GEOG 481
Topographic Mapping with Lidar

GEOG 481 Syllabus


GEOG 481: Topographic Mapping with Lidar

This syllabus is divided into several sections. You can read it sequentially by scrolling down the length of the document or by clicking on any of the links below to “jump” to a specific section. That being said, it is essential that you read the entire document as well as material covered in the Orientation. Together, these serve the role of our course "contract."


Karen Schuckman, CP, PLS, MGIS
Senior Lecturer, John A. Dutton e-Education Institute
Pennsylvania State University
2217 Earth-Engineering Sciences Building 
University Park, PA 16802-6813

Course Overview

GEOG 481: TOPOGRAPHIC MAPPING WITH LIDAR - An introduction to the capabilities of lidar sensors and platforms, data processing systems, and derived digital data products. Students in this course will master basic skills needed to leverage commercial lidar data sources and information products in a broad range of applications, including topographic mapping, flood inundation studies, vegetation analysis, and 3D modeling of urban infrastructure.

Lidar (Light Detection and Ranging) is an optical remote sensing technology that uses laser pulses to determine distance between the sensor and a surface or object. In recent years, lidar has emerged as one of most important sources of data for topographic mapping, vegetation analysis, and 3D modeling of urban infrastructure. Federal, state, and local government agencies are acquiring lidar data and derived products for use in floodplain mapping, transportation planning and design, resource and environmental management, law enforcement, and emergency response. Much of this data is freely available to the public, and new uses for the data are emerging at a rapid pace. A thorough understanding of lidar technology and its application in GIS is part of the essential body of knowledge for today’s geospatial professional.

Prerequisites: GEOG 480.

The instructor has prepared a set of readiness assessment questions, and it is highly recommended that prospective students complete this anonymous online quiz before finalizing their decision to register. There is no formal requirement to pass the quiz in order to register, but students who can answer at least 15 out of the 20 questions correctly on their first quiz attempt should have the foundation to be successful in the course. Feedback is provided for each incorrect answer.

Students who register in the course for credit will complete one orientation lesson and nine content lessons with corresponding quizzes, hands-on assignments, and online discussions. An individual final project is designed and executed by the student in an application area of their choice. Throughout the course, students confront realistic problem scenarios that incorporate such skills and concepts as definition of data needs, metadata content standards, data formats and types, analysis methods, and spatial accuracy requirements. Those who successfully complete the course will be able to define lidar project specifications in the context of an end-user GIS application.

What will be expected of you?

This course will require a minimum of 12 - 15 hours of student activity per week.

Each lesson consists of reading assignments online and in the course textbook. Mandatory reading quizzes in each lesson test your comprehension of this material. Lab instructions for each lesson are provided in PDF form for you to download and print for reference as you proceed through the hands-on exercises with data and software. Lab work is submitted in the form of a Canvas quiz. You are encouraged to ask questions and post comments at any time in the Canvas discussion forums.

You should get in the habit of checking course email and discussion forums in Canvas on a daily basis. That's where students and the instructor share comments, pose questions, and suggest answers. With only occasional exceptions, the instructor will check email and forums six days per week, and will respond to your questions and concerns within 24 hours.

For a more detailed look at what will be covered in each lesson, please refer to the course content that is part of this syllabus (see "Course Content"). Due dates for assignments and activities will be posted in the Calendar in Canvas.

Course Objectives

GEOG 481 cultivates students’ knowledge of the capabilities and limitations of lidar instruments and processing systems. The course also introduces fundamental concepts of accuracy assessment and appropriate use of lidar-derived data products. It helps students master basic skills needed to leverage these data sources and information products in the context of application domains, such as topographic mapping, floodplain mapping, forestry, urban and regional planning, transportation systems design, and emergency response.

Students who excel in this course are able to:

  • Summarize the basic operational characteristics of lidar instruments and platforms used for topographic mapping and geospatial applications.
  • Describe the basic principles of calibrating, georeferencing, and processing of lidar data.
  • Describe quantitative and qualitative methods used in industry standards for quality assurance and accuracy assessment of lidar-derived data products.
  • Critically assess the strengths and weaknesses of various lidar platforms and instruments for a broad range of application scenarios.
  • Apply acquired knowledge and critical thinking skills to solve a real-world problem with appropriate lidar data processing and analysis methods.

Required Course Materials

There is one required textbook for this course.

  1. Renslow, Michael, ed. 2012. Airborne Topographic Lidar Manual. Bethesda, MD. American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing. ISBN 1-57083-097-5. This book will be provided by Penn State at no cost to the student. Download this form to your computer, save it, open it, and then complete it with your shipping information, and submit per instructions. Make sure you aren't trying to fill out the form from within your browser. When you click the submit button, it should automatically send to with the Subject line "Submitting Completed Form."

Supplemental References (No Purchase Necessary)

Additional readings may be provided electronically through the course management system and Penn State library services. These readings may include, but are not limited to, the following sources. These are also useful references for final project development.

Campbell, J.B. 2007. Introduction to Remote Sensing. 4th edition. The Guilford Press. ISBN 978-1606230749.

Congalton, R. and K. Green. 2009. Assessing the Accuracy of Remotely Sensed Data. 2nd edition. CRC Press. ISBN 978-1-4200-5512-2.

Jensen, J.R. 2007. Remote Sensing of the Environment: An Earth Resource Perspective. 2nd edition. Prentice Hall. ISBN 978-0131889507.

Maune, D. F., ed. 2007. Digital Elevation Model Technologies and Applications: The DEM Users Manual. 2nd edition. Bethesda, MD. American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing. ISBN 1-57083-082-7.

McGlone, J. C., ed. 2004. Manual of Photogrammetry. 5th edition. Bethesda, Md.: American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing. ISBN 1-57083-071-1.

Shan, J. and C. Toth, ed. 2008. Topographic Laser Ranging and Scanning, Principles and Processing. Boca Raton, FL. Taylor & Francis Group. ISBN 9781420051421.

Wolf, P. and B. Dewitt. 2000. Elements of Photogrammetry, 3rd edition. Boston. McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0-07-292454-3.

Earth Imaging Journal.

Photogrammetric Engineering and Remote Sensing, American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing.

Required Software

Be sure to read the Technical Requirements section at the end of the syllabus for minimum system requirements.

NOTE: You need administrative rights on your computer in order to properly install the course software.

All software listed below is provided at no cost to the enrolled student, but a specific process must be followed to obtain these licenses. Instructions for downloading and installing the software are given in the lab activity for Lesson 0. You will be given ample time to obtain, install, and test the software before using it in a hands-on course activity.

  1. Esri, ArcGIS Student Edition
  2. QCoherent, LP360 (an ArcGIS extension)

Supplemental Software Tutorials

Registered students have access to the Esri Virtual Campus courses free-of-charge. These courses are available for students who wish to review or enhance their ArcGIS skills in preparation for or during the course. Several Virtual Campus courses will be assigned as part of the weekly lab activities; the instructor will provide access codes. Visit the Penn State Esri Virtual Campus Subscription page to request access codes for any other Virtual Campus courses that are of interest.

Free tutorials for other commercial software used in this course are available directly from vendor websites.

Assignments and Grading

Students earn grades that reflect the extent to which they achieve the learning objectives listed above. Opportunities to demonstrate learning include:

  • 10 online quizzes (95 points total)
  • 10 hands-on laboratory activities (225 points total)
  • 7 online discussion activities (30 points total)
  • 1 final project (150 points total)

The final grading scale is shown below.

Grading Scale
A 90% and above 465 points and above
A- 87.5% - 89.9% 450 - 464 points
B+ 85% - 87.4% 440 - 449 points
B 80% - 84.9% 415 - 439 points
B- 77.5% - 79.9% 400 - 414 points
C+ 75% - 77.4% 390 - 399 points
C 70% - 74.9% 350 - 389 points
D 60.0 - 69.9% 300 - 349 points
F 59.9% and below 299 points and below

Class participation will be considered in grading for those whose final course grade is close to the next letter grade. To view your progress throughout the semester, click on Grades in CanvasIn order to qualify for use of any extra credit points in calculation of the final grade, the student must submit ALL lesson quizzes, hands-on activities, discussions, and final project deliverables. Exceptions to the extra credit policy may be granted by the instructor on a case-by-case basis in special circumstances.

Due dates for assignments will be announced in class. Discussions and labs must be turned in by the due date to receive full credit. After the due date, 1 point per day will be deducted from discussion scores, 5 points per day from quiz scores, and 5 points per day from lab scores. Exceptions to this rule for special circumstances must be approved prior to the due date, IN WRITING, by the instructor or TA. Late assignments will still count as "turned in" for application of extra credit at the end of the semester.

To view your grades during the semester you need to do the following:

  • Log into Canvas.
  • Access the space for this class.
  • Click on Grades.

GEOG 481 Course Schedule

image Printable Schedule

Below you will find a summary of the learning activities for this course. The session-specific calendar is available in Canvas.

Lesson 0: Orientation
Date: Refer to Canvas calendar

After completing the Orientation, you should be able to:

  • Navigate between the course website and the Canvas course management system;
  • Express your expectations about how and what you will learn in your online course;
  • Articulate how and what instructors expect you to learn in your online course;
  • Locate key information about the course, including assignments, due dates, technical information, and where to go for help;
  • Locate detailed information about course policies, including academic integrity and accommodations for disabilities;
  • Communicate effectively with instructors and fellow students using a variety of online tools.
Readings: Online: GEOG 481 Orientation
  1. Orientation Survey
  2. Personal Introduction
  3. Lesson 0 Lab 1 Activity
  4. Lesson 0 Lab 2 Activity
Lesson 1: Lidar Sensors and Data
Date: Refer to Canvas calendar

After completing this lesson you should be able to:

  • Define “lidar” and differentiate from other remote sensing technologies, such as photogrammetry and radar.
  • Describe the basic physics of the interaction of laser energy with earth surface features.
  • Describe the historical development of lidar sensors.
  • Identify key design components of lidar sensors, including single-return, multi-return, waveform, photon-counting, multispectral, and hyperspectral.

Online: GEOG 481 Lesson 1

Renslow, Michael, ed. 2012. Airborne Topographic Lidar Manual. Bethesda, MD. American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing. ISBN 1-57083-097-5.

  • Chapter 1
  • Chapter 2
  1. Lesson 1 Reading Quiz
  2. Lesson 1 Lab Activity


Lesson 2: Lidar Systems and Calibration
Date: Refer to Canvas calendar

After completing this lesson you should be able to:

  • Define “remote sensing platform” and distinguish between terrestrial, airborne, and spaceborne types.
  • Describe the historical development of lidar remote sensing platforms.
  • Identify operational requirements of lidar remote sensing platforms, including satellites, fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, vehicle-based, and ground-based systems.
  • Describe the integration of direct georeferencing technologies (GPS and inertial measurement devices) with lidar sensors and platforms.
  • Explain sources of error in lidar data and methods of system calibration.

Online: GEOG 481 Lesson 2

Renslow, Michael, ed. 2012. Airborne Topographic Lidar Manual. Bethesda, MD. American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing. ISBN 1-57083-097-5.

  • Chapter 3
  • Chapter 4
  • Chapter 5
  1. Lesson 2 Reading Quiz
  2. Lesson 2 Lab Activity


Lesson 3: Lidar Data Processing, Part 1
Date: Refer to Canvas calendar

After completing this lesson you should be able to:

  • Describe procedures for removal of lidar signal noise and other sensor-related artifacts.
  • Classify lidar data by return number and layer.
  • Apply simple filtering algorithms for first level classification of land cover types.
  • Explain tradeoffs between efficiency and accuracy when using automated filters to classify lidar data.

Online: GEOG 481 Lesson 3

Renslow, Michael, ed. 2012. Airborne Topographic Lidar Manual. Bethesda, MD. American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing. ISBN 1-57083-097-5.

  • Chapter 6
  • Chapter 7, Section 7.2
  1. Lesson 3 Reading Quiz
  2. Lesson 3 Lab Activity


Lesson 4: Lidar Data Processing, Part 2
Date: Refer to Canvas calendar

After completing this lesson you should be able to:

  • Perform manual classification of lidar data.
  • Explain the concept of hydrologic enforcement in lidar point cloud data.
  • Discuss lidargrammetry as a means for extracting features and terrain breaklines.
  • Explain the procedure for creating GIS data products, including DEMs, DTMs, DSMs, and TINs.
  • Compare and contrast the strengths and weaknesses of various terrain products for use in GIS applications.

Online: GEOG 481 Lesson 4

Renslow, Michael, ed. 2012. Airborne Topographic Lidar Manual. Bethesda, MD. American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing. ISBN 1-57083-097-5.

  • Chapter 8
  1. Lesson 4 Reading Quiz
  2. Lesson 4 Lab Activity
  3. Lesson 4 Discussion Activity


Lesson 5: Accuracy Assessment and Quality Control
Date: Refer to Canvas calendar

After completing this lesson you should be able to:

  • Compute a quantitative accuracy assessment using simple statistical methods.
  • Describe artifacts commonly discovered in qualitative accuracy assessment.
  • Assess the accuracy of second-generation lidar-derived data products relative to the source data.
  • Perform an evaluation of a lidar dataset using the USGS Lidar Base Specification.

Online: GEOG 481 Lesson 5

Renslow, Michael, ed. 2012. Airborne Topographic Lidar Manual. Bethesda, MD. American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing. ISBN 1-57083-097-5.

  • Chapter 9

USGS Lidar Base Specification Version 1.0

  1. Lesson 5 Reading Quiz
  2. Lesson 5 Lab Activity
  3. Lesson 5 Discussion Activity


Lesson 6: Lidar Applications - Topographic Mapping
Date: Refer to Canvas calendar

After completing this lesson you should be able to:

  • Generate a topographic contour map.
  • Perform a simple slope and aspect analysis.
  • Perform a simple flood inundation analysis.
  • Perform a simple line-of-sight analysis.

Online: GEOG 481 Lesson 6

Renslow, Michael, ed. 2012. Airborne Topographic Lidar Manual. Bethesda, MD. American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing. ISBN 1-57083-097-5.

  • Chapter 10, Section 10.1
  1. Lesson 6 Reading Quiz
  2. Lesson 6 Lab Activity
  3. Lesson 6 Discussion Activity


Lesson 7: Lidar Applications - Forestry
Date: Refer to Canvas calendar

After completing this lesson you should be able to:

  • Describe the advantages and disadvantages of various types of lidar sensors (single-return, multiple-return, and waveform) for forestry applications.
  • Generate a canopy model of a forested area from lidar data.
  • Perform vegetation metric calculations.

Online: GEOG 481 Lesson 7

Renslow, Michael, ed. 2012. Airborne Topographic Lidar Manual. Bethesda, MD. American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing. ISBN 1-57083-097-5.

  • Chapter 10, Section 10.2
  1. Lesson 7 Reading Quiz
  2. Lesson 7 Lab Activity
  3. Lesson 7 Discussion Activity


Lesson 8: Lidar Applications: Feature Extraction
Date: Refer to Canvas calendar

After completing this lesson you should be able to:

  • Describe the advantages and disadvantages of various types of lidar systems for feature extraction applications.
  • Generate building footprints and a building height database for an urban area using high-resolution lidar data.

Online: GEOG 481 Lesson 8

Renslow, Michael, ed. 2012. Airborne Topographic Lidar Manual. Bethesda, MD. American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing. ISBN 1-57083-097-5.

  • Chapter 10, Section 10.5
  1. Lesson 8 Reading Quiz
  2. Lesson 8 Lab Activity
  3. Lesson 8 Graded Discussion


Lesson 9: Lidar Applications: Corridor Mapping
Date: Refer to Canvas calendar

After completing this lesson you should be able to:

  • Describe key features of a corridor mapping system.
  • Identify appropriate applications for corridor mapping systems.
  • Describe data processing and quality control procedures for corridor mapping data.

Online: GEOG 481 Lesson 9

Renslow, Michael, ed. 2012. Airborne Topographic Lidar Manual. Bethesda, MD. American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing. ISBN 1-57083-097-5.

  • Chapter 10, Section 10.3
  1. Lesson 9 Reading Quiz
  2. Lesson 9 Graded Discussion


Final Project: Leveraging Lidar Data to Confront Contemporary Challenges in Geospatial Analysis
Date: Refer to Canvas calendar
Objectives: This project will challenge students to apply knowledge and skills acquired in the earlier lessons in a realistic problem scenario that requires acquisition and analysis of lidar data. The project will span the final four to five weeks of the session. Students will work individually to scope a problem, determine the appropriate combination of lidar data and application software needed to support analysis, propose a processing and analysis workflow, and move to a solution. The students will then produce a final report that discusses their understanding of the problem, a detailed discussion of the workflow steps, and results of their study.
Readings: External reading as required by project.
  1. Post final project idea.
  2. Peer review other students' final project ideas.
  3. Post final project proposal.
  4. Peer review other students' final project proposals.
  5. Present final project work to class.
  6. Peer review other student's final project presentations.
  7. Submit written final project report.
  8. Prepare final project abstract.


Course Policies

Citation and Reference Style

Academic Integrity and Citation Style Guide here.

Technical Requirements

Minimum technical requirements for the MGIS program apply to this course. They can be found on the Online Geospatial Education Technical Requirements web page.

Please review the System Requirements for ArcGIS 10.2.x on the Esri website (link is external), including the requirements for Microsoft .NET and Internet Explorer. Check your computer's ability to run ArcGIS (link is external) using the utility provided by Esri.

Mac users will need either Parallels, Bootcamp, or VMWare to run ArcGIS and other software required for the remote sensing courses. Please refer instructions provided by Esri (link is external) when installing ArcGIS on an Apple computer.

The following bullets apply to all courses in the remote sensing curriculum:

  • This is a very computer intensive course. The minimum technical requirements linked above really are the minimum. If you do not have a computer that meets these and the following specifications, you will have trouble completing the course.
  • You must have a reliable, robust high-speed Internet connection on a daily basis. The course requires you to watch streaming video as well as downloading files that may be as large as 1 GB. It is not possible to email or send course materials on DVD. You cannot download entire lessons once a week to work offline.
  • Mobile computing platforms are not suitable for this course.
  • You will need an administrator-level password for for your computer to be able to install the software required for this course.
  • The course software is very memory intensive. RAM has a significant impact on performance and speed. While the program technical specs call for at least 4 GB of RAM, 8 GB are recommended when working with the large data files typically encountered in remote sensing work.
  • Your computer should have at least 20 GB of free disk space for course related materials and data.
  • An external hard drive or flash drive can be used for supplemental storage. Be sure to back up your coursework frequently, regardless of what type of disk storage you use.
  • An SSD (solid-state) hard drive will support faster processing than an HDD drive. If you are buying a hard drive or computer specifically for this course, check this specification. SSD may be slightly more expensive, but better performance will save you a lot of time overall when doing the lab activities.
  • A second monitor is not required, but if you have one available, you will find it very helpful.

We recommend using Mozilla Firefox as your browser. Problems encountered within Canvas are almost always related to the choice of browser, so before you contact Canvas Technical Support, make sure you have tried using Firefox. Please use the links below to test some of your basic browser settings:

  1. Adobe Acrobat 
  2. Cookies 
  3. Frames 
  4. Java [This may take a minute to load.]
  5. JavaScript

Need general technical assistance?

If you need assistance with Canvas at any point during the course, please contact the World Campus Help Desk .

Need course-specific remote sensing technical assistance?

If you need technical assistance with course-specific remote sensing, image processing or GIS software at any point during the course, please contact the instructor.

Penn State E-mail Accounts

All official communications from the Penn State World Campus are sent to students' Penn State e-mail accounts. Be sure to check your Penn State account regularly, or forward your Penn State e-mail to your preferred e-mail account, so you don't miss any important information.

Academic Integrity

This course follows the guidelines for academic integrity of Penn State's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. Penn State defines academic integrity as "the pursuit of scholarly activity in an open, honest and responsible manner." Academic integrity includes "a commitment not to engage in or tolerate acts of falsification, misrepresentation, or deception." In particular, the University defines plagiarism as "the fabrication of information and citations; submitting others' work from professional journals, books, articles, and papers; submission of other students' papers, lab results or project reports and representing the work as one's own." Penalties for violations of academic integrity may include course failure. To learn more, see Penn State's "Plagiarism Tutorial for Students."

Course Copyright

All course materials students receive or to which students have online access are protected by copyright laws. Students may use course materials and make copies for their own use as needed, but unauthorized distribution and/or uploading of materials without the instructor’s express permission is strictly prohibited. University Policy AD 40, the University Policy for the Recording of Classroom Activities and Note Taking Services addresses this issue. Students who engage in the unauthorized distribution of copyrighted materials may be held in violation of the University’s Code of Conduct, and/or liable under Federal and State laws.

Accommodations for Students with Disabilities

Penn State welcomes students with disabilities into the University's educational programs. Every Penn State campus has an office for students with disabilities. The Student Disability Resources (SDR) website provides contact information for every Penn State campus: Contacts for Disability Services at all Penn State Campuses. For further information, please visit the Student Disability Resources (SDR) website.

In order to receive consideration for reasonable accommodations, you must contact the appropriate disability services office at the campus where you are officially enrolled, participate in an intake interview, and provide documentation. If the documentation supports your request for reasonable accommodations, your campus’s disability services office will provide you with an accommodation letter. Please share this letter with your instructors and discuss the accommodations with them as early in your courses as possible. You must follow this process for every semester that you request accommodations.

Mental Health Services

Whether you study on campus or online, mental health services are available to help you maintain your academic success. Penn State provides resources to address concerns including anxiety, depression, relationship difficulties, and stress, and provides mental health advocates who can help you. If you are a resident student, resources can be found at Counseling and Psychological Services. If you are a World Campus student, please see the student website for further information. If you or someone you know is experiencing a crisis situation, please call your local emergency service.

Military Personnel

Veterans and currently serving military personnel and/or spouses with unique circumstances (e.g., upcoming deployments, drill/duty requirements, disabilities, VA appointments, etc.) are welcome and encouraged to communicate these, in advance if possible, to the instructor in the case that special arrangements need to be made.

Inclement Weather

In case of weather-related delays at the University, this online course will proceed as planned. Your instructor will inform you if there are any extenuating circumstances regarding content or activity due dates in the course due to weather delays. If you are affected by a weather-related emergency, please contact your instructor at the earliest possible time to make special arrangements.

Connect Online with Caution

Penn State is committed to educational access for all. Our students come from all walks of life and have diverse life experiences. As with any other online community, the lack of physical interaction in an online classroom can create a false sense of anonymity and security. While one can make new friends online, digital relationships can also be misleading. Good judgment and decision making are critical when choosing to disclose personal information with others whom you do not know.

Deferred Grades

If you are prevented from completing this course within the prescribed amount of time, it is possible to have the grade deferred with the concurrence of the instructor. To seek a deferred grade, you must submit a written request (by e-mail or U.S. post) to your instructor describing the reason(s) for the request. It is up to your instructor to determine whether or not you will be permitted to receive a deferred grade. If, for any reason, the course work for the deferred grade is not complete by the assigned time, a grade of "F" will be automatically entered on your transcript.


This course will be conducted entirely online. There will be no set class meeting times, but you will be required to complete assignments with specific due dates. Many of the assignments are open for multiple days. It is your responsibility to complete the work on time, which may require you to complete the work early if you plan to travel or participate in national holidays, religious observances, or University-approved activities.

If you need to request an exception due to a personal or medical emergency, contact the instructor directly as soon as you are able. The instructor's ability to accommodate you is dependent on the earliest possible notification. Such requests will be considered on a case-by-case basis.


Please note that the specifics of this Course Syllabus can be changed at any time, and you will be responsible for abiding by any such changes. All changes will be communicated with you via e-mail, course announcement and/or course discussion forum.