both planes and satellites are readily available on the internet (eg 1 2).  The National Mapping Programme of English Heritage is an excellent example of how analysis of existing military aerial photography can cost-effectively, and substantially, increase the number of recorded sites.

The work of the National Mapping Programme on Exmoor. Exmoor's Past - an Aerial View.

The 8th Exmoor Archaeology Forum, Dulverton, September 2008

The limitation of using existing images is that they are taken at a given point in time, which may not be the most appropriate for any given site. For example, you may want to bring out surface features by taking shots when the sun is casting strong shadows (ie when the sun is bright and low in the sky).  Features on some archaeological sites may be highly dependent on the direction and angle of view, thus requiring numerous photos to be taken. On some sites, you many want to take photos when the soil is particularly dry, so that sub-surface features can be delineated by changes in the colour of vegetation or when there has been a fall of snow.

Ideally, to maximise the information from a site, comprehensive, high resolution aerial photography (usually from less than 60 metres and often much lower), in at least the visible part of the spectrum, should also be undertaken prior to planning any excavations. Such techniques can no longer be excluded on the basis of cost or difficulty and should be available to all archaeologists in the field. Near infra-red photography should be considered a routine procedure regardless of platform. On some sites, details, which are only visible in the near infra-red, would start to be lost once excavation began and it is clear that the failure to record such information would be bad practice. The cost of thermal imaging is slowly coming down.

Photographs should be taken at the most appropriate time of day/season/year for your application. If expense is not a problem, and there are no flight restrictions in operation for the intended area, this can be done by hiring either a helicopter or plane.  You can take your own photos or you can commission your own survey. However, a cheaper alternative is to use model aircraft / UAV (1 2 3 ). Although cheaper, this approach may require some skill, depending on the aircraft of choice, and your equipment is always at risk of damage. However, with off-the-shelf systems and cheap digital cameras, this is certainly a viable option and there are some very cost effective gyro stabilization (2) solutions for the more serious photographers. 

The Mikrocopter/Quadrocopter is an interesting design.  See also Draganfly and Buzzflyer. They are especially useful for photographing close to structures and buildings both inside and outside.

Michael Smith (Flying Scotscam) demonstrating a Quadrocopter trainer at a conference in 2009 at Queen Margaret University.

Terry Mansell's Mikrocopter. See also here.

David Hogg of Horizon Imaging



A camera-on-a-stick ( 1 2 3) approach is also possible and it has the advantage of not being as dependent on the weather conditions, but height is limited. Simple, portable poles should be part of the personal photographic kit of any field archaeologist.


Birds have been used for aerial photography for over 100 years.

Rockets (1) are also possible, but they can be a little erratic. Kites ( 1 2 3 4 5 6 Flickr 1 2 , UK Law) are more stable, but, like rockets, they require specific, if different, weather conditions. 

Balloons are a stable choice (1 2), but they require relatively calm conditions. Helium balloons work well,  but they are not necessarily the cheapest option. Hot air balloons appeal as a possible photographic platform as they are both cheap to buy/make and to fly, but they are limited to very specific and infrequent (here in Scotland!) atmospheric conditions.

An effective compromise between a helium balloon and a kite is a Helikite.

The Aerial Archaeology Research Group is the specialist organisation for archaeological work but The Remote Sensing and Photogrammetry Society has archaeology , UAV and other special interest groups too.



The first kite we used was a Rokkaku design (Apperley) with one 5 foot vertical strut and two 4 foot horizontal struts 3 feet apart (= 16 square feet), using the camera's time-release setting to take a photo 10 seconds after launching.

After only a couple of flights, it became obvious that kite aerial photography (KAP) was the most appropriate method for our needs.


 Low initial cost


 No running cost


 Low skill requirements






 High resolution


 Ready to use when needed


 Single person operation (but two better!)


 Zero environmental impact


Ability to lift a heavy load

Relatively safe

Long flight times

Less restrictive regulations than with UAVs eg quadrocopters



The first conference of Scotland's Rural Past at  Birnam Arts and Conference Centre  on Saturday 15 November 2008.  Our kite aerial photography stand.


Our kite aerial photography