Aerial Surveillance: The ‘Eyes & Ears’ of Aviation

Government organisations are not the only ones that conduct Aerial Surveillance operations. A highly equipped and skilled Aerial Work aviation sector specializes in supporting such public safety and defense activities. Patrick Ryan explores the commercial Aerial Surveillance sector and how it contributes to global security.

Patrick Ryan  |  25th March 2021
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    Patrick Ryan
    Patrick Ryan

    Patrick Ryan brings over 30 years of experience as a Senior Consultant helping government and business...

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    An aerial Surveillance aircraft flies by an oil tanker at sea

    There is a special commercial Aerial Work sector that plays a critical part in supporting public safety and defense organisations around the world to keep us safeguarded...

    Company-owned Aerial Surveillance operations or services provide a cost-effective and efficient option for local, national, and intra-governmental organisations to meet their public safety and national security responsibilities without stressing bottom-line public budgets.

    As with other Aerial Work sectors, the commercial Aerial Surveillance community has its own unique DNA of specific missions, leading-edge aircraft, sophisticated systems, and highly trained aircrew members. So, what makes commercial Aerial Surveillance different from the other Aerial Work sectors?

    Let’s Start With What is NOT Commercial Aerial Surveillance?

    When it comes to the title “Aerial Surveillance,” many people imagine clandestine operators flying specialized equipped aircraft stealthily over neighborhoods or flying “under the radar” in third-world countries. The reality is that most commercial Aerial Surveillance services are not clandestine but provide routine support of open-source, public safety, and defense government programs involving regular area monitoring or repetitive observation operations.

    Aerial Surveillance is the monitoring of activities for the purpose of information gathering in its raw definition form. Aerial Surveillance can include observation from a distance utilizing passive and active remote sensors.

    It can also include simple technical methods, such as observing from an aircraft with a pair of binoculars and a set of Mk-1 eyeballs.

    Governments primarily use aerial surveillance for routine protection of borders, environment monitoring, intelligence gathering, and crime prevention. On the negative side of this basic definition or application, it is used by criminal or terrorist organisations to plan and commit crimes and by businesses to gather intelligence on criminals, their competitors, suppliers, or customers.

    What are the Different Types of Aerial Work Aviation Surveillance Missions? 

    Missions As mentioned earlier, commercial Aerial Surveillance’s primary focus is in support of national governments or inter-government operations like the United Nations.

    The specific types of missions fall within a spectrum between oil spills and military peacekeeping operations, and training support. The following is a sample of the most general popular type of missions the commercial Aerial Surveillance service:

    • Maritime Patrol
    • Border Patrol
    • Environment Monitoring/Enforcement
    • Drug Interdiction
    • Defense Airborne Early Warning and Control
    • Aerial Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR)

    Type of Services

    When it comes to servicing these missions or tenders, commercial Aerial Surveillance providers generally offer either COCO (Contractor Own, Contractor Operated), GOCO (Government Own-Contractor Operated), or both based on the needs or requirements of the mission.

    COCO means the Aerial Surveillance provider brings their aircraft, pilots, airborne sensor operators, maintenance for the aircraft, mission equipment, logistics, field support, and program management.

    In some cases, they provide multi-information collection and data processing, exploitation, dissemination capabilities, and specialists to manage all the data that comes off the aircraft.

    GOCO is simply “Butts in Seats.” In other words, the government owns the aircraft, hardware, software, and process. The Aerial Surveillance provider provides the skilled personnel to run operations while relieving government personnel to do other critical tasks.

    Of the list above, the leading missions government organizations request and provide contracts for are Aerial Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, and Aerial Maritime Surveillance support.

    Over the past 20 years, with a rise in geopolitical issues (illegal immigration, terrorism, and environmental changes), stretched government budgets, and new cost-effective commercial technology (unmanned systems, sensors, etc.), the demand for these commercial services has expanded two-fold.

    Even though both provide Surveillance, Aerial Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) and Aerial Maritime Surveillance are different regarding domains (i.e., land vs. sea), tactics, techniques, and procedures. Plus, the skill set of the personnel who conduct these operations can differ significantly.

    Pictured above (and in the main image), a Tecnam SMP aircraft 

    Aerial Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR)

    Aerial ISR is primarily a military land domain function or operation that employs sensors while managing the information they gather in peacetime and wartime environments.

    Information is collected in the field through systematic observation by deployed aerial platforms and an array of electronic sensors. The information is then passed to analysis personnel for processing and exploitation and then to end-users for decision making.

    Many government agencies rely on Aerial ISR firms to provide routine force-protection of military units in the field, international security cooperation support, and to enhance the experience of training events with surrogate forces.

    Aerial Maritime Surveillance

    Aerial Maritime surveillance is a sea domain operation consisting of maritime and coastal Surveillance, patrol and survey of borders and strategic assets, and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) monitoring. Aerial Maritime Surveillance operations focus on sea threats such as piracy, smuggling, illegal fishing, oil pollution, illegal underwater activities, and other criminal and terror operations on the sea or coastal areas.

    Commercial Maritime surveillance services provide operational surveillance and security capability, including Fixed-Wing, Rotor-Wing, and Unmanned surveillance aircraft tailored with maritime mission sensors, command & control (C2) links, etc., Naval or Coast Guard Ships and command centers.

    Bottom line, both Aerial ISR and Aerial Maritime Surveillance commercial services provide all the end-users in the mission loop with an effective, integrated, real-time situational awareness picture of land and water environments. 

    This is accomplished by enabling effective detection, tracking, and interception of any suspicious activity while leveraging outsourcing's economic benefits.

    What are the Aircraft and Kit used in Aerial Surveillance?

    Like with any Aerial Work effort (i.e., Agriculture Aviation, Police Aviation, etc.), a wide range of aircraft, systems, and equipment support commercial Aerial Surveillance operations. Aircraft and systems are chosen for individual tasks based on their suitability for the task and their cost-effectiveness.

    Manned Aircraft

    When it comes to aircraft that commercial Aerial Surveillance operates, the primary class is manned fixed-wing turboprop aircraft, i.e., from single-engine to twin-engine. However, a small minority of firms operate “very light” or “light” business jets to provide higher altitudes, faster response, and more extended reach capabilities.

    Even though many classes, makes, and models of aircraft are used in Aerial Surveillance operations, the following commercial Aerial Surveillance platforms can be seen today regularly around the world conducting routine collection missions:

    • Daher – Kodiak 100 Series II, TBM 940
    • Beechcraft – King Air 350ER
    • Britten-Norman – Defender 2000
    • Pilatus – PC-6 Porter, PC-12 NGX Spectre
    • De Havilland Canada – Dash DHC-8-200
    •  Cessna – C-208 Caravan, Citation CJ4
    • Bombardier – CL-650 Challenger
    • Viking Air – Series 400 Twin Otter
    • Tecnam – P2012 Sentinel SMP
    • Diamond – DA62/DA42 MPP

    Unmanned Aircraft

    Regarding unmanned aircraft used in Aerial Surveillance, this new aviation technology is multiplying in all corners of the sector. Currently, unmanned aircraft are not utilized or deployed at the same level as manned aircraft because of regulatory restrictions and airspace restrictions.

    Small to Medium

    Yet, small to medium-sized unmanned systems (e.g., RQ-11 Raven B, RQ-7 Shadow, DJI Mavic Air 2, etc.) have rapidly increased in operational areas for which manned aircraft are either not practical or not cost-effective.

    These unmanned systems are currently being used for force protection of small military units, protecting international airports, or patrolling high-interest migrant border crossings.


    When it comes to medium to large unmanned systems (e.g., WK450 Watchkeeper, RQ-4 Global Hawk), the commercial Aerial Surveillance sector, due to the investment level plus currently a limited demand by government clients, are not highly active in a COCO manner. 

    However, on the flip side, commercial Aerial Surveillance firms are regularly active in supporting these unmanned systems with GOCO services, i.e., aircrew, maintenance personnel, and logistical support.

    Regarding the future, the potential looks better. When civil aviation Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) and Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) systems and procedures are established routinely and uniformly around the world, you'll see an intensification of investment by private firms. 

    Along with this, you will see an expanded need or desire for governments to leverage and outsource for this type of commercial long-endurance unmanned, mid-size to large aircraft systems and services, i.e., COCO.

    A perfect example of a government organisation outsourcing COCO midsize to large long-endurance unmanned system COCO services is FRONTEX (EU Border and Coast Guard Agency). FRONTEX early-on calculated it was more cost-effective to outsource versus establishing an organic fleet of Mid-Altitude-Long-

    Endurance (MALE) Aerial Surveillance aircraft. FRONTEX recently awarded a €50 million contract to Airbus, with subcontractor Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and Elbit, to provide COCO maritime aerial surveillance services for long-endurance unmanned systems (IAI Heron RPAS) operations across the southern and eastern borders of the EU.

    Special surveillance equipment attached to the underbelly of a Tecnam SMP aircraft

    Systems & Equipment

    Relating to the aerial surveillance equipment operated in this industry, the sector relies on a slew of unique, leading-edge, and sophisticated systems that most other Aerial Work sectors don't have or will not obtain any time soon.


    Some of the principal or typical types of systems and equipment you'll see integrated into an Aerial Surveillance aircraft (to include unmanned aircraft) are:

    • Electro-Optical Infra-Red (EO/IR) Systems – Hi-Definition (HD) Full Motion Video (FMV), Ground Moving Target Indication (GMTI).
    • High-Performance Radar Systems – Synthetic- Aperture Radar (SAR)/ Inverse synthetic-aperture Radar (ISAR), GMTI.
    • Automatic identification systems (AIS) Transponders – Automatic detection & tracking of sea vessels (like
    • an aircraft transponder).
    • Secure UHF/VHF Systems – Tactical voice communications.
    • Long Range Line-of-Sight (LOS) Datalinks – Voice and HD video Tactical and Operational communications.
    • Beyond-Line-of-Sight (BLOS) Datalinks – Voice and HD video distribution via satellite.
    • Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) Systems – Communication & electronic systems monitoring, collection, geo-locating, and Direction Finding (DF).
    • Aircraft Survivability Equipment (ASE) – Missile warning sensors and countermeasures dispensers.
    • Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) - Cooperative Mark XII identification IFF, mode select (Mode S), and interface with the aircraft’s traffic collision and avoidance system (TCAS).
    • ..and many more…

    Snap-On, Snap-Off

    Another unique system heavily used in Aerial Surveillance is the “Pod”. A sensor pod is an elongated, tubular-shaped unit connected to hard-points of an aircraft’s fuselage or wing, e.g., something like a military jet fighter external mounted fuel tank (or Wing Tank, Drop Tank).

    These pods are designed to carry the same surveillance systems as a fully integrated aircraft without the complexity of hardwiring everything permanently. Such a unit’s benefit is to change a single aircraft’s capabilities with ease while making it a truly cost-effective and Multi-Mission platform.

    Who provides Aerial Work Aviation Surveillance Services?

    When it comes to who provides such leading-edge commercial Aerial Surveillance Services, you’ll primarily find Tier-2 midsize companies dominate this sector.

    Sometimes Tier-1 large companies like BAE Systems, L-3 Harris, Airbus, etc., will compete for such government tenders but will sub-contract to a Tier-2 or even a Tier-3 small firm to meet the specific operational requirements of the contract.

    As an example, some of the leading European and North American Tier-2 companies that provide such Aerial Work aviation surveillance services worldwide are:

    • DEA Aviation - UK
    • 2Excel Aviation - UK
    • CAE Aviation - Luxembourg
    • Persistent Surveillance Services ("ps2") - USA
    • PAL Aerospace - Canada
    • MAG Aerospace - USA
    • NL EASP AIR - Netherlands
    • Meta Special Aerospace - USA
    • Leidos - USA
    • BIRD Aerosystems - USA
    • and many more…


    Without saying, commercial Aerial Surveillance is one of the more specialized sectors of Aerial Work Aviation. The commercial Aerial Surveillance community has its unique missions, leading-edge aircraft, sophisticated systems, and specialized aircrew members trained differently than other Aerial Work aviators.

    When it comes to the future, the market for COCO and GOCO Aerial Surveillance services will continue to grow, like so many other Aerial Work sectors, at a healthy pace, especially in the unmanned aircraft sector. When larger unmanned aerial vehicles can routinely operate like a manned aircraft without restrictions, you'll see a proliferation of capabilities and demand for more aerial information collection.

    Even though Aerial Surveillance has a shadowy image, it is a necessary and not-so-secretive service that keeps the world informed regarding the environment and our security. Without commercial Aerial Surveillance services, governments worldwide would be unable to meet their crucial responsibilities fiscally and effectively regarding the many various geopolitical issues facing everyone today and into the future.

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