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A look back at 2021, a look ahead at 2022

January 5, 2022  - By
Image: oatawa/ iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Image: oatawa/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Another year has come and gone. The global pandemic of COVID-19 is still upon us, and while we have experienced peaks and valleys of controlling the virus, it has radically changed our lives in many ways.

The surveying and geospatial professions have not been immune to the effects of the pandemic. It has forced many practitioners to modernize the means and methods to their workflows and products.

In this edition of Survey Scene, I consider the changes and accomplishments of 2021, and take a look ahead at events and technological advances to come.

2021: The Road We Traveled

Despite the pandemic, technology within the geospatial professions grew at a rapid pace, with new equipment and features. From the air to the seas, geospatial data-collection capability increased in varying ways across the differing environments.

Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS)

The technological explosion of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) shows no signs of slowing down and manufacturers remain hard at work developing new designs for longer flights and increased capabilities. Lidar has emerged as the “hot” remote-sensing method for many users of UAS as an additional tool for photogrammetric capabilities, yet camera specs continue to grow well beyond the 20-megapixel expectation of recent years. These increased capabilities were not possible simply because of the amount of data generated by the methods, but previous issues and limitations with computing power and data storage have turned a significant corner in software performance and affordability.

In addition to the implementation of lidar, further developments in multirotor and fixed-wing UAV design continue to improve the performance and capabilities of the data-collection task. Many companies are growing their fleets to include both types of UAVs for varying conditions and applications.

Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGV)

The sector with the most surprising developments has to be the unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) — but not for the reasons most would have predicted. We have been introduced to several products based upon remote-control vehicles utilizing GNSS positioning over the past few years, so it was expected for that trend to continue and grow.

To say the industry was taken aback when Leica partnered their BLK scanning technology with the Boston Dynamics new robot “Spot” would be an understatement. Trial projects and testing is ongoing, but the concept of autonomous data collection by a robotic “dog” is an intriguing concept, especially in environments where human presence is dangerous.

Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USV) and Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUV)

The last two autonomous vehicles used by geospatial professionals saw significant advancements as well, and are seeing increased use for many water-based remote-sensing projects. For many bathymetric surveyors, the small-footprint unmanned boat using GNSS positioning and conventional fathometer has been a game changer.

In addition to not investing large sums in a conventional boat, a USV is able to navigate many places and shallower depths than its larger counterparts. Like its airborne and ground cousins, battery life and advancing designs are creating more capability for data collection and remote sensing. The old saying “the sky is the limit” for emerging technologies does not apply to unmanned vehicles, as their use is being seen in almost every environment.

Weichao Liu, a member of CHC Navigation’s technical support staff, prepares to launch an Apache6 unmanned surface vessel (USV), also known as a marine drone. (Photo: CHC Navigation)

Weichao Liu, a member of CHC Navigation’s technical support staff, prepares to launch an Apache 6 USV. (Photo: CHC Navigation)

Professional Societies/Events/Education

As the calendar pages turned from 2020 to 2021, our world had begun a slow ride back to normalcy with the introduction of several variations of a vaccine for COVID. Some communities chose to return to face-to-face meetings, while others remained cautious and continued with remote communications. Here is a recap of how various organizations remained active within the professional community:

  • National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS) and its state affiliates: In-person resumption for some, while most continued with hybrid and/or remote communication methods.
  • International Federation of Surveyors (FIG). Annual working week was held remotely.
  • Council of European Geodetic Surveyors (CLGE). Various meetings held in-person and remotely.
  • Global Surveyors Week. Hosted by CLGE and held remotely.
  • NGS Seminars. A variety of seminars throughout the year held online.
  • Survey & GIS Summit. Joint conference hosted by NSPS and URISA held online.
  • Intergeo. Return to in-person with hybrid option.

Educational institutions worldwide struggled with returning to in-person classes, yet technology has allowed for remote communication and continued teaching. While many may still see remote learning as a hindrance, improved technology and communication methods have allowed us to continue to learn, work and simply converse with others. Without these tools, life as we know it would be impossible.

Legislation and Government

While much of the attention within legislative arenas was on social and economic issues, the geospatial community continues to monitor several items that potentially have a large impact on the profession.

The continuing saga of Ligado (formerly known as LightSquared) is still playing out, despite the outcry by many industry users of GPS technology. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) authorized Ligado to begin construction of its new 5G communications technology and denied any stays to this order. Many groups, including coalitions of geospatial data users, continue to protest the authorization by the FCC.

In December 2021, the airline industry, along with Boeing and Airbus, expressed its concerns over the implementation of the new communication technology and the potential interruption of GPS and radio guidance for aircraft. Only time will tell if efforts to derail the installation and use of the new 5G communication band will be successful

Elimination of the professional license requirement for surveyors is quite dangerous and foolish.

Another large issue on the horizon for surveying and geospatial professionals is licensure deregulation. Currently, each state in the U.S. is responsible for licensing and oversight of professionals as established within their statutes. Several consumer groups have begun to petition a number of states to eliminate licensing as a barrier to entry into a given profession, including surveying. They also cite the cost of regulating the professions as an unnecessary expense to the residents of their states.

Unfortunately, these groups are shortsighted about the education and training required to become licensed within each profession to protect the public they serve. While the costs associated with purchasing the technology needed for the profession continues to decline, the expertise and training needed is on the rise. Elimination of the professional license requirement for surveyors is quite dangerous and foolish.

2022: The Road Ahead

As we look ahead, we are still facing many challenges left over from the past few years. Obviously, the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to twist and turn with new variants, enhanced vaccines and adjustments to many aspects of our lives. Because of technology and much different lifestyles from earlier pandemics, we are continuing to adapt to environmental changes: much of business goes about as close to “normal” as possible.

One could say that creativity and innovation has increased because of the pandemic and probably not get much of an argument. So where do we see technology and the geospatial profession heading during 2022?

Technology Evolution

More people are using technology and computing power than ever before and in ways probably not considered even 10 years ago. Until recently, data — especially personal information —has been considered off-limits for public consumption. Only governments were allowed to obtain scores of data to help keep track of literally everything.

Once geospatial technology came along, the game changed to include a location or positional component to a dataset. Now data can be saved to include a place and time for a particular piece of information if necessary.

Databases continue to grow with computing and software enhancements, storage increases and expanded network capability. So where are all of these cutting edge technologies taking the surveying and geospatial professions? Here are ways that continuing technological improvements are advancing our capabilities.

Open-Source Data

While in the past data was typically considered proprietary, many of the datasets used by geospatial professionals do not contain personal information. This information is simply physical location data for improvements and infrastructure that can be shared openly with no risk of compromising personal security.

Examples of open-source data cover many subjects, including shape files of physical objects, lidar and contour data of existing topography, and aerial imagery of the world we live in. It can also include data such as traffic counts, air-quality reporting and general population data.

Much of this data is secured using public funding, but it is not able to be readily shared because of database size limitations. Increases in technology have allowed this information to be shared more freely, and that has given professionals more information in which to better design infrastructure.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning

Trainable technology is nothing new, but the computing power behind it has rapidly increased to make it a formidable challenge to our future workforce. Besides robotic machinery, sophisticated software is being developed to analyze various datasets and electronic mediums to “learn” about the information it contains.

For example, AI is being used to analyze photographic imagery and lidar datasets to determine characteristics of various elements within the work product. The software can now establish a painted parking line and draw a vectorized line in all places where it finds the same pixelated areas.

This same process is used to determine curbs, buildings and other improvements with an efficiency of which the human surveyor on the same site isn’t capable. While not foolproof, the technology has great potential and can shrink production time drastically. As programming continues to become more robust in determining the computer’s abilities, we should not bet against this market sector achieving anything but rapid growth. Couple these advancements with the shrinking workforce, and we will continue to see much more from this technology.

High-Performance Computing via Cloud Networks and Storage

Before the personal computer (circa 1980), most data processing was completed on a mainframe using terminals and primitive networks. No true computing brainpower was sitting on the user’s desk; the keyboard and monitor were simply conduits to the main processing computer typically housed in a large room somewhere in the building.

Fast forward to today’s environment, in which everything can be considered a computer. As many have noted, your current smartphone has more computing power than we used to reach the Moon. (The Apollo guidance computer had 4 KB of RAM and a 32-KB hard disk; it measured 24 x 12 x 6 inches and weighed 30 kg). Computing power at your fingertips has never been greater, but our improving technology is making today’s current data analysis seem like child’s play.

Enter the world of cloud computing and storage. If you live in a major metropolitan area, you have likely been witness to nondescript buildings being constructed with lots of transformers and electrical grid units surrounding them. These facilities are data centers and are being built at breakneck speed by Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon and others to provide cloud computing and storage for the masses.

The cloud computers offer unmatched processor speed, nearly unlimited storage and reduced IT management costs. Large datasets being analyzed for specific algorithms can utilize cloud computing at a fraction of the cost of maintaining a personal computing system and network. It also allows the flexibility to work from literally anywhere in the world, yet have a consistent computing presence where you are. The big downside is that one is dependent on a reliable (and fast!) connection, as well as needing a comfort level with someone else having access to your data.

Other major areas of technology that will see improvement this year include 3D visualization (AR & VR), remote sensing, massively online open courses (MOOC) for higher learning, blockchain utilization, and an increase in the number of devices using internet of things (IOT) programming. The key to staying in front of these technologies is to remain curious and never stop learning!

A Personal Note for 2022 and Beyond

Like many jobs in this age of advancing technology and automation, surveying is quickly becoming an endangered profession. There are many facets in our everyday lives that are the responsibility of a surveyor, but the number of practitioners is dwindling. The pandemic may have turned our world upside down for many reasons but for surveyors and geospatial professionals, it increased our visibility and workload. Attrition will claim many within our ranks over the next several years, so we must find a way to prolong our profession through all avenues.

Headshot: tim-burch

Tim Burch

With this in mind, I am proud to announce my appointment as the new executive director of the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS). My years in the private sector have provided me with a broad view of where we face professional challenges, so transferring into an advocacy role will allow me to help solve those challenges.

It will be my honor to work with our organization to recognize the threats lying ahead, not just for surveyors but for many other geospatial professions and occupations. We also recognize that inclusion is a key component to creating diversity, as technology does not see a difference in nationalities, races and genders. The future of surveying is very bright, and NSPS is continuing to lead the way in creating a positive career path for our future surveying and geospatial professionals.

This is posted in Opinions, Survey

About the Author: Tim Burch

Tim Burch, GPS World’s co-contributing editor for survey, is executive director of the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS) and director of Surveying at SPACECO Inc. in Rosemont, Illinois. He has been working as a professional land surveyor since 1985.