A detailed analysis of optical and microphysical properties of aerosol particles during the dry winter monsoon season above the northern Indian Ocean is presented. The Cloud Aerosol Radiative Forcing Experiment (CARDEX), conducted from 16 February to 30 March 2012 at the Maldives Climate Observatory on Hanimaadhoo island (MCOH) in the Republic of the Maldives, used autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles (AUAV) to perform vertical in situ measurements of particle number concentration, particle number size distribution as well as particle absorption coefficients. These measurements were used together with surface- based Mini Micro Pulse Lidar (MiniMPL) observations and aerosol in situ and off-line measurements to investigate the vertical distribution of aerosol particles. Air masses were mainly advected over the Indian subcontinent and the Arabian Peninsula. The mean surface aerosol number concentration was 1717 ± 604 cm−3 and the highest values were found in air masses from the Bay of Bengal and Indo-Gangetic Plain (2247 ± 370 cm−3). Investigations of the free tropospheric air showed that elevated aerosol layers with up to 3 times higher aerosol number concentrations than at the surface occurred mainly during periods with air masses originating from the Bay of Bengal and the Indo-Gangetic Plain. This feature is different compared to what was observed during the Indian Ocean Experiment (INDOEX) conducted in winter 1999, where aerosol number concentrations generally decreased with height. In contrast, lower particle absorption at the surface (σabs(520 nm) = 8.5 ± 4.2 Wm−1) was found during CARDEX compared to INDOEX 1999. Layers with source region specific single-scattering albedo (SSA) values were derived by combining vertical in situ particle absorption coefficients and scattering coefficients calculated with Mie theory. These SSA layers were utilized to calculate vertical particle absorption profiles from MiniMPL profiles. SSA surface values for 550 nm for dry conditions were found to be 0.94 ± 0.02 and 0.91 ± 0.02 for air masses from the Arabian Sea (and Middle East countries) and India (and Bay of Bengal), respectively. Lidar-derived particle absorption coefficient profiles showed both a similar magnitude and structure as the in situ profiles measured with the AUAV. However, primarily due to insufficient accuracy in the SSA estimates, the lidar-derived absorption coefficient profiles have large uncertainties and are generally weakly correlated to vertically in situ measured particle absorption coefficients. Furthermore, the mass absorption efficiency (MAE) for the northern Indian Ocean during the dry monsoon season was calculated to determine equivalent black carbon (EBC) concentrations from particle absorption coefficient measurements. A mean MAE of 11.6 and 6.9 m2 g−1 for 520 and 880 nm, respectively, was found, likely representing internally mixed BC containing particles. Lower MAE values for 880 and 520 nm were found for air masses originating from dust regions such as the Arabian Peninsula and western Asia (MAE(880 nm) = 5.6 m2 g−1, MAE(520 nm) = 9.5 m2 g−1) or from closer source regions as southern India (MAE(880 nm) = 4.3 m2 g−1, MAE(520 nm) = 7.3 m2 g−1).