NCAP: enabling research access to historic geospatial data of places around the globe

The National Collection of Aerial Photography (NCAP) is an early adopter of EIDF.  Dr Allan Williams, the Head of NCAP, outlines the work of the Edinburgh and Washington, DC based team.

One of the largest collections of aerial photography in the world, the National Collection of Aerial Photography (NCAP) holds tens-of-millions of high-quality analogue images that record key moments in world history, and places around the globe. NCAP is the official custodian of UK government military-declassified aerial imagery created from the 1920s onwards, it also holds imagery commissioned by UK government civilian agencies and air survey photography created by commercial partners.

Over ten million of the images held by NCAP were created by the Allies during the Second World War or were captured from the German Luftwaffe at the close of the war. Many of these images were only released into the public domain in the 21st Century, alongside imagery created by the UK and its Allies throughout the Cold War.

As less than 10% of the ordnance dropped during the Second World War failed to detonate, the largest consumers of high-resolution NCAP stereoscopic imagery to date has been the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) sector in Europe, which uses the imagery to pinpoint the location of unexploded bombs and ordnance that pose a risk to life and safety.  The scale of the wartime bombing offensive means that this work will continue for decades to come.

Work on preservation and digitisation of Second World War aerial photography continues in Edinburgh and in Washington, DC (on imagery declassified by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and successor bodies) through a joint-venture with the US National Archives & Records Administration (NARA). The digitisation and dissemination of UK and US-derived imagery together, via the NCAP online portal, is transforming access to imagery hitherto only accessible to the Imagery Intelligence community.

Research access

In addition to our work with unexploded bombs and the US federal government, and as more historical photography has become publicly accessible in recent years, the scope of NCAP imagery to answer research questions has stimulated academic interest in our photography of Commonwealth countries.  The Directorate of Overseas Surveys (DOS) created 1.6 million aerial photographs in order to comprehensively map 55 countries of the world, and these images are being digitised through a collaborative project with the universities of Stockholm and California (Berkeley), and geo-rectified to facilitate the study of large-scale environmental change over decades.

In order to upscale production capacities, in late 2020 NCAP will relocate to a new purpose-built facility in the Seven Hills Business Park, Edinburgh. This will facilitate an increased volume of record preservation, automated film scanning using photogrammetric-standard imaging systems and print scanning using purpose-designed robotically-operated imaging hardware on a 24/7 basis.

Our work with the EIDF is providing us with access to a critical mass of expertise. It will enhance our capacity to process rapidly growing volumes of high-resolution digital imagery using high-performance computing infrastructure and, through the dissemination of millions of high-resolution historical aerial images of places around the world, will provide the global research community with access to a growing library of datasets.

As the NCAP team is continuously looking to improve its processes by embracing new technologies and ways of thinking, the experience of working with the EIDF has been hugely rewarding. Developing understanding about the tradecraft of geospatial intelligence and building a community of interest across industry, academia and government, will benefit immensely from the data-driven innovation that EIDF will leverage.



If you are interested in further information about NCAP and its work, please visit our website – – or contact us at NCAP is part of Historic Environment Scotland (HES) – – Scotland’s public body promoting Heritage For All.


The Edinburgh International Data Facility, which is being developed by EPCC, provides the enabling data infrastructure platform for the Data-Driven Innovation Programme of the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal. Subscribe to updates about the Edinburgh International Data Facility.

Image shows Potterrow and the University of Edinburgh. C
reated by Geonex Air Survey Limited, July 1990 (Image Ref: NCAP_ GEONEX_0041_90_0331)


Dr Allan Williams, Head of the National Collection of Aerial Photography