GPR works by sending a tiny pulse of energy into a material and recording the strength and the time required for the return of any reflected signal. A series of pulses over a single area make up what is called a scan. Reflections are produced whenever the energy pulse enters into a material with different electrical conduction properties or dielectric permittivity from the material it left. The strength, or amplitude, of the reflection is determined by the contrast in the dielectric constants and conductivities of the two materials. This means that a pulse which moves from dry sand (dielectric of 5) to wet sand (dielectric of 30) will produce a very strong reflection, while moving from dry sand (5) to limestone (7) will produce a relatively weak reflection.
While some of the GPR energy pulse is reflected back to the antenna, energy also keeps traveling through the material until it either dissipates (attenuates) or the GPR control unit has closed its time window. The rate of signal attenuation varies widely and is dependent on the properties of the material through which the pulse is passing.
Materials with a high dielectric will slow the radar wave and it will not be able to penetrate as far. Materials with high conductivity will attenuate the signal rapidly. Water saturation dramatically raises the dielectric of a material, so a survey area should be carefully inspected for signs of water penetration.
Metals are considered to be a complete reflector and do not allow any amount of signal to pass through. Materials beneath a metal sheet, fine metal mesh, or pan decking will not be visible.
Radar energy is not emitted from the antenna in a straight line. It is emitted in a cone shape (picture on left). The two-way travel time for energy at the leading edge of the cone is longer than for energy directly beneath the antenna. This is because that leading edge of the cone represents the hypotenuse of a right triangle.
Since it takes longer for that energy to be received, it is recorded farther down in the profile. As the antenna is moved over a target, the distance between the two decreases until the antenna is over the target and increases as the antenna is moved away. It is for this reason that a single target will appear in the data as a hyperbola, or inverted “U.” The target is actually at the peak amplitude of the positive wavelet.