The 3D Elevation Program and America's Infrastructure

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The USGS is seeing a dramatic increase in the use of 3D geospatial data for infrastructure planning, modeling and construction

Infrastructure—the physical framework of transportation, energy, communications, water supply, and other systems—and construction management—the overall planning, coordination, and control of a project from beginning to end—are critical to the Nation’s prosperity

Industries, governments and other public and private agencies are progressively using three-dimensional (3D) light detection and ranging (lidar) elevation data to improve productivity, safety, and cost-savings for infrastructure projects.

Sample graphic of airborne lidar data acquisition.
Sample graphic of airborne lidar data acquisition. Target area is illuminated by pulsed laser light in the aircraft, Differences in laser return times and wavelengths are then used to make digital 3D representations of the selected ground sections.(Public domain.)

Lidar, short for “Light detection and ranging”, is a remote sensing method of studying the Earth and surface characteristics. This technology, often from aircraft, uses light in the form of laser beam pulses to measure ranges and distances reflected from the ground. These thousands of pulses per second are translated into highly accurate and precise elevation data.

The USGS uses lidar, and in some cases a similar tool called IfSAR (Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar) as part of the 3D Elevation Program, or 3DEP.  The goal of 3DEP is to acquire national coverage of lidar data (IfSAR in Alaska) in eight years.

By providing lidar data to the public, 3DEP reduces user’s costs and risks and allows them to concentrate on their objectives.

Uses of 3DEP lidar data in infrastructure and construction management projects include:

  • Route, grade, line-of-sight, and utility surveys and corridor mapping.
  • Terrain and other obstruction identification for aviation.
  • Dam, levee, and coastal-structure failure modeling and mitigation.
  • Hydraulic and hydrologic modeling.
  • Evaluations of geologic, coastal, and other natural hazards, and geotechnical evaluations.
  • Permit application and construction plan development and evaluation.
  • Drainage issues and cut-and-fill estimate requirements.
  • Vegetation, topographic, and geomorpho­logic feature analysis.
  • As-built model development.
  • Preliminary engineering, estimate develop­ment, and quantity estimation activities.
  • Base-map and elevation model creation.

Benefits of using 3D elevation data in infrastructure projects include:

  • Improved personnel safety from reduced exposure to hazards in the field.
  • Increased detail from the high density of point measurements captured.
  • Improved productivity and reduced costs from rapid data-capture rates.
  • Superior coverage of visible surfaces for large and inaccessible project areas.

About the 3D Elevation Program

3DEP is a national program managed by the USGS to acquire high-resolution elevation data.  It produces point clouds, bare-earth digital elevation models (DEMs), and other products.

The goal of this high-priority cooperative program is to have complete coverage of quality level 2 lidar data for the conterminous United States, Hawaii, and the U.S. territories, and IfSAR data for Alaska, by the end of 2023.

Reduced Acquisition Costs and Risks - A funded national program will provide:

  • Economy of scale by acquiring data for larger areas and reducing acquisition costs by 25 percent.
  • Predictable, efficient, and flexible Federal investments that reduce costs for and allow better planning by Federal, State, Tribal, U.S. territorial, and local government partners, including the option of “buying up” to acquire higher quality data.
  • Consistent, high-quality, national coverage that (1) provides data ready for applications that span project, jurisdictional, and watershed boundaries, (2) meets multiple needs, and (3) increases benefits to citizens.
  • Simpler data acquisition that provides contracts, published data-acquisition specifications, and specialized quality assurance and information technology expertise. Partners reduce their risks and can concentrate on their business activities.

3DEP can conservatively provide new benefits of $690 million per year and has the potential to generate $13 billion per year in new benefits through applications that span the economy. The shared lidar, IfSAR, and derived elevation datasets would foster cooperation and improve decisionmaking among all levels of government and other stakeholders.

3DEP elevation data can be downloaded through The National Map data download service.

More information can be found from the recently published “The 3D Elevation Program and America’s Infrastructure” Fact Sheet.  

3D elevation data for El Paso, Texas, in the form of a lidar point cloud.
3D elevation data for El Paso, Texas, in the form of a lidar point cloud. These data along with other products provide valuable productivity, safety, and cost-saving benefits to instrastructure improvement projects.(Image provided by Jason Stoker - USGS.)