DTM/DSM and Other Lidar Grids

By today's standards, the first DEM's were crude and generalized.  They had large spacing between postings.  It was also unclear how they accounted for vegetation and buildings, so many like SRTM and ASTER are really DSMs.  Those created photogrammetrically were probably DTMs.

With the advent of lidar (lasers collecting many thousands of elevations per second), the resolution and detail increased substantially.  We can now create multiple surfaces, each with a specific name and properties.

DTM creation


Five grids for Fort Monroe, Virginia

  • DTM from USGS.  This has had light edits to fill place the entire moat at one elevation. The castle walls remain.
  • Drop in the bucket 1 m grids from MICRODEM
    • DTM from just the ground points in the lidar point cloud.  The buildings, vegetion, and the moat are voids
    • NVS.  A 2 m grid removes the spikes from tree trunks, in cells where no returns penetrated to the ground.
    • DSM.  Only the SW corner of the moat has elevations.
    • CHM

Grid Synonyms Comments MICRODEM produces from point cloud, with drop in the bucket algorithm
DSM—digital surface model First return
  • Easiest to create
  • Only need to identify and remove obvious anomalies like bird strikes.
  • Not to be confused with digital soil map
DTM—digital terrain model Bare earth
 last return
  • Requires identification (classification) of ground points, buildings, and power lines. 
  • Challenges with tree stumps and large buildings.
  • Building ghosts look unrealistic. 
  • TIN gridding can create anomalies at data voids.
Yes, if point cloud has ground classification
CHM—canopy height model HAG, height above ground
 nDSM, normalized digital surface model
  • Difference between DSM and DTM, which is the height of vegetation.
NVS—Non-vegetated surface  

  • Easier to compute than DTM, and buildings affect most users of the grids, so leaving them in may create a more useful data set.

DoD: DEM of difference      


DSM--First return DEM.  This includes trees and buildings. DTM--Bare earth DEM CHM Difference grid, shown as Elevation map (red is tall).

DTM/DSM for the same area in Portsmouth, UK.

The DTM is very generalized, and does not provide a good visualization of what is there.  It also has clear ghosts from the building removal process.

Two lidar surveys a month apart (April 2010 and July 2010) in Pennsylvania, from OpenTopography.org.

Note the spikes corresponding to tree trunks in the leaf on red DTM, which are missing in the green leaf off DTM.

The black leaf on DSM is generally a little higher than the blue leaf off DSM.  Viewed in a reflectance map the two DSMs are very hard to differentiate.

Lidar interpretation.

Urban lidar displays

Last revision 5/15/2018