What is Ground Sample Distance (GSD) and How Does it Affect Your Drone Data?

| May 30, 2021

If you’re familiar with drone surveying, you may have come across the term ground sample distance, also called ground sampling distance (GSD). 

Your GSD directly impacts the accuracy of your surveys, so it’s essential to understand how it works. This article will explain what ground sampling distance is, how to calculate it, and why it matters to your drone data.

Don’t feel like reading? If you want to jump right into calculations, click here to use the Propeller GSD Calculator.

What is ground sample distance or GSD?

Ground sampling distance is the distance between center points of each sample taken of the ground. Since we’re talking about digital photos in drone surveying, each “sample” is a pixel.

In simpler terms, the GSD represents the size of one pixel on the ground.

Below, you can see an AeroPoint captured 30m (~100ft) above the ground with a Phantom 4 RTK drone. If we zoom all the way in, we can see the individual pixels that make up the image. In this example, one pixel in the image represents a 0.82cm (~0.32in) square in the real world. This number is the GSD.

how to calculate GSD ground sample distance

Why is it important to calculate ground sampling distance (GSD)?

Digital images are grids of colored squares (pixels), much like chess boards. Let’s say we have a (very) big chessboard, and someone has parked a front-end loader on it.

We need to tell the supervisor where it is, so they can send someone to move the loader—but we can only use the squares on the board for measurement.

What are our accuracy requirements? Well, we need accurate enough data to find the loader.

Since the loader is much bigger than the squares we’re using to locate it, we can tell the operator to head to square F3, where they will easily find the loader to move it.

But what if they need to know how wide the bucket on the loader is, so they can send the correct operator to move it? Again, we can only use the squares on the board for measurement.

What are our accuracy requirements in the revised scenario? This time, we need accurate enough data to measure the bucket and identify the loader. 

The bucket is more than one square wide, but less than two—a huge range as far as loader buckets go, so we can’t measure the bucket accurately enough with our squares. We would need much smaller squares to determine the bucket’s width accurately enough to correctly identify the loader.

GSD calculation

How can I calculate GSD?

If you’re wondering how to calculate ground sample distance, we have good news and even better news.

  • The good news is that the calculation isn’t particularly complicated (we’ll explain below).
  • The even better news is that we’ve built the Propeller GSD Calculator to do it for you!

Calculating GSD with the Propeller GSD Calculator

The simplest way to calculate GSD is to use the Propeller GSD calculator. Here’s how it works:

  1. Select a drone from the list
  2. Enter flight altitude
  3. Select correct units (metric or imperial)

That’s all there is to it! You can also enter a custom drone configuration, but all of the usual suspects are already in the calculator.

Propeller GSD calculator example

For example, let’s imagine that we want to determine the GSD of a Phantom 4 Pro flying 80 meters above the ground. We’d simply plug in these values to the calculator:

  1. Select the Phantom 4 Pro
  2. Enter 80 as the flight altitude
  3. Set units to meters
Propeller GSD (ground sample distance) calculator screenshot

GSD = 2.36cm/px.

Try it for yourself here!

Calculating GSD manually

As promised, we’ll also share how to manually calculate GSD. Below is a diagram showing all of the relevant factors for calculating GSD. These figures should be publicly available for any drone that you might fly.

GSD calculation formula

When you project one pixel onto the ground, it’s not perfectly square, so when you calculate the GSD, you’ll use the greatest (worst) value of the results from two different calculations:

GSD formula
GSD formula
  • Image Width: 5472px
  • Image Height: 3078px
  • Sensor Width: 13.2mm
  • Sensor Height: 8mm
  • Focal Length: 8.8mm

So, substituting the values (in centimeters) into the formulas, we get this:

GSD formula
GSD formula

You’ll use the greatest value (or the worst case scenario), so in this case: GSD = 2.36cm/px.

Want to learn more? Download our free Drone Surveying Guide below!


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