Posted on October 7th, 2014

G-FAQ – What is Ground Control? Part I

In our last two editions of the Geospatial Frequently Asked Question (G-FAQ), we focused on the basics of positional accuracy with regards to high resolution satellite imagery, and specifically on orthorectification. In these G-FAQs, we learned that in order to orthorectify an imagery to the highest accuracy possible, an elevation model, RPCs or a camera model and ground control points (GCPs) are required. In this two part G-FAQ series then, we expand upon the topic of ground control points with a discussion of best practices for selecting their locations and surveying them in the field.

Specifically, our focus in this two-part G-FAQ edition will be on these questions:

What are ground control points and how do they improve the accuracy of high resolution satellite imagery? How do I decide on the number required and the locations of these ground control points? What best practices should I follow in the field when collecting ground control points?

Before we being this G-FAQ, let me first frame the discussion a bit. As in the G-FAQ editions on orthorectification, our focus here will be on high resolution satellite imagery as in order to utilize GCPs, they must be clearly visible in the imagery source. In August and September, we learned that orthorectification is the process of taking loosely referenced imagery and tying it to its ‘correct location’ on the planet. In order to complete this process, an elevation model (i.e. a DEM) and RPCs or a camera model are required. However, to have a stated accuracy, GCPs are required whereby it is possible to measure the distance of a known feature in the orthorectified imagery, such as the corner of a sidewalk, from its true location on the planet. With this in mind, let’s jump head long into this discussion of GCPs, their importance, selecting appropriate locations and collecting them (safely) in the field.

Basics of Ground Control Points (GCPs)

benchmarkAn example of a benchmark established by the US Coast and Geodetic Survey. These metallic benchmarks are typically several inches across so they are not photo identifiable in high resolution satellite imagery. In this example, the point in the center of the triangle is where this benchmark was surveyed with a differential GPS unit. (Photo Credit: Mountain Empire Community College)

Ground control points are locations on the surface of our planet with a known X/Y (e.g. latitude and longitude) and Z (e.g. height above mean sea level in meters). In order to use GCPs in the orthorectification of high resolution satellite imagery, they must be photo identifiable – meaning that the points must be clearly visible in the images you are working with. Here in the United States, there is a series of control monuments (also called benchmarks) established across the country, usually demarcated by small bronze or silver plaques. And while these monuments are extremely accurate, they cannot be seen in high resolution satellite imagery so they are not appropriate for use in orthorectification.

In order to use GCPs in the orthorectification process, they need to be extremely accurate. You cannot collect them with a low-priced handheld global positioning system (GPS) unit or with your smart phone. What is required is a survey-grade GPS unit which is often referred to as a differential GPS unit. These units work by locking on to multiple GPS satellites in space that then triangulate your position on the ground. The longer you wait, the more accurate your position will be calculated as more satellites lock onto the unit. The position of each GPS satellite is then verified and corrected by a series of ground stations that monitor their orbit, velocity and direction of movement.

Returning to the visual analogy used to describe orthorectification in our last G-FAQ series, if you consider imagery a balloon and a DEM as an accurate representation of the shape of the planet’s surface, then GCPs are the tie points used to attach the balloon to its correct location over the DEM. By using a network of evenly distributed GCPs that tie your balloon to the DEM, you can stretch the balloon over the shape of our planet and move it to its correct location with regards to its XY position. It follows then that the accuracy achieved by orthorectification is limited by the positional accuracy of the GCPs and the ‘trueness’ of the representation of the Earth’s topography (i.e. the DEM).

Step 1 – Determining the Number of Ground Control Points

The first step in obtaining GCPs for use in orthorectification is determining the number of control required for your area of interest. In general, we tell clients to collect at least 10 GCPs as that way you will have extra control to toss out if it is of low quality and/or use for accuracy testing; and if you can collect more than 10 points, by all means please do! More GCPs are required: (1) as your area of interest grows in size; (2) in areas with lots of terrain change; and (3) if you have multiple overlapping images to orthorectify. Here is an equation you can use to help determine the number of GCPs to collect:

Number of Control = 10 + (Area Covered in Square Kilometers / 25) + (2 x Number of Overlapping Scene Edges)

So if you had a polygon that is 150 sq km with two scenes that overlaps at a single edge, then you would want to collected at least 18 GCPs. Please keep in mind this equation is just a rule of thumb and is definitely not accurate in all cases, for example if the area is very mountainous.

Step 2 – Selecting the Locations of Ground Control Points

Now that you have determined the number of GCPs required for your dataset(s), it is time to pick out good locations to survey in the field. Here are some general tips to follow when selecting the locations of GCPs:

  1. Spread out your points as much as possible across the imagery as clustering GCPs results in lower accuracy as you move away from the cluster.
  2. Select at least two points per edge (if possible) where various images overlap.
  3. Be sure to select points that are in high, medium and low elevation areas by using a free DEM such as ASTER GDEM, USGS NED or SRTM as a guide.
  4. Choose features that are stationary and unlikely to move. Also choose flat features when possible as they have no lien in the imagery so their locations can be determined more accurately.
  5. Features with a high contrast between them and surrounding grounds will be the easiest to locate accurately in your imagery.
  6. Select features for GCPs locations that are big enough to easily see in your imagery but also small enough so that you can pinpoint the exact location down to a single pixel.

With a general sense of the locations to look for, the next step is to scan your high resolution imagery, pick out the features you will survey in the field and then take both a screengrab of the locations as well as a general latitude and longitude. The screengrabs and coordinates will help to orient you when in the field. Now, here are two lists of suggested locations for GCPs in both urban and rural areas:

DenverCO_GE1_40cmcolor_41pt5GSD_8_25_2011_ENHANCE_I_GCPsExamples of good (in green) and bad (in red) locations for ground control points. Bad Example 1 – in dense urban areas, sides of buildings are poor choices for GCPs as it is hard to determine the exact pixel that represents the base of the building. Bad Examples 2 & 3 – similar to the lien you see in buildings, you also see this effect in electrical towers (example 2) and poles (example 3). Good Example 1 – this parking lots seems to be rather empty even during working hours so access should be relatively easy; and the intersection of the two white parking stripes can be located to the pixel. Good Example 2 – the corner formed by the grass and sidewalk is very angular so you can easily locate the pixel for the point. Good Example 3 – and similarly, the corner formed by the parking lot and grass is distinct. 40-centimeter color image collected by GeoEye-1 on August 25, 2011 over Denver, Colorado. (Image Courtesy: DigitalGlobe)

DenverCO_GE1_40cmcolor_41pt5GSD_8_25_2011_ENHANCE_II_GCPsMore examples of good (in green) and bad (in red) locations for ground control points in urban areas. Bad Example 1 – while the edge of a sidewalk is distinct, without using an intersection of them, it is impossible to determine the exact pixel you are surveying in the field. Bad Example 2 – while the end of this centerline stripe is distinct, it would be unsafe to put your surveying equipment here for an extended period of time. Bad Example 3 – this building edge is obscured by a dark shadow making it even more difficult to find the pixel that represents its base. Good Example 1 – this intersection of two sidewalks is distinct to the pixel level and access should not be too restrictive. Good Example 2 – school grounds can usually be entered after hours and this tennis court line can be identified to the pixel. Good Example 3 – the sharp point formed by the dirt and sidewalk can be related to a single pixel. 40-centimeter color image collected by GeoEye-1 on August 25, 2011 over Denver, Colorado. (Image Courtesy: DigitalGlobe)

Urban GCP Suggestions

  • Corners and intersections of sidewalks
  • Corners of pavement and parking lots
  • Parking space lines and particularly the intersection of these lines
  • Painted white and yellow center lines of roads (though these can have safety issues when surveying them in the field so use sparingly)
  • Choice points at local high spots that might not have been apparent in the free DEM analyzed before you went into the field
  • Avoid building corners if possible as their lien in imagery can obscure where the building exactly hits the ground

Rural GCP Suggestions

As you can imagine, finding good control in rural areas can be challenging, especially if it is very remote. Given this, orthorectified images in rural locations tend to be less accurate than those from urban areas.

  • Edge of bridges where they meet a road surface
  • Sides of roads and paths where they curve and/or intersect with other roads and paths
  • Bottoms of telephone poles and/or electrical towers
  • Fences when they can be seen in the imagery (it is often the shadow you see as opposed to the fence posts and rails)
  • Livestock pens, though these tend to change locations more so than other rural features
  • Road and stream intersections
  • Stream curves or intersections with other streams
  • Distinctly colored or shaped rocks
  • Small shrubs
  • Distinct clearings in trees

When all else fails, if your location is so rural that there is no possibility of finding appropriate locations for GCPs, then you can establish control in the field with painted wooden/plastic panels. The main issue with this technique is that you need to put these panels in the field before the imagery is collected so it is not an option for many projects. If you do want to put your own panels in the field for ground control, I suggest using a white or beige surface with a black X painted on it. The panels should be at least five times the pixel size so they will be obvious in your high resolution imagery. Place the panels in flat, open areas with no trees and away from roads so there is less risk of vandalism. You will want to obtain permission to put these panels on private lands.

In our next G-FAQ edition, we will continue this conversation on GCPs with a focus on surveying the points in the field and using them to orthorectify your imagery.

Do you have an idea for a future G-FAQ? If so, let me know by email at

Find Out More About This Topic Here

Brock Adam McCarty
Map Wizard
(720) 470-7988

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