Updating a Portion of Terrain Dataset with New Measurements - Lidar Solution in ArcGIS
Updating a Portion of Terrain Dataset with New Measurements - Lidar Solution in ArcGIS

The author of this blog is Clayton Crawford, lead Product Engineer on ESRI's 3D Analyst team in the Software Products group in Redlands.

Updating a portion of a terrain dataset with new measurements

The ability to update a surface is important to people responsible for providing accurate, up to date surfaces and people performing analysis on those surfaces. Updates come in different forms:

  • Adding ancillary data (e.g., breaklines)
  • Removing or replacing bad data
  • Using newer or more accurate data
  • Increasing extent with additional data
  • Inserting design/modeled data to perform ‘what-if’ analysis

These kinds of updates are best performed on the measurements used to construct a surface rather than on derivatives like raster DEMs. Those can be recreated as needed after the measurement edits have taken place. Terrain datasets support this editing model because they maintain a direct link to the source measurement data. When you modify the measurements, you are automatically modifying the terrain in the same process.

How terrains are edited

Editing a terrain dataset is really about editing measurements. Using standard feature edit tools, you can manipulate the measurements that reside in feature classes that participate in a terrain.

Terrains are made from one or more feature classes with some simple rules for each that control how they get used to shape the terrain surface. For example, a multipoint feature class containing lidar points can get added as mass points, a line feature class containing streams and lake shores is used as a source of breaklines, and a polygon feature class can control the data area boundary.

Most feature classes used to define a terrain are what we call referenced. This means that the terrain maintains a pointer, or handle, to them. The terrain prevents its referenced feature classes from being deleted, and pays attention to any edits that occur on them including the addition, deletion, or modification of feature geometry. You can use the feature editor in ArcMap as well as geoprocessing tools to modify these feature classes. A terrain will automatically flag itself as ‘dirty’ in areas where edits were made. Then the terrain can be rebuilt to bring its pyramid in sync with the updated features. It does this based on the dirty areas so it’s a local, or partial, process; the entire terrain does not need to be reconstructed.

Multipoint feature classes have the option of being embedded. When multipoints are embedded the terrain build process copies the points into pyramid tables held private by the terrain and it becomes the container for the points. The terrain does not reference the source feature class. That can be deleted, allowing you to retrieve what is typically a substantial amount of disk space; approximately 1GB per 150 million points. Terrain specific tools, Add Terrain Points (which can both add and replace) and Remove Terrain Points, are used to edit the embedded points based on an area of interest. These tools also offer the benefit of being BLOB attribute aware so if you have any LAS attributes stored with those multipoints (for more on this topic see blog on creating intensity images) the tools know how to keep the BLOB based values in sync with the points relative to the edits. For example, if a few vertices of a multipoint are deleted from an embedded feature class, the terrain will delete the corresponding BLOB based attribute values for those points.

Appending measurements

Measurements can be added to a terrain via the Append and Add Terrain Points geoprocessing tools. The Append tool operates on regular (referenced) feature classes. The Add Terrain Points tool is used to add or replace points in embedded feature classes. You can also add a feature class to an existing terrain via the Add Feature Class To Terrain tool but be aware that this is treated as a schema edit that invalidates the entire terrain, requiring a full rebuild. If data is to be added incrementally, it’s best to append it to a feature class that already participates in the terrain than add a new feature class to the terrain for each new set of data.

Let’s take a scenario where data is provided in phases. In this example the bare earth lidar points are made available first. The breaklines come later in several deliveries. Knowing this schedule, you can create a terrain referencing the lidar multipoint feature class plus an empty line feature class held in anticipation of the breaklines. See Figure 1 with a zoomed-in view of a terrain made solely with bare earth lidar points.


When some of the breaklines are made available they are added to the terrain by adding them to the line feature class referenced by the terrain. This is done using the geoprocessing Append tool (Figure 2).


After running Append, the terrain will become ‘dirty’ in the areas where the lines were added. To see the dirty areas you add a dirty area renderer from the Symbology tab of the terrain layer Properties dialog (Figures 3a and 3b).


At this point the terrain needs to be rebuilt. This is done using either the Build Terrain geoprocessing tool or the Build button on the Update tab of the terrain Properties dialog in ArcCatalog. Once the terrain is re-built the improvement made by the breaklines is evident (Figure 4).



With lines and polygons in referenced feature classes the replacement of measurements is a two step process. First you delete the old then append the new. If you’re only dealing with a handful of features then you can select and delete them using the Editor in ArcMap. For larger collections rely on geoprocessing tools. For example, use Select By Location followed by Delete Features and Append.

It’s easiest to replace lidar points if they’re embedded. There’s a geoprocessing tool called Add Terrain Points that has a Replace option. This will replace all the points within a given area. So, if you discover something was wrong with a few source point files that were used to build a terrain you can replace them without needing to rebuild the entire terrain from scratch. Figure 5 shows an example where one area, in an otherwise bare earth model, that was inadvertently loaded with first return data.

To fix this problem load the replacement data into a new multipoint feature class. Then run the Add Terrain Points tool with the Replace option. By default, the replacement area will come from the extent of the input feature class (Figure 6).

Once the points have been replaced the terrain needs to be rebuilt to update the affected area. Run the Build Terrain geoprocessing tool or use the Build Terrain button on the Update tab of the terrain Properties dialog in ArcCatalog – either one fixes the terrain.


There are times when updates to a surface model are needed, be it for quality improvement or what-if scenario analysis. It’s hard to make these types of updates to derivative products like raster DEMs without ending up with some anomalies around the update area. It’s more appropriate to modify the source measurement data from which the surface model is derived. For larger datasets, like those coming from lidar, it’s also desirable that datasets only be reprocessed where the updates occur rather than rebuilding everything. Terrain datasets support this by maintaining links to their source measurements in the geodatabase and their use of dirty areas.

That concludes part 6 of Lidar Solutions in ArcGIS. Subscribe to this blog or check back in a month or so for a discussion on how to minimize noise from lidar for contouring and slope analysis.

Source: http://blogs.esri.com/