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June 9th, 2015
How are 3D maps spurring innovation and economic activity?

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Detailed 3D mapping is much more readily accessible thanks to a wide variety of new sensors, high-performance processing tools, automation and cloud storage. The large-scale three-dimensional model has been something that has been discussed and achieved to varying degrees of realism for decades. It’s now much easier and cheaper to capture and update a realistic 3D model, and there’s a growing call for a comprehensive update to national maps in high-resolution 3D.

The U.S. Geological Survey’s 3D Elevation Program (3DEP) is leading the charge in the United States for the use of LiDAR for a new national elevation model. Some funding has been provided as a component of the Climate Action Plan and a series of 3D data collection efforts have been undertaken with government grants. The collection of 3D elevation data using LiDAR technologies is a leap forward in resolution, shedding light on a wide variety of planning and preparation activities around issues of climate change. The opportunity for aided insight as a planning tool and an ongoing record of change should be enough to spur further funding, and there are additional economic incentives.

Priming Projects

It’s no secret that America’s infrastructure is in poor shape, with roads and bridges in need of repair and replacement at great scale and at costs that total more than a trillion dollars. The problem is so large that it’s hard to comprehend and to prioritize where to start.

Infrastructure project work has greatly benefitted from laser surveying. Project engineers and designers are excited about the amount of information that they can get so much more easily using lasers before they start. It immediately takes out an enormous amount of risk that they didn’t have previously because they have so much more information. With a high-resolution national map of elevation, project work would have a better baseline to start, allowing for remote measurement and assessment that then can be enhanced with the detailed laser surveying work on the ground.

Water Wins

LiDAR has been deemed the “Holy Grail” by scientists studying the snow depths and runoff in the arid mountain west. The scientific mission to measure snowpack and runoff has been spurred by the urgency of the dramatic California drought. The ability to measure whole watersheds at an amazing accuracy with errors less than 1 cm obliterates the old method of sinking hollow tubes into the ground at set observation points. This whole watershed measurement provides understanding of how much moisture our mountains trap, leading to an accurate assessment of where it all goes.

Similar breakthroughs are being achieved in the understanding on coastal zones, assessing the movement of water and coastal change to a degree of precision impossible before. With these new measurements, scientists and planners are able to accurately assess the impacts of storms as well as the ongoing changes brought on by sea level rise.

California’s drought has provided a measure of the value of water, given farm losses and impacts on infrastructure. Similarly, Hurricane Sandy provided a measure of the economic loss and risk given epic storms. While the 3DEP program only aims for a nationwide base map of LiDAR-derived elevation provided publicly, these examples shed light on the enhanced understanding of water that start with a more accurate baseline measurement.

Openly Available

A key component of the 3DEP program is its availability as a resource accessible to anyone. This open data model for the sharing of government-funded mapping data was at one point deemed an unacceptable use of taxpayer dollars in favor of the cost recovery model. However, time and again, it’s been proven that derived economic value comes from this open market, and governments that held out (notably the UK and Canada) are now making data freely available.

The economic impact of this free data will percolate across a wide swath of commercial sectors. Banking and insurance will derive value from more readily assessing risk. The agriculture sector will benefit for better machine guidance of their tractors and a better understanding of water flow in their fields. Transportation and shipping will benefit. Aviation safety and navigation will be greatly improved. Communities will be better prepared for flooding and forest fires.

With much of the nation’s maps better than 30 years old, it’s easy to question the relevance of these resources and the need to even bother, given the many commercial efforts. The addition of high-resolution elevation data is a game changer, however. The technological advancements of LiDAR provide a compelling reason for updates with a much better fidelity that will make the old version obsolete. The effort is worthwhile for the economy and also as a point of pride that we know and share the best depiction of our land.


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