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Ground Control Points

Ground Control Points: Your Key to Accurate Geospatial Data Processing

When it comes to achieving accurate and reliable results in geospatial data processing, Ground Control Points (GCPs) play a crucial role.

From selecting the ideal GCP features to understanding their importance in various geospatial projects, this comprehensive guide will explore everything you need to know about Ground Control Points.

What are Ground Control Points (GCPs)?

Ground Control Points (GCPs) are identifiable, physical points on the Earth’s surface with precisely known coordinates. These points are used as reference points in geospatial data processing, particularly in remote sensing and photogrammetry, to improve the accuracy and positional quality of spatial datasets, such as aerial imagery or satellite images.

GCPs can be natural or artificial features, such as road intersections, building corners, or distinct landscape features that are easily identifiable in the imagery. They are typically collected using high-precision Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers or derived from other accurate sources, such as survey data or existing maps.

The main uses of GCPs include:

  1. Georeferencing: GCPs are used to accurately align raster images or datasets to a specific coordinate system, ensuring that the spatial data is properly georeferenced to real-world locations.
  2. Orthorectification: Aerial and satellite images may suffer from distortions caused by camera angle, topography, and Earth’s curvature. GCPs are used in the process of orthorectification to correct these distortions and produce geometrically accurate images known as orthoimages.
  3. Accuracy assessment: GCPs can serve as reference points to assess the positional accuracy of geospatial data. By comparing the known coordinates of GCPs with their coordinates in the processed data, errors can be identified, and the overall quality of the data can be evaluated.
  4. Mosaicking: When stitching together multiple images or raster datasets, GCPs can help ensure proper alignment and consistency between adjacent images, creating seamless mosaics.
  5. Change detection: GCPs help in accurately aligning multi-temporal images, which is essential for detecting and analyzing changes in land cover or other phenomena over time.

Ground Control Points are essential for ensuring the accuracy, reliability, and consistency of geospatial data. They serve as the foundation for many remote sensing and photogrammetry tasks and contribute to producing high-quality spatial datasets.

What are good ground control points?

The following characteristics make a ground control point “good”:

  1. Identifiable and visible: A good GCP should be easily identifiable in the images or datasets being processed. It should be a distinct and recognizable feature, such as a road intersection, a building corner, or a unique natural feature. The GCP should be visible in multiple images if you are working with a set of images for mosaicking or change detection.
  2. Stable and permanent: A good GCP should be a stable and permanent feature that remains unchanged over time, ensuring that it remains reliable for multiple temporal datasets or long-term studies.
  3. Uniform shape: GCPs with uniform shapes, such as circular or rectangular objects, can be more accurately pinpointed in images, leading to better georeferencing results. Irregularly shaped objects can be harder to locate precisely.
  4. Unambiguous location: A good GCP should have a clearly defined location, such as the center of a road intersection or the corner of a building. The coordinates of GCPs should be collected using high-precision GPS receivers or derived from reliable sources such as accurate maps, survey data, or other trustworthy datasets.
  5. Well-distributed: To achieve optimal accuracy, GCPs should be well-distributed across the entire area of interest, ideally located at the corners and the center of the image. This helps ensure that the georeferencing and rectification processes are accurate throughout the entire dataset.

By carefully selecting GCPs that meet these criteria, geospatial data users can ensure high-quality georeferencing, better positional accuracy, and improved overall reliability in their datasets.

How many ground control points are needed?

The number of Ground Control Points (GCPs) required for a given geospatial project depends on various factors, such as the purpose of the study, the size and complexity of the area of interest, the quality of input data, and the desired accuracy.

While there is no one-size-fits-all answer, there are some general guidelines that can help determine the appropriate number of GCPs:

  1. Minimum requirement: In most cases, a minimum of three to four GCPs are required to perform basic georeferencing or rectification tasks. This is because, in a two-dimensional space, a minimum of three points are needed to determine the affine transformation parameters (scale, rotation, and translation) that relate image coordinates to ground coordinates.
  2. Distribution across the area: To ensure accuracy across the entire area of interest, GCPs should be well-distributed throughout the study area, with GCPs placed near the corners and center of the image or dataset.
  3. Redundancy: Using more GCPs than the minimum requirement can improve the overall accuracy and reliability of the georeferencing process, as the additional GCPs provide redundancy and help account for potential errors in individual GCP locations. The extra GCPs also enable a more robust transformation model, like a higher-order polynomial transformation, if needed.
  4. Desired accuracy: The number of GCPs should be proportional to the desired accuracy of the project. If high positional accuracy is required, more GCPs should be used. Projects involving high-resolution imagery, precise change detection, or engineering applications often require a larger number of GCPs.
  5. Quality of input data: If the input data, such as the initial geolocation information or the quality of the GCPs, is of low quality or uncertain, more GCPs may be needed to compensate for potential errors and ensure accurate georeferencing.

As a general rule, it’s better to use more GCPs than fewer, as long as they are well-distributed and of high quality. The specific number needed will vary depending on the project’s requirements, and users should carefully assess their needs and desired accuracy when determining the appropriate number of GCPs.

How big should ground control points be relative to the pixel size of the images?

As a general guideline, GCPs should be larger than the pixel size of the images to ensure they are easily identifiable and accurately pinpointed. Ideally, a GCP should cover several pixels in the image to make it visually distinct and allow for more precise identification of its center or reference point.

For example, if the spatial resolution of the images is 1 meter (i.e., each pixel represents 1×1 meter on the ground), a suitable GCP size might be around 3×3 meters or larger, depending on the specific requirements of the project. This allows the GCP to be visible across multiple pixels, making it easier to identify accurately and use for georeferencing purposes.

However, the size of GCPs should not be excessively large compared to the pixel size, as this may introduce difficulties in pinpointing the exact reference point within the GCP. The ideal GCP size should strike a balance between being large enough to be easily identified in the image and small enough to enable precise georeferencing.

In summary, GCPs should be larger than the pixel size of the images, covering multiple pixels, to ensure accurate georeferencing and minimize errors. The appropriate size will depend on the spatial resolution of the images and the specific requirements of the project.

What is a ground control point vs a check point?

Ground Control Points (GCPs) and Check Points (CPs) are both used in geospatial data processing, particularly in remote sensing and photogrammetry, but they serve different purposes:

  1. Ground Control Points (GCPs): As previously explained, GCPs are identifiable points on the Earth’s surface with known precise coordinates. They are used as reference points to georeference, orthorectify, and align spatial datasets such as aerial or satellite imagery. GCPs are essential for ensuring the accuracy and consistency of geospatial data by aligning the data to a specific coordinate system and correcting geometric distortions. In summary, GCPs are used in the actual processing and transformation of the data.
  2. Check Points (CPs): Check Points are also identifiable points on the Earth’s surface with known precise coordinates, but they are not used in the data processing itself. Instead, they serve as independent reference points to assess the accuracy and quality of the processed data. After georeferencing or orthorectification, the coordinates of CPs in the processed data are compared to their known “true” coordinates. This comparison allows users to evaluate the positional accuracy and reliability of the processed data and provides an unbiased estimate of the overall quality of the geospatial dataset.

While GCPs and CPs share similarities, their roles in geospatial data processing are distinct. GCPs are used during the actual data processing and transformation, while CPs are used after the data has been processed to validate the accuracy and quality of the results. Using both GCPs and CPs helps ensure that geospatial data is accurate, reliable, and consistent, which is critical for many applications and analyses.

About the Author
I'm Daniel O'Donohue, the voice and creator behind The MapScaping Podcast ( A podcast for the geospatial community ). With a professional background as a geospatial specialist, I've spent years harnessing the power of spatial to unravel the complexities of our world, one layer at a time.