U.S. Department of Transportation
Federal Highway Administration
1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE
Washington, DC 20590

Skip to content
Facebook iconYouTube iconTwitter iconFlickr iconLinkedInInstagram

Federal Highway Administration Research and Technology
Coordinating, Developing, and Delivering Highway Transportation Innovations

This report is an archived publication and may contain dated technical, contact, and link information
Back to Publication List        
Publication Number:  FHWA-HIF-19-089    Date:  August 2018
Publication Number: FHWA-HIF-19-089
Date: August 2018


Effective Use of Geospatial Tools in Highway Construction

PDF Version (5.89 MB)

PDF files can be viewed with the Acrobat® Reader®



Various sectors of highway project and service delivery, including highway construction, have witnessed an increasing use of geospatial technologies. However, the uses have largely been opportunistic and driven by a maturity of understanding in specific application areas. There is a need to develop a more holistic and cross-functional use of the technologies that benefit highway asset creation and service delivery. Focusing on this need, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) conducted a study to assess how state departments of transportation (DOT) and contractors were using the various geospatial technologies. Several state DOTs, contractors, vendors, and service providers were interviewed to document the state of the practice and identify challenges for implementing geospatial technology. Four specific case studies were conducted to document the innovative uses of the available technology as well as capture the benefits and costs associated with implementation. The emphasis of the research was on creating an approach that state DOTs can use to evaluate geospatial technology both from a technical and investment perspective, which will enable making informed decisions for implementation. The research documented the state of the practice for using unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), light detection and ranging (lidar), photogrammetry, structured from motion (SfM), and global navigational satellite systems (GNSS) for highway applications. This research yields effective practices for implementing geospatial technologies in a number of construction applications. These effective practices include a benefit-cost analysis (BCA) approach for determining return on investment (ROI) for implementing geospatial tools for different types of project applications and data collection needs. Lastly, this final report discusses current technological, regulatory/legal, and financial challenges and opportunities regarding their use.

Cheryl Allen Richter, Ph.D., P.E.
Director, Office of Infrastructure
Research and Development


This document is disseminated under the sponsorship of the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) in the interest of information exchange. The U.S. Government assumes no liability for the use of the information contained in this document.

The U.S. Government does not endorse products or manufacturers. Trademarks or manufacturers’ names appear in this report only because they are considered essential to the objective of the document.

Quality Assurance Statement

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) provides high-quality information to serve Government, industry, and the public in a manner that promotes public understanding. Standards and policies are used to ensure and maximize the quality, objectivity, utility, and integrity of its information. FHWA periodically reviews quality issues and adjusts its programs and processes to ensure continuous quality improvement.


Technical Report Documentation Page

1. Report No.


2. Government Accession No.


3 Recipient's Catalog No.


4. Title and Subtitle

Effective Use of Geospatial Tools in Highway Construction

5. Report Date

August 2018

6. Performing Organization Code


7. Author(s)

Jagannath Mallela, Alexa Mitchell, Jonathan Gustafson, Michael Olsen,Christopher Parrish, Dan Gillins, Matthew Kumpula, and Gene Roe

8. Performing Organization Report No.


9. Performing Organization Name and Address

1015 Half St SE, Suite 650
Washington, DC 20003

10. Work Unit No. (TRAIS)


11. Contract or Grant No.


12. Sponsoring Agency Name and Address

Federal Highway Administration
Research, Development, and Technology
Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center
6300 Georgetown Pike, McLean, VA 22101–2296

13. Type of Report and Period Covered

Final Report

14. Sponsoring Agency Code


15. Supplementary Notes

Contracting Officer's Representative: Morgan Kessler

16. Abstract

Geospatial technologies such as photogrammetry and global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) have been an integral part of highway mapping for decades. However, geospatial technologies continue to evolve, and new technologies are becoming more accessible for a wide range of highway construction applications. Tools such as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), lidar, aerial imagery, GNSS, automated machine guidance, and their derivative products offer many benefits to the highway construction industry. These benefits include improved efficiencies and streamlined processes, as well as more accurate and reliable data. The key to using these technologies successfully to optimize benefits is to correctly select the appropriate tool for the application and understand limitations. In many cases, data from each of these technologies will be integrated for a project to develop the necessary survey products.

This research investigates effective uses of geospatial technology for a wide variety of highway construction and maintenance applications; identifies a number of tools and their related accuracies; offers recommendations for tool selection, workflows, and strategies for conducting benefit-cost analysis (BCA); and analyzes future directions of these technologies in highway project and service delivery applications. The research explores several case studies using these technologies to document their benefits and limitations. In particular, the research determines the return on investment (ROI) associated with using these technologies in several of those case studies.

17. Key Words

geospatial data, geospatial technology, UAS, GPS, GNSS, lidar, photogrammetry, automated machine guidance, construction, surveying, ROI, BCA

18. Distribution Statement

No restrictions.

19. Security Classification
(of this report)


20. Security Classification
(of this page)


21. No. of Pages


22. Price


Form DOT F 1700.7 (8-72) Reproduction of completed page authorized




Federal Highway Administration | 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE | Washington, DC 20590 | 202-366-4000
Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center | 6300 Georgetown Pike | McLean, VA | 22101