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What is Ground Penetrating Radar?

Mary McMahon
Updated: Feb 17, 2024

Ground penetrating radar is a form of radar which is designed for subsurface imaging. In other words, it's radar which can be used to see things underground, in contrast with the radar used to identify features in the ocean or to analyze walls to determine what might be on the other side. There are a number of applications for this technology, and several firms make a variety of radar units designed for this purpose.

This type of specialized radar works a lot like regular radar. The radar unit has a sending antenna which sends out pulses of sound, and a receiving antenna, which picks up those pulses when they bounce off objects underground. The returned pulses can be used to construct an image of what is underground, because they will vary depending on the depth and composition of buried objects.

Several factors influence the usefulness of ground penetrating radar. The first is the nature of the ground being examined, and what people are looking for; subtle geological differences, for example, can make it hard to get an accurate picture. The strength and frequency of the signal also makes a difference, as does the conductivity of the ground. Some types of rock and soil conduct sound better than others, generating a clearer picture.

Ground penetrating radar is extremely useful in archeology, where it can be used to inspect archaeological sites without being invasive. It saves a lot of time by identifying potential excavation sites ahead of time, and allowing people to get an idea of the layout of the site before they start digging. It can also be used to gather information about culturally sensitive sites, or sites which might be damaged through excavation.

This technology is also used in forensics, to look for buried evidence at the sites of crime scenes or suspected burials. The earth sciences also relies heavily on ground penetrating radar to learn more about the composition of the Earth, and to study specific sites. It can also have more practical applications: it can be used to identify leaks from reservoirs, chemical storage, and other sites, for example.

Simple forms of ground penetrating radar units are also used by enthusiasts who want to find buried metals and other materials. These machines are sometimes more useful than metal detectors, for people who understand how to read the images, as the radar can identify specific objects, not just those which contain metals.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon257989 — On Mar 29, 2012

I would like to say thank you because I would have never known what ground penetrating radar was or is until you all told me. I was looking for a job and it just sounded like it was interesting.

By anon79707 — On Apr 24, 2010

I posted some months ago. I am still trying to find out if the gps unit will be useful in placer gold mining. I need a unit that will tell me bedrock profiles and depth, and different types of overburden. Usually the depths are not more than 35 meters deep -- usually gravel layers.

By anon58213 — On Dec 30, 2009

I own a small placer gold exploration co in quesnel and travel bc and the yukon what i am seeking is a unit like your gpr.

The info i am looking for should be able to penetrate through surface gravels clays sand and give a bedrock profile re old river channels.

we are mainly interested in the surface depths and profiles in which the placer concentrations lie. let me know what there is available if anything. mike

By anon46408 — On Sep 25, 2009

what is the criteria for selecting a GPR?

By anon42055 — On Aug 18, 2009

What is the deepest penetration you can reach with ground penetration radar and can one use this technology to detect coal and other minerals?

By anon41596 — On Aug 16, 2009

this is a useful article. i learn more from this site. thank you very much.

By anon41450 — On Aug 15, 2009

wow, great.

By anon41221 — On Aug 13, 2009

This article is so fascinating. I'm anxious to hear the answers to some of the questions from the "audience!" Thanks to S.E. Smith for the write-up. Well done! C-AC

By anon41212 — On Aug 13, 2009

Is GPR something new that's used in the field of forensics? It sounds like it would be quite useful yet I've not heard much about how it's used in that field.

By anon41183 — On Aug 13, 2009

Is GPR put to use by the military (of, say, U.S.A.) to detect hidden tunnels, caves, etc? If so, they may have been put to use in Afghanistan (right?).

By anon41155 — On Aug 13, 2009

If it used sound, it would be a SONAR and not a Radar.

By baldo134 — On Nov 07, 2008

anon19162: The "kinds" of GPR are just variations on the basic theme of beaming rf energy into the nearby ground and detecting, processing, and displaying the reflected energy. So it could be high power, low power, high frequency, very-high frequency, ultrahigh frequency, or any combination which is suitable for the job. It can be in a narrow beam or in a wide beam. The main part of the system is, of course, the processing and display electronics.

By baldo134 — On Nov 07, 2008

Ground-penetrating radar does NOT use sound. The energy is a radiofrequency signal which may be anywhere in the rf spectrum from below 10 megahertz on up through the microwave frequencies. The system is totally soundless.

By anon19162 — On Oct 07, 2008

what are the different kinds of ground penetrating radar?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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