3D Elevation Program (3DEP)

Lidar Applications and Business Uses Factsheets

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The 3D Elevation Program and Energy for the Nation: High-resolution light detection and ranging (lidar) data are used in energy infrastructure siting, design, permitting, construction, and monitoring to promote public safety through the reduction of risks. For example, lidar data are used to identify safe locations for energy infrastructure by analyzing terrain parameters and identifying and evaluating geologic hazards (for example, landslide and fault locations) and their potential public safety effects on the location or design of infrastructure. Increasingly, engineering companies and regulatory agencies are using lidar and other remote sensing techniques as an efficient method to collect accurate, comprehensive data while reducing risks to field personnel.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) 3D Elevation Program (3DEP) is collecting lidar data nationwide (interferometric synthetic aperture radar [IfSAR] data in Alaska) to support a wide range of applications, including projects related to energy infrastructure construction and safety. Renewable energy resources, resource mining, and oil and gas resources were identified by the National Enhanced Elevation Assessment as business uses requiring three-dimensional (3D) elevation data.

Elevation data are critical in assessing potential sites for energy infrastructure, such as pipelines, refineries and other facilities, to mitigate risks from natural hazards. For example, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), an independent agency that regulates the interstate transmission of electricity, natural gas, and oil, uses enhanced elevation data to conduct National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) compliance assessments. The acquisition of high-resolution lidar data by the USGS 3DEP initiative helps the FERC and NEPA permit applicants by providing accurate and consistent data for hazards analysis. The use of these data accelerates the application and review process and avoids the much higher costs of acquiring elevation data along proposed energy facility locations and pipeline corridors.

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The 3D Elevation Program—Flood risk management: Flood-damage reduction in the United States has been a longstanding but elusive societal goal. The national strategy for reducing flood damage has shifted over recent decades from a focus on construction of flood-control dams and levee systems to a three-pronged strategy to (1) improve the design and operation of such structures, (2) provide more accurate and accessible flood forecasting, and (3) shift the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) National Flood Insurance Program to a more balanced, less costly flood-insurance paradigm. Expanding the availability and use of high-quality, three-dimensional (3D) elevation information derived from modern light detection and ranging (lidar) technologies to provide essential terrain data poses a singular opportunity to dramatically enhance the effectiveness of all three components of this strategy. Additionally, FEMA, the National Weather Service, and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) have developed tools and joint program activities to support the national strategy.

The USGS 3D Elevation Program (3DEP) has the programmatic infrastructure to produce and provide essential terrain data. This infrastructure includes (1) data acquisition partnerships that leverage funding and reduce duplicative efforts, (2) contracts with experienced private mapping firms that ensure acquisition of consistent, low-cost 3D elevation data, and (3) the technical expertise, standards, and specifications required for consistent, edge-to-edge utility across multiple collection platforms and public access unfettered by individual database designs and limitations.

High-quality elevation data, like that collected through 3DEP, are invaluable for assessing and documenting flood risk and communicating detailed information to both responders and planners alike. Multiple flood-mapping programs make use of USGS streamflow and 3DEP data. Flood insurance rate maps, flood documentation studies, and flood-inundation map libraries are products of these programs. 

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The 3D Elevation Program—Landslide Recognition, Hazard Assessment, and Mitigation Support: The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Landslide Hazards Program conducts landslide hazard assessments, pursues landslide investigations and forecasts, provides technical assistance to respond to landslide emergencies, and engages in outreach. All of these activities benefit from the availability of high-resolution, three-dimensional (3D) elevation information in the form of light detection and ranging (lidar) data and interferometric synthetic aperture radar (ifSAR) data. Research on landslide processes addresses critical questions of where and when landslides are likely to occur as well as their size, speed, and effects. This understanding informs the development of methods and tools for hazard assessment and situational awareness used to guide efforts to avoid or mitigate landslide impacts. Such research is essential for the USGS to provide improved information on landslide potential associated with severe storms, earthquakes, volcanic activity, coastal wave erosion, and wildfire burn areas. 

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The 3D Elevation Program—Precision Agriculture and Other Farm Practices: The agriculture industry, including farmers who rely on advanced technologies, increasingly use light detection and ranging (lidar) data for crop management to enhance agricultural productivity. Annually, the combination of greater yields and reduced crop losses is estimated to increase revenue by $2 billion for America's farmers when terrain data derived from lidar are available for croplands. Additionally, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) estimates that the value of improved services for farmers, through its farm assistance program, would be $79 million annually if lidar-derived digital elevation models (DEMs) are made available to the public. 

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The 3D Elevation Program and America's Infrastructure: The American Society of Civil Engineers has warned that, despite the importance of the Nation’s infrastructure, it is in fair to poor condition and needs sizable and urgent investments to maintain and modernize it, and to ensure that it is sustainable and resilient. Three-dimensional (3D) lidar elevation data provide valuable productivity, safety, and cost-saving benefits to infrastructure improvement projects and associated construction management. By providing data to users, the 3D Elevation Program (3DEP) of the U.S. Geological Survey reduces users’ costs and risks and allows them to concentrate on their mission objectives.