What hardware and software would you use for capturing bathymetric elevations (depth) in inland waterbodies (lakes and rivers)?

Your device and software budget is $1,000. The budget is a soft target, to get setup, and doesn't include actual data capture. A 17' open boat with outboard motor and a ruggedized laptop running Windows XP Pro and Arcmap (Arcview license) is at your disposal, if you need them. The data captured should be suitable for building a raster elevation model and bathymetric contours. Depths are not expected to exceed 200m. Desired accuracy should be comparable to or better than a standard consumer handheld GPS (Garmin GPSMap, etc.).

(Actually the budget is a sham. If you've got a good solution for $5k or $50k I'd like to know about it too.)


I used the equipment and techniques as described in this paper: http://proceedings.esri.com/library/userconf/proc08/papers/papers/pap_1110.pdf

(Generation of Lake Bathymetry Using Sonar, Satellite Imagery and GIS, R.J.J. Dost, C.M.M. Mannaerts R.J.J. Dost, International Institute for Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation (ITC), The Netherlands)

Equipment was < $1000 + a bunch of things from the hardware store to mount the GPS antenna directly over the sonar and results were surprisingly good.

  • that's a good paper, covers data quality analysis as well as setup. Not sure why I didn't find this earlier, thanks! – matt wilkie Nov 2 '10 at 15:40
  • NP. I would strongly recommend using the Garmin external antenna. It's small and inexpensive but it made a difference. We did QAQC of the areas we surveyed both in the field and against existing data and the results were better then expected. – Jakub Sisak GeoGraphics Nov 2 '10 at 15:47

I'm not sure exactly how it's set up, but our company has a small (6 foot long or so) remote control boat with a survey grade GPS unit and a "fish-finder" (literally a consumer grade depth finder) that our water team uses to collect depth data on small lakes and ponds. They then use this data to calculate water volumes using 3D Analyst.


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So here's a photo I found of one of the boats. Not the one I was thinking of, but this one looks pretty simple. Basically a PVC pontoon boat. You can see the depth finder behind the battery.

It also appears that this is popular for studying manure lagoons. Ewwww.

  • any further information you could unearth on this setup would be appreciated. It sounds interesting. – matt wilkie Nov 2 '10 at 15:39
  • 1
    That's just plain awesome. – JasonBirch Nov 2 '10 at 16:56
  • Still looking for another pix of the first one they had built - it was made of aluminum and totally super-fly! And fast - all it needed was a squirrel on waterskis behind it. – Chad Cooper Nov 2 '10 at 17:15
  • I know this is quite old by now, but any more information you have on how to build this sort of boat would be great. – Charles Clayton Jan 28 '15 at 19:42
  • Sorry @crclayton, I don't have any more info, that was several gigs ago. Nothing fancy though, really - PCV, plywood, a consumer grade depthfinder, a commercial grade GPS, and some sort of remote control motoring system. Just talking about it makes me want to build one! – Chad Cooper Jan 28 '15 at 20:09

You may want to look at UnderSee Explorer from Burlison Technologies. It is software that automates the entire process of data collection, real time mapping and exporting of data. The web site is http://burlisontech.com. The professional edition sells for about a $1,000.


Just for fun, I've seen folks sample deep backcountry alpine lakes (rough bathymetry transects + water samples at various depths) using a float tube. Not the most efficient or safest, but on the off chance you're headed to somewhere inaccessible where motorised travel is forbidden and you have to carry it all in... ;)

Since the lakes were all small, a couple of transects and satellite imagery / topo maps were 'good enough' for a simply bathymetry map.


Standardization and mass adoption is the key to driving down cost.

Crowdsource the generation of bathymetric contours of the world's inland waterways as an overlay, say, on Google Maps. In the same way that smartphone GPS statistics create traffic maps, users could buy or build the hardware to participate in recording and uploading their own bathymetric data.

Collaboration among search engine companies, universities, governments, open-source projects, hardware manufacturers and vendors could drive down the entry cost of the hardware, software and network infrastructure almost overnight.

I would argue that your $1000 budget could start instead at less than $100, triggering a virtuous circle of adoption and cost reduction, fostering a new hobby industry with quite useful results.

  • Just as an aside, a modified Roomba on a motorized float tube would allow folks to sample a small pond or lake automatically. – Dave B Aug 25 '14 at 17:55

For details on the setup that the State of Oklahoma uses, see the paper here.
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