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Is there any equipment that I can rent 'inexpensively' (less than $400) that would allow 1-2 people to accurately (+/- 6") capture the topography of hilly terrain of perhaps 250' on a side in an afternoon?


My wife and I are about to embark upon a redesign of the landscape around our home in the mountains. Our lot started out on what's generally a 1:3 slope, and this has (of course) been changed in many interesting ways during building. There are small hills, patios, semi-flattened areas followed by large falloffs.

As part of our designing, we want to capture exactly what the landscape looks like now, digitally. (Then we'll sculpt in the computer what we want, taking into account existing boundaries and surrounding contours, and see roughly how much dirt we need or will need to remove.)

We performed a "ghetto" survey this weekend with strings and poles, roughly sampling a grid of elevations every 10'. The results we got produced a reasonable-looking representation of the terrain. However, the 10' sampling was a bit too coarse for my tastes and—more importantly—we were only able to sample about 1/4 of the area we need before our measuring poles weren't tall enough or we ran out of reference objects.

So... What hardware exists that I can rent to make this task easier? Ideally, I'd like to take a pole, walk all over the property, and every few feet stick it on the ground, press a button, hear it go "beep!" and have it record an XYZ sample that is accurate within +/- 6". After doing this for a couple hours I'd plug it into the computer and download some DEM, CSV, or other accessible data of all the points in a non-proprietary format.

It looks like Trimble offers some neat gadgets in this arena, and I see that some companies rent this sort of gear out, but as I'm not a landscape survey engineer professional, I cannot figure out exactly which, if any, products meet my needs.

Can someone who knows this product space please help suggest what I should be looking for?

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You might look at gis.stackexchange.com. – Jay Bazuzi Mar 8 '11 at 2:47
One way to compare the height of two objects you can't get line of sight between is the GPS on your phone. We used this to compare the elevation of our house and a neighbour's house as part of considering a point-to-point wireless solution. – Kate Gregory Sep 18 '12 at 12:48
up vote 8 down vote accepted

Option #1:

  1. Find a few objects (house, trees, etc.) that, together, allow at least one of them to be level line-of sight from anywhere in the yard.

  2. Tape a laser pointer on the end of a level (taped so you can use the level as a sort of monopod resting on the ground).

  3. Move around the yard, hold the level level, and point the laser at one of the objects. Have someone at the object use a measuring tape to record the measurement. Subtract the length of your level.

  4. Once you have all of your measurements, figure out the elevation offsets of the objects in relation to one another and offset measurements against them accordingly.

Option #2: Use a photogrammetry program like PhotoModeler (http://www.photomodeler.com/) to combine photographs taken using a tripod and a digital camera from different vantage points. Of course, these apps are incredibly expensive, probably cost more than the gadgets you mentioned. Unless you happen to already own a license to one of the AutoCAD products that gives you access to AutoDesk's photogrammetry app, ImageModeler 2009 (http://usa.autodesk.com/adsk/servlet/pc/index?id=11390028&siteID=123112).

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+1 for the term Photogrammetry. – Phrogz Mar 10 '11 at 18:17

Buy or rent a laser level, one that sends out a disc of light all in a level plane. Set it up a foot off the ground at the high point.

Walk around with a yardstick (or two yardsticks taped together, depending on how much slope there is). At each point on your grid, record where on the yardstick the laser hits. You may need to do this at night to see the laser line.

Enter your data into one of the programs mentioned in the other answers.

With the self-leveling laser lines, you can eliminate some of the annoying steps from other solutions. Measuring out your grid is still annoying, however.

Edit: Reading the question again I see I haven't actually addressed your major pain, namely, having a huge slope. You'll need a tape measure with good standoff, or a much longer pole (roof rake with tape markings on it?) to get the depths at these points, and measuring the grid is even more annoying. You'll probably need to survey these areas in chunks, staking the laser into a new place in the ground at the start of each area, and stitch them together.

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If you have two laser levels, one for height, and the other to give you a straight line, then you'd only need something for distance (ie, a long tape measure, although droop might throw off your measurements at longer distances). If you got all of your lines parallel, and used two people (one to re-position the second laser and record the values while the other person moved from point to point and measured), you might be able to get it done fairly quickly. – Joe Mar 15 '11 at 14:04
If you're willing to buy a second laser, get one that measures distance and use it... – Alex Feinman Mar 15 '11 at 14:22
you don't have to buy (although, they are rather useful), as you can rent them from most tool supply places. (at least, the places near me have 'em). – Joe Mar 15 '11 at 15:10

I'm wondering if a good DSLR camera on a solid tripod might make a Quick and Dirty leveling transit.

The basic technique using a leveling transit and Rod is:

  1. Pick a zero location.
  2. Set up transit away from that location, where the head is higher than your zero.
  3. Put graduated rod (usually red and white 1 cm marks) on the zero.
  4. Sight the rod, and record the measurement. This give Height of Instrument (Hi).
  5. Repeat the sighting and recording at every point you want to measure.
  6. Once you've done everything you can from one location, move the instrument to new territory, sighting back to a known station to get the new Hi.

The math:

  • Assume an elevation of Zero for your first benchmark.
  • Hi = reading on rod.
  • All other stations from that setup point are Elev = Reading - Hi (relative to benchmark)
  • To determine Hi2 from a known station, Hi2 = Elev(station) + Reading.
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When I worked as a summer as a survey tech, we always rocked the level rods (graduated rod) forward and backward a few degrees and took the max reading. Much quicker than making sure it's completely level before sighting. – Doresoom Mar 10 '11 at 15:49

I'd say don't use laser levels, just go old school style, rent a rod and level (I don't know how much they are because I work for an engineering company so I just borrow them for a weekend). Rods come in quite large sizes (I usually borrow our 25ft ones) so you wouldn't have to set up the level too much, follow the advice of the dslr idea but using a regular level instead, much easier. You can spray paint the ground at predetermined marks you want to get the elevations of or you could also pound stakes (small wood pieces or anything easily distinguishable and be able to number them) into the ground so that they are always easy to remember exactly where which elevations are.

And just to explain more indepth of what he was talking about if it didn't make sense. First elevation you shoot (where the rod is) call the elevation 100ft (easier to start with so you don't go into the negatives if you start with 0) if you shoot 5ft on the rod, your height of instrument is 105ft. If the next shot you take says 20 ft on the rod that means that the elevation at the rod would be 85ft. You keep the rod on that spot and set up the level again at a lower part of the yard, so you can read only a bit on the rod, so with the rod still in the same place you read 2ft on the rod at the new location for the level. The height of instrument is now 87ft, and you can continue on using that. You just need to set up the level again every time that you are close to the end of the rod.. Good luck

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It sounds like you are willing to invest some real time in this, the pole and string method is a good start, to take this to a very detailed scale you almost need to survey they grounds from a fixed point (like close to your house) with someone else holding a maker pole in a lot of different places in the yard.

You see government workers doing this all the time when they are surveying roads and highways. With good measurments of distance and percice angle measurments and quite a bit of math (a good excel sheet should help here) this can be done. they do sell survey equpment on amazon, but you can probably rent it more cheaply localy.


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