How to build a 3d terrain model from Google Earth data (and why you may not want to)

Calvin Froedge
Aug 8, 2019 · 3 min read

I am developing some land in Panama (a technology campus for remote workers). The architect I am working with asked if I could get him a 3d model of the land for CAD renderings. I decided to see if I could use Google earth to accomplish this.

I started out by downloading Google Earth and making a bounding box around the land:

I simply dropped some markers and created a rectangular grid (222m by 275m) around the development. I started with the bottom left point and top right point and then added two more equidistant points. I saved these coordinates in a JavaScript file.

I then decided to divide the area into a grid, spot checking elevation at every 1 meter. I used the Google Elevation API to grab this data. I used the following JavaScript function to generate ~50,000 points within my grid:

function getLocations(){
var current_lat = LAT_MIN;
var current_long = LONG_MIN;
let locations = []; while(current_lat < (LAT_MAX + increment)){
while(current_long < (LONG_MAX + increment)){
locations.push([current_lat, current_long]);
current_long = current_long + increment;
current_lat = current_lat + increment;
current_long = LONG_MIN;
console.log('width of grid', distance(LAT_MIN, LONG_MIN, LAT_MAX, LONG_MIN));
console.log('height of grid', distance(LAT_MIN, LONG_MIN, LAT_MIN, LONG_MAX));
console.log('points', locations.length);
let firstPoints = locations.slice(0, 2);
console.log('firstPoints', firstPoints);
console.log('distance between points', distance(firstPoints[0][0], firstPoints[0][1], firstPoints[1][0], firstPoints[1][1]));
return {
lat: String(item[0].toFixed(5)),
lng: String(item[1].toFixed(5))

Next, I chunked these points into groups of 500 (more economical API call to Google) to request elevations:

async function getResult(locations){
let response = await googleMapsClient.elevation({
return response.json.results;
async function getElevations(locations=null){
var chunkSize = 500;
var chunked = _.chunk(locations, chunkSize);
var lines = [];
for(var i=0;i<chunked.length;i++){
var chunk = chunked[i];
try {
var result = await getResult(chunk);
} catch(e){
console.log('e', e);

for(var k=0;k<result.length;k++){
var item = result[k];
var line = `${} ${item.location.lng} ${item.elevation}\r\n`;
console.log('line', line);
await fs.writeFile('data.txt', lines.join(''));

Finally, I converted the lat / lng coordinates into a grid with origin 0,0 in meters:

async function convertDataToGrid(){
let data = await fs.readFile('data.txt');
data = data.toString().split('\r\n').filter((item)=>{ return item.length > 0 }).map((item)=>{ return item.split(' ') });
data =>{
lat = item[0];
lng = item[1];
alt = item[2];
return [
((lat - LAT_MIN) / increment).toFixed(0),
((lng - LONG_MIN) / increment).toFixed(0),
].join(' ')
await fs.writeFile('grid.txt', data.join('\r\n'));

This gave me an XYZ file (separated by spaces):

x y alt

I then used MeshLab to import the file (File -> Import Mesh) and generate a model:

Note that you can add grid lines and modify colors and point size using the project explorer sidebar.

Great! We have a 3d model of our terrain. The only problem — It only loosely fits the actual contour of the land. A quick search tells me that Google Earth elevation data simply isn’t very accurate.

Onto using a drone + lidar!

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Calvin Froedge

Written by

Software developer, investor, energy markets analyst.

The Startup

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Calvin Froedge

Written by

Software developer, investor, energy markets analyst.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +792K followers.

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