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 a generally 1 in 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 to attach to.

So: what hardware exists that I can rent to do this task for me? 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 not being 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? Thanks!

Note: I originally asked this question on Home Improvement, but as suggested there and approved here on meta I'm cross-posting it to this site.


Hiring a surveyor a Mapperz suggests is probably the most sensible thing to do if you're committed to putting a lot of money into landscaping.

That said, see if there is LIDAR data available for your area. Some U.S. states provide it at an accuracy of ~18cm for free. It might be sufficient for your planning needs.

  • To answer the question, you can download elevation data from the National Map at nationalmap.gov/viewers.html To use it, zoom in to the rough area of your property, click, "Download Data", then download the data by the current extent and select Elevation according to the format that will work for you.
    – jvangeld
    Mar 8 '11 at 19:52
  • +1. An experienced surveyor can do the work for about the same amount of money as renting the equipment, and can probably also give you some valuable recommendations about what to do (like, "Don't take this rock out - your house will tip over")
    – mwalker
    Mar 8 '11 at 19:57

DIY Survey on the cheap is going to be either inaccurate (cheap equipment) or costly.

Ideal renting a viva gs09 rtk would be your best bet http://www.surveyequipment.com/gps-survey-equipment/viva-gs09-rtk (Requiring only the GS09 SmartAntenna and CS09 Controller) Then you need the software to create your DTM.

The really dirty way is create a grid in your landscape with pegs use a mobile/cell phone with some app/software (sportstracker nokia) that can create a point reading with the gps xyz.Most will export as gpx,kml,csv. But you will find accuracy an issue doing it this way.

Might be cheaper to hire a qualified landscape surveyor that can guarantee accuracy and can be legally bound with changes to landscape (planning permission etc.)


It's possible to do this kind of work using close-range photogrammetry, which basically involves taking a lot of pictures and then working with them on a computer. Unfortunately, good software for this costs US$1k-$3k, and it takes some practice to use it well and to take the right pictures. It's a lot of fun, though.


You could have a look at the techniques used for orienteering mapping.


Perhaps try and connect with a local remote control areal vehicle club (helicopters, planes, blimps) and see if any of them are playing with stuff like this. There's a ton of videos on youtube about this, a co-worker has been looking into it. The "toys" are expensive, but those who have invested are always looking for excuses to turn their hobbies into something more like "real work".

TerraLuma project

  • At $10,000 the Swinglet Cam is out of the questioner's price range, but it is quite capable if it were to be paired with photogrammetric software. sensefly.com/products/swinglet-cam
    – jvangeld
    Mar 11 '11 at 19:55

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