[To clarify, Mr. Baay is using lasers to make a map, not building a map with attached lasers. Though that would be cool, too. — Ed.]
Topographic (“topo”) maps are extremely useful for representing real-world terrain with varied elevation. They generally do this by overlaying a traditional map with elevation lines that indicate different altitudes. The most common use of these maps is for navigation purposes in the outdoors, but for those who are not familiar, they can be tricky to read. That’s where lasercutters come in.
Lasercutters can be used to create 3D models of terrain, based on too maps, that allow users to visualize the changes in elevation across the area. These models are created in layers, with each layer representing a specific elevation from the source map. When these layers are glued on top of each other, they start to mimic the topography of the land.
In order to help Davidson’s ROTC plan training exercises for their cadets, I am laser cutting a wooden topographic map of their training grounds. When I am finished it will look similar to this:
To make this model I will be following a two-part guide posted on theshamblog.com titled “Making a Laser-Cut Topo Map”.
The first step in creating this sort of model is collecting the data. The US in particular has really good Geographic Information System (GIS) data freely available for each of the 50 states. After a quick Google search I was able to locate the data repository for Mecklenburg county, and download elevation data (in the .shp or .shx file format). In order to view the data I am using a program called QGIS, which is free to use and fairly capable. Here is what my data looks like loaded up in QGIS:
Once I isolated the portion of data I needed, I exported it as a vector file (.svg). This allowed me to break the map apart into different layers based on the altitude lines as well as the buildings and roads around the training ground. With the different elevations separated into layers, it was time to begin printing. As a test, I printed my model on cardstock:
Having produced my cardstock model, next I will cut a half-scale model on thicker cardboard before producing the final model out of birch wood. Check back soon for an update!