This paper presents the unmanned research aircraft Carolo P360 "ALADINA" (Application of Light-weight Aircraft for Detecting IN situ Aerosol) for investigating the horizontal and vertical distribution of ultrafine particles in the atmospheric boundary layer (ABL). It has a wingspan of 3.6 m, a maximum take-off weight of 25 kg and is equipped with aerosol instrumentation and meteorological sensors. A first application of the system, together with the unmanned research aircraft MASC (Multi-Purpose Airborne Carrier) of the Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen (EKUT), is described. As small payload for ALADINA, two condensation particle counters (CPC) and one optical particle counter (OPC) were miniaturised by re-arranging the vital parts and composing them in a space-saving way in the front compartment of the airframe. The CPCs are improved concerning the lower detection threshold and the response time to less than 1.3 s. Each system was characterised in the laboratory and calibrated with test aerosols. The CPCs are operated in this study with two different lower detection threshold diameters of 11 and 18 nm. The amount of ultrafine particles, which is an indicator for new particle formation, is derived from the difference in number concentrations of the two CPCs (ΔN). Turbulence and thermodynamic structure of the boundary layer are described by measurements of fast meteorological sensors that are mounted at the aircraft nose. A first demonstration of ALADINA and a feasibility study were conducted in Melpitz near Leipzig, Germany, at the Global Atmosphere Watch (GAW) station of the Leibniz Institute for Tropospheric Research (TROPOS) on 2 days in October 2013. There, various ground-based instruments are installed for long-term atmospheric monitoring. The ground-based infrastructure provides valuable additional background information to embed the flights in the continuous atmospheric context and is used for validation of the airborne results. The development of the boundary layer, derived from backscatter signals of a portable Raman lidar POLLYXT, allows a quick overview of the current vertical structure of atmospheric particles. Ground-based aerosol number concentrations are consistent with the results from flights in heights of a few metres. In addition, a direct comparison of ALADINA aerosol data and ground-based aerosol data, sampling the air at the same location for more than 1 h, shows comparable values within the range of ± 20 %. MASC was operated simultaneously with complementary flight patterns. It is equipped with the same meteorological instruments that offer the possibility to determine turbulent fluxes. Therefore, additional information about meteorological conditions was collected in the lowest part of the atmosphere. Vertical profiles up to 1000 m in altitude indicate a high variability with distinct layers of aerosol, especially for the small particles of a few nanometres in diameter on 1 particular day. The stratification was almost neutral and two significant aerosol layers were detected with total aerosol number concentrations up to 17 000 ± 3400 cm−3 between 180 and 220 m altitude and 14 000 ± 2800 cm−3 between 550 and 650 m. Apart from those layers, the aerosol distribution was well mixed and reached the total number concentration of less than 8000 ± 1600 cm−3. During another day, the distribution of the small particles in the lowermost ABL was related to the stratification, with continuously decreasing number concentrations from 16 000 ± 3200 cm−3 to a minimum of 4000 ± 800 cm−3 at the top of the inversion at 320 m. Above this, the total number concentration was rather constant. In the region of 500 to 600 m altitude, a significant difference of both CPCs was observed. This event occurred during the boundary layer development in the morning and represents a particle burst within the ABL.