Originally Published In Diplomatic Courier
Written by Paul Nash
Nearly a hundred years have past since U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933 and gave the American people what he called a “New Deal.” In addition to various financial reforms, FDR’s New Deal included a series of public works and infrastructure projects bigger than anything previously initiated in American history. The New Deal was designed to lift the nation out of the economic stagnation caused by the Great Depression.
Today, after a major global financial crisis in 2008, followed by a destructive trade war with China, and a deadly pandemic, America once again finds itself in desperate need of a large-scale economic stimulus initiative.
Innovation can trigger new bouts of secular growth—but it cannot be innovation that simply disrupts and destroys traditional industries. It has to be innovation that spawns new industries while also helping traditional industries to grow and prosper.
One promising innovation has been the development of accurate and reliable high-density geospatial elevation data gathered for three-dimensional mapping. Acquired using Light-detection and ranging (LIDAR) technology, such elevation data can facilitate the planning of new telecommunications networks like 5G, and can help utility companies to improve all aspects of network asset management. It can also help governments and insurance companies to more accurately forecast property and casualty risk from natural disasters such as fires and flooding. And, it is expected to play a key role in the successful development of autonomous ground and air vehicles, providing critical terrain, path and elevation data used by their navigation systems.
The federal government already recognizes the potential economic benefits of such data. In 2011, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), under the Department of the Interior, commissioned Dewberry, a professional engineering services firm, to document the national requirements for improved elevation data and to estimate the benefits and costs of meeting these requirements. The result was an 800-page report titled “National Enhanced Elevation Assessment.” This report gave birth to USGS’s national 3-D Elevation Program (3DEP) to collect elevation data across the United States using LiDAR over an eight-year period. 3DEP is part of the broader National Geospatial Program (NGP), which aims to provide a foundation of digital geospatial data representing the topography, natural landscape, and manmade environment of the United States. Data available from this program is intended to help improve the decision-making and operational activities of governmental, non-governmental, and corporate entities. 3DEP was undertaken as a national program because high-quality 3-D elevation data is simply unaffordable if acquired only to meet a specific need in a specific area. Many industries, such as wind-power generation, require high-quality surface data over large areas to plan effectively.
While conducting the program at the national level has clear cost benefits, the program’s biggest challenge appears to be its funding structure. The federal government pays only part of he cost of collecting data on any particular area. The remainder of funding must come from the state, county, or city on which data is being collected. Without that local funding, USGS cannot gather data on that area.
3DEP stipulates the collection of two points of elevation data per square meter. Dewberry noted that the total program would cost approximately $1 billion over an eight-year period, which is justified by the potential benefits of the data collected. Dewberry estimates that the data gathered will “have the potential to generate $1.2 billion to $13 billion in new economic benefits each year.”
Since the Dewberry report, LIDAR technology has markedly improved. Companies like Denver-based VeriDaaS Corporation, which uses L3Harris’ proprietary Geiger-mode LiDAR system can now collect over 30 points of elevation data per square meter at less cost than the 2 points USGS required when the 3DEP program began.
With the cost-benefit equation now so much more favorable and the United states poised to slip into another recession, why is the federal government not fully funding 3DEP as part of its proposed $2 trillion stimulus package?
“What the U.S. economy needs right now is this very type of national program to create jobs and stimulate the economy,” says Christopher Payne, CEO of Veridaas. “It seems to me that it might be a good time for the federal government to consider fully funding this program, given the magnitude of its potential economic benefits.”
“Now is the time for infrastructure investment that gets companies and people working towards true economic recovery and future growth,” he added.
Michael Likosky, who heads the Infrastructure practice at 32 Advisors, a strategy and investment firm in New York, wrote in a recent infrastructure update note on April 3, 2020, that the United States should “not be thinking about an infrastructure stimulus in the way we have up until now.”
“Some in Congress are talking about new types of infrastructure,” he noted, and “we need more of this type of thinking.” Likosky, who has advised the U.S. Treasury, U.S. senators, governors, and mayors, added that “we need to think about infrastructure in the way we are thinking about our medical emergency, in the lexicon of civics.”