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The USGS National Three Dimensional Elevation Program – 3DEP Print E-mail
Written by Nick Palatiello   
Saturday, 26 January 2013

In December I predicted that the profession would reflect on 2012 as a year that shaped the geospatial community due to legislation that took major steps in recognizing the significant benefit investment in geospatial data can provide to Federal agencies and the citizens of the Nation. 

That was a hedged bet with the knowledge of developing and ongoing initiatives, most notably the United States Geological Survey’s (USGS) national three dimensional elevation program (3DEP). We have all been teased with “for the nation” programs in the past, including Imagery for the Nation (IFTN) and Transportation for the Nation (TFTN), which had laudable goals and positive cost benefits analysis. However, those programs lacked a funding mechanism and an effective political support network.

These two crucial elements have been put in place to aid 3DEP. First, a directive by Congress that was included in the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) Act to authorize agencies to work together by creating “an interagency budget crosscut and coordination report “ for “flood risk determination data and geospatial data” including “digital elevation models”. The USGS has identified agencies that would benefit from the collection of base layer elevation data throughout the country. The framework for this program is outlined through the National Enhanced Elevation Assessment (NEEA), which evaluated the need for elevation data.

In response to a request from USGS, MAPPS, the association of private geospatial firms, conducted an analysis of existing and future private sector LIDAR data acquisition capacity and capability. MAPPS found that existing LIDAR acquisition and processing capacity exceeds not only current market demand, but is more than adequate to accomplish a fully-funded 3DEP program.  The MAPPS review found firms operating below capacity in today’s economy.  Additionally, firms will invest in new LIDAR systems if a sustained 3DEP program is funded, and manufacturers are positioned to meet that market demand.

The 3DEP program is based on a recommended 8-year acquisition cycle at a cost of $146 million per year. Utilizing the Geospatial Products and Services Contract (GPSC), a suite of multiple-award USGS contracts with the private sector that has been competitively procured via the qualifications based selection process pursuant to the “Brooks Act”, 40 USC 1101 and FAR part 36.6, provides a public-private partnership between USGS and the private sector to accomplish 3DEP via task orders for LIDAR acquisition.

The lessons learned from other national initiatives are being put to use with the development of the 3DEP program. At a time when federal and state budgets are being strained and unemployment is high, new ways of thinking must be used to reach a common goal. Public-private partnerships provide an opportunity to overcome these challenges and achieve a sustainable goal. USGS is convening an inter-agency 3DEP Executive Forum to help coordinate and fund the program and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has conducted a data call of federal agencies to quantify investments in certain data, such as elevation.

Moreover, a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found federal agency coordination in need of improvement and steps to prevent duplication must be strengthened.  All these developments can be viewed as important factors in establishment of an integrated multi-agency approach to national elevation data.

At a recently convened meeting at the White House, coastal LIDAR was identified as a top Obama Administration priority.  Funds for LIDAR collection in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut for the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy has passed the U.S. House of representatives and is pending before the Senate.

LIDAR operators and manufacturers also face a threat from onerous regulations by the Federal Aviation Administration to assure the safety of such “lasers”.  MAPPS has secured a FAA general counsel opinion that LIDAR is not a “laser pointer” and safe operation would not be subject to criminal prosecution in the manner such devices would be if interfering with aircraft and crews.  Other regulatory hurdles exist and MAPPS is working to provide a process whereby LIDAR safety is provided, but compliance is not a time-consuming or costly burden on the LIDAR community.

3DEP is one of many programs that can and will utilize LIDAR technology. Numerous other federal programs requiring elevation data will be considered by Congress this year.  These “authorizations” provide an opportunity for the community to advocate for LIDAR provisions.  At the upcoming ILMF Conference in Denver, CO, I will explore how 3DEP can become a success, other areas the MAP-21 Act will touch, and challenges LIDAR operators and manufacturers are facing that may not be commonly recognized.

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