Surface Path Analysis

The Overview and Try It sections provide a basic understanding of the process. Subsequent sections have more in–depth information and can be used as a reference. A step by step tutorial lesson is included.


The Surface Path Analysis process is used to find a more direct route between two points along a surface. The process takes a user drawn line (path) over a raster (representing either a 3D surface raster or a cost raster) and then iteratively figures increasingly shorter and shorter paths.

Depending on the type of surface, distance is figured in either 3D space (with an elevation raster) or 2D space (with a cost raster). You can apply a relative Scale to the Z distance when using an elevation raster. Movement from the initial line (and each subsequent path) can be restricted by increasing the Change Threshold parameter. Accuracy can be increased by increasing the number of Knots (steps per cell).

The process continuously loops to converge on the shortest path, however, it can not be expected that an optimal solution will be reached in a reasonable amount of time — or ever. Thus the process is designed for you to stop it at any time and still retain the line generated by the last iteration.

Try It

Prerequisite Skills: Displaying Geospatial Data and TNT Product Concepts.

Sample Data:
(A portion of a 2 meter DEM from NSW FSDF was extracted to fit within the size constraints of the TNTmips Free license level.)

Tutorial Lesson: One exercise gives quick introduction (see below).


The yellow zigzag is the initially drawn line. The blue line is the final result that was saved to a vector object.

Exercise – Run Surface Path Analysis

To run the process: select the input, draw a line in the View, and click Calculate.

  1. select Terrain > Path Analysis from the TNTmips menu bar
  2. select a Surface raster as input (i.e. coolumbooka_dem.rvc)
  3. set parameters (Type: Elevation, Scale: 2.00, Knots: 1, Change Threshold: .00001)
  4. select the Line drawing tool in the View and draw a line (with a series of clicks)
  5. right-click over the View (or click Calculate in the main process window) to start
  6. if you see the Status dialog, let it run for a minute then click Stop
  7. click Save As (when prompted navigate to the folder you want to put the output vector, create a new .rvc file, and accept the default object name)
  8. Notice the new vector is automatically added to the View.

  9. turn on the Show line vertices option for the vector you just saved (via Vector Layer Controls, Lines tab; optionally adjust size and color of vertex via Style: 3px at fixed scale)
  10. compare the prototype line you drew with the resulting line

  11. For the following steps, experiment with adjusting the parameters and/or the initial line then re-run the process between each change. Use Stop and Save As at your discretion.

  12. adjust Scale (i.e. increase to 20) to increase vertical distances
  13. adjust Knots (i.e. increase to 3)
  14. Notice, increasing Knots slows down the processing speed.

    If you save to a vector, you can verify the number of knots per cell by zooming in on part of the resulting path (i.e. view scale of 1:100). Optionally turn on: Raster Layer Controls, Show lines between cells when zoom to more easily see raster cell boundaries.

  15. adjust Change Threshold (i.e. increase to .01, return Knots to 1)
  16. Notice how increasing the Change Threshold restricts movement of the line away from its initial path.

  17. edit the prototype line or click the Escape key to clear the previously drawn line and draw a new line


Surface raster

The process takes a single raster as input (signed/unsigned integer: 8-, 16-, and 32-bit; floating: 32- and 64-bit). Raster cells can contain a surface elevation or cost value and this determines how to figure the distance (via Type setting).

Elevation - Computes the shortest path based on distance in 3D space. With this method, the raster cell values represent elevation and you can specify a Scale value to amplify or reduce the vertical distance (Z direction) relative to the horizontal distance (on the XY plane). In other words, increase the Scale to exaggerate the vertical distance.

Cost - Computes the shortest path based on the path length in 2D space multiplied by the cell value. Here the cell value represents the cost of traveling through the cell (i.e. price per acre, distance to population center, flood zone).

Tip: see the Multi-Criteria Decision Analysis Tech Guide for information on how to create a cost raster.

Starting Path

The initial path is manually drawn in the View window using the Line drawing tool. This is the starting path for the first iteration and thus influences each subsequent iteration. Intermediate vertices in the starting path affect the way maximum permissible elevation changes constrain changes to the path. So different paths between the same two points will converge on different solutions.


Four different initial paths (yellow) with the same start and end nodes produce different resulting paths (red).


The above four results were figured using the same parameters. Only the initial line was different.

Tip: a high Change Threshold will prevent drastic changes to the initial line. Increasing the Scale will exaggerate surface distances.

Results & Output

As the process iterates, the current path is updated and displayed in the View. You can stop the process at any time and save the current results. You will find that sometimes the path will change and converge on a final solution rapidly. Other times it continues to run without making significant changes to the path. The process will stop automatically if and when a final solution is found. However, if it does not find a solution quickly, a Status window opens with a Stop button you can use to finish it manually.

After the process is stopped you have the option of saving the current result and/or running the process again (i.e. with adjusted parameters and/or a new or modified prototype line). If you use Save As to save the current line to a vector object, it is automatically added to the View as a vector layer.


The Surface Path Analysis dialog and the Surface Path Analysis View window are used to run the process. This document refers to Surface Path Analysis dialog as the 'main process' window and Surface Path Analysis View window as the View.

Surface Path Analysis window


Choose input and set parameters in the
Surface Path Analysis window.

Input & Parameters

Surface - Select an elevation or cost raster.

Type - Specify the type of raster you chose for the surface: Elevation or Cost. The Elevation option activates the Scale parameter, however, the Cost option will not take the Scale value into account.

Knots - Steps per cell. The number of knots is used to determine how many steps along the line are used to define the path. A step is equal to cell size divided by the number of knots. Possible values are between 1 and 16. The larger the number of knots, the smaller the step. Increasing the number of knots will increase the time it takes the process to complete, however, it provides more accuracy.

Tip: Start with a setting of Knots:1 (one step per cell) to see the quickest result.

Scale - The Scale value lets you set a ratio for horizontal (Z) movement to the vertical (XY) movement. Possible values are between .01 to 1000. As the Scale is increased, the more vertical movement is emphasized. For example a value of 2 means up and down movement is emphasized over horizontal movement by a scale of 1:2 (horizontal:vertical). On the other hand, a Scale of .01 (1:.01) results in a straighter line because horizontal movement is amplified.

Change Threshold % - Set a threshold for the percentage of change allowed. Possible values are between .00001 to 10.00000. If the new path is not shorter than it by the percentage specified, the processing will automatically stop. Raising this value restricts line changes while lowering it allows more drastic differences.

Surface Path Analysis View window

See the Introduction to the Display Interface for more information about the typical features and tools in the View window. An additional Line tool is added for the Surface Path Analysis process and is described here.

View Toolbar


The Surface Path Analysis View window has an additional Line tool in the top toolbar.

Line - Use the Line tool to draw the line for the prototype path that the process start with. With the Line tool selected, draw a line by clicking at positions on the View window to define the starting, intermediate, and ending vertices. Click the right mouse button (or Calculate in the main dialog) to accept the prototype line element and start processing.