Ground-penetrating radar is a geophysical technique that uses radar pulses to detect and image underground utilities. This non-evasive and nondestructive technique uses electromagnetic radiation in the microwave band (UHF/VHF frequencies) of the radio spectrum and detects the reflected signals from subsurface structures. GPR can have applications in a variety of media, including rock, soil, ice, freshwater, pavements, and structures. In the right conditions, practitioners can use GPR to detect subsurface objects, changes in material properties, and voids and cracks.

GPR uses high-frequency (usually polarized) radio waves, usually in the range 10 MHz to 2.6 GHz. A GPR transmitter and antenna emits electromagnetic energy into the ground. When the energy encounters a buried object or a boundary between materials having different permittivities, it may be reflected or refracted or scattered back to the surface. A receiving antenna can then record the variations in the return signal. The principles involved are similar to seismology, except GPR methods implement electromagnetic energy rather than acoustic energy, and energy may be reflected at boundaries where subsurface electrical properties change rather than subsurface mechanical properties as is the case with seismic energy.

The electrical conductivity of the ground, the transmitted center frequency, and the radiated power all may limit the effective depth range of GPR investigation. Increases in electrical conductivity attenuate the introduced electromagnetic wave, and thus the penetration depth decreases. Because of frequency-dependent attenuation mechanisms, higher frequencies do not penetrate as far as lower frequencies. However, higher frequencies may provide improved resolution. Thus operating frequency is always a trade-off between resolution and penetration. The optimal depth of subsurface penetration is achieved in the ice where the depth of penetration can achieve several thousand meters (to bedrock in Greenland) at low GPR frequencies. Dry sandy soils or massive dry materials such as granite, limestone, and concrete tend to be resistive rather than conductive, and the depth of penetration could be up to 15 meters (49 ft). However, in moist or clay-laden soils and materials with high electrical conductivity, penetration may be as little as a few centimeters.

Ground-penetrating radar antennas are generally in contact with the ground for the strongest signal strength; however, GPR air-launched antennas can be used above the ground.

Cross borehole GPR has developed within the field of hydrogeophysics to be a valuable means of assessing the presence and amount of soil water.

Practical Uses of GPR

GPR has many applications in a number of fields. In the Earth sciences, it is used to study bedrock, soils, groundwater, and ice. It is of some utility in prospecting for gold nuggets and for diamonds in alluvial gravel beds, by finding natural traps in buried stream beds that have the potential for accumulating heavier particles.

Engineering applications include nondestructive testing (NDT) of structures and pavements, locating buried structures and utility lines, and studying soils and bedrock. In environmental remediation, GPR is used to define landfills, contaminant plumes, and other remediation sites, while in archaeology it is used for mapping archaeological features and cemeteries. GPR is used in law enforcement for locating clandestine graves and buried evidence. Military uses include detection of mines, unexploded ordnance, and tunnels.

Borehole radars utilizing GPR are used to map the structures from a borehole in underground mining applications. Modern directional borehole radar systems are able to produce three-dimensional images from measurements in a single borehole.

One of the other main applications for ground-penetrating radars is for locating underground utilities. Standard electromagnetic induction utility locating tools require utilities to be conductive. These tools are ineffective for locating plastic conduits or concrete storm and sanitary sewers. Since GPR detects variations in dielectric properties in the subsurface, it can be highly effective for locating non-conductive utilities.