GNSS and the Surveyor: Take Me to School

March 1, 2017  - By
Image: GPS World

The adaptation of GPS for civilian use is the single greatest step taken by  the land surveyor, more specifically the advance to  real-time kinematic networks. Now unmanned aerial vehicles enable data collection in places thought impossible previously, and laser/LiDAR scanners are on the horizon as the next game-changer. But how did we get here? An understanding of our history can be help us prepare for the future.

The land surveyor has been practicing this occupation since man first claimed rights to physical property. In similar fashion with almost all other professions and trades, forward progress in knowledge and technology has increased educational requirements for even the most mundane of surveying tasks. An environment in which a simple survey is completed by manual measurements and depicted on a hand-drawn plat still exists but will continue to decrease as technological acceptance and governmental requirements become increased. The challenge will be a continual advancement to educate the surveying community as a whole.

Today, the average age of the professional land surveyor approaches that of a sexagenarian (no worries, it’s just a fancy word for being in your sixties). Here’s a rundown of how we got there:

Boots on the Ground

In a previous article, I wrote of my journey to becoming a professional land surveyor (GPS World November 2015) and how it was possible for a high school graduate to be introduced to this wonderful profession with little to no formal training. Even though my introduction into land surveying started in the early 1980’s, it was still during what I refer to the early “high tech” surveying era. While electronics were evolving the surveying industry from the late 1960’s to my beginning days, it didn’t change the career path for the surveyor.

At the time of my surveying opportunity, an entry level employee didn’t require the knowledge of higher level math, science and geodesy to gain a position as a chainman on a three-man survey crew. At a minimum, the employee was instructed to hold the measuring tape (known as the “chain”) at specific locations as directed by the survey party chief. The employee also was utilized as a pack mule to carry equipment and staking materials, so physical conditioning and stamina were much more important characteristics that knowledge of the profession.

Over time (and usually through employee attrition), the chainman could learn to run the surveying equipment, which included transits, levels, and theodolites. Total stations with integrated electronic distance meters (EDM) were just becoming mainstream during my early days as an instrument person but little additional knowledge was necessary other than on-the-job training. The benefit of the EDM allowed the survey crew to measure further and faster than previous manual methods.

An additional benefit of the total station was the digital readout of the horizontal and vertical angles and the elimination of the time-consuming need of reading the angular verniers.  These electronic advancements were great but didn’t affect the procedures for calculating survey figures and boundary analysis; they only increased the productivity of the field crew.

Once an instrument man became more knowledgeable in the math and processes of land surveys, it was possible to advance further as a party chief. This path included many days on construction sites, hand calculating staking points and alignments, squaring up buildings and running traverses under the direction of a party chief, who in many cases, had become a professional land surveyor by these methods as well.

Most of the knowledge obtained for career advancement was still on-the-job, but now also included some office tasks to compute boundary calculations and staking calculations through simple geometry/trigonometry means. Not rocket science but still required a good head for math and problem solving; this step also provided a potential career roadblock. This meant an occupational ceiling for some and advancement for others.

Most of those who continued to advance were the ones with the stronger mathematical aptitude and capability to evolve with the knowledge they were gaining during their experiences as an apprentice land surveyor. The success of these future professional land surveyors depended greatly on successful mentoring capabilities of his/her previous supervisors. For those fortunate enough to learn under a great mentor, many more facets of the profession were introduced to them to gather experience. They were provided with time and care to explain and demonstrate proper methods and procedures for many surveying tasks, along with an example of how paying it forward helps everyone in the process.

There are those, however, that received limited personal and professional training from their supervisors. These supervisors/managers possessed little experience in formal education or training methods. While these superiors excelled well enough to pass the licensing requirements at the time, the fast-paced movement of the surveying profession has left them in the dust. It is also these individuals who lack the necessary knowledge to successfully train and mentor the next generation of professional land surveyors.

Old School versus New School

The point here is that all of this was possible for the “old world” way of surveying. Several of my professional land surveyor contemporaries came up through this pathway of apprenticeship and mentoring with little to no formal education or training, yet have succeeded in business very well for themselves. But I caution you; they are not the norm. This minority of forward thinking professional land surveyors are the ones who remain visible in our business environment and continue to push themselves toward improvement for personal and professional gain.

Where does this leave everyone else? Like so many other professions that have existed for centuries, the system of learning the craft of land surveying is based upon being self-serving. A historical look at the profession will reveal a long list of generational lines of land surveyors (yours truly included…) and have passed down the occupation somewhat like a family crest. But like so many vocations that get passed down like a family heirloom, if the means and methods of the occupation don’t progress with the times, it will eventually falter.

The earlier example of the career of the land surveyor was possible until the early 1990’s; that’s when the electronic modernization of our profession picked up steam and the survey equipment manufacturers began revolutionizing our measuring and data collection methods. Couple the hardware enhancements with the boost in drafting capabilities of several drafting packages and that starts us down the road of needing staff with more educational requirements. Because of the advancements in both the field and office tasks of land surveying, we must look at each to understand how technology must be embraced to succeed as a profession.

Not Your Father’s Transit & Chain (or Theodolite or Total Station…)

I believe the field portion of the land surveying revolution started in the mid-1990’s with the rapid change in technology. Geodimeter led the conventional instrument innovation with servo-driven theodolites and robotic total stations that increased field productivity along with reducing errors. Along with the advancement of data collectors, these improvements greatly modernized a manual method of locating information. It also gave surveying firms an opportunity to reduce the number of staff members necessary on a field crew and spread their work out to more customers.

The continuing improvement of the software on the data collector also made it more user friendly but also providing a “dumbing down” of the way the information is collected. While the data collection is now more efficient, the overall calculation process hasn’t changed much. But when this information is incorporated into various datums and coordinate systems, it gets much more complicated. We’ll cover this area more later.

As stated in my previous articles, it is my opinion that the adaptation of the global positioning system created by the United Stated Department of Defense for civilian use is the single greatest improvement for the land surveyor (GPS World May 2016), more specifically the advancement to the real-time kinematic network. Couple this now with the exploding market of the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) with GNSS location capability, the surveying community now can collect data in places though impossible previously.

The use of GNSS is a big part of that equation (no pun intended) and having the right balance of education and experience with its use will be key to our profession’s success. The continued to use of all facets of GNSS by surveyors worldwide will require the need for more responsible field staff. They will need to have the proper education and experience to comprehend the technology and calculations behind the data.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention laser/LiDAR scanners as tools for surveyors. There are companies who utilize these devices on a regular basis but they haven’t become the game changer like other technologies. These will come more into play as technology makes them smaller and the price point for entry into potential purchase is more affordable. The learning curve for processing the field data in point clouds is long and tedious but will evolve like everything else.

It’s Always Warm and Dry in the Office

Equally as important requiring proper training, education and mentoring are the land surveying tasks completed by office staff. As I stated in the opening paragraph, the norm used to be hand-drafted maps and plats depicting the results of field surveys from the notes of the party chief. Many drafters came through high school vocational programs and were hired directly after graduation. Simple angles, distances and direct measurements between entities were easy to portray and didn’t take much training. The introduction of the personal computer in the late 1970’s/early 1980’s also brought various platforms of computer-aided drafting (CAD) so another level of training was now necessary to learn both the software and the computer. Early versions were simplistic and mostly line-based but as technology increased the capability, it become more clear that a high school graduate didn’t have enough formal training to keep up with it.

In addition to the drafting packages, computation software has become increasingly complex. These systems have developed into incredibly capable programs with a multitude of surveying solutions. This category includes aerial photography rectifying systems, point cloud manipulation and control network planning/computation systems that were only available previously on mainframe computers. While they are user friendly, they are well above the general education level of the high school graduate. The requirement to stay pertinent in the surveying environment must be centered around education.

This Is Supposed to Be about GPS; How Do All These Things Fit In?

I wrote in my last column regarding geolocation and how relied upon it has become in our society, (GPS World January 2017), and the land surveying community is no exception. The story here becomes about how quickly we can train the entire surveying profession to recognize the importance of location in our vocation or get left in the dust.

It used to be location only mattered to explorers and mappers. Even with the creation of the latitude/longitude system, it was embraced more for the those who were traveling and giving directions to those planning to do so. Early surveys only related to surrounding properties and didn’t give much mind to specifically where it was located on the face of the earth. The surveys and related legal descriptions relied on physical monuments and avoiding hindrances versus actual measurements. That’s one reason why in the surveyor’s Rule of Construction that monuments carry significantly more weight that distance or direction in a legal description. The early settlers of the American Colonies relied on this system for conveyance of properties.

It was only when the United States wanted to sell the lands gained from the Revolutionary War and Louisiana Purchase did they come up with a system for dividing the land. The Land Ordinance of 1785 was the beginning of the Public Land Survey System (PLSS) with the Surveyor General sending his staff westward to begin the task of establishing the sectional system.

Fast forward to the 20th century and the rapid expansion of civilization worldwide. In the post-WW2 timeframe, our world was going places. Highway systems were increasing and the need to map it all was becoming more important on much larger scales. These entities charged with this mapping needed a much bigger method of planning and charting to depict where information was being located. The implementation of state plane coordinate systems was utilized to help with this task but involved high-order surveying along with brain-numbing geodesy. Very few individuals and firms were capable of doing this work but it provided a needed baseline for future endeavors.

Fast forward to the past 20 years and think of the technological explosion of geolocation in the surveying and engineering fields. What used to be simple plat and plans has become a georeferenced dataset relied upon by clients, contractors, governing bodies and our firms. There are many geographical information systems in place now (from cities/counties/states down to rural utility companies) that all rely on geolocation. It would be easy to sit back and state I’m just a surveyor and this geolocation thing doesn’t come across my radar, but I would be greatly mistaken. Geolocation is an important factor of my profession and must be considered for almost all of my work going forward.

Education Is the Key

The professional land surveyor is uniquely qualified to provide accurate measurement for platting and mapping purposes. Our main focus throughout history has been to provide guidance and knowledge on boundary matters worldwide. Our background, knowledge and experience is not only in the physical location of the boundary but of the legal precedent and standing within the court system. Only the professional land surveyor can provide the legal opinion of where a boundary line lies; a judge or jury are not permitted to do that under law. The judge can rule whether to accept your opinion as fact but cannot make the determination themselves. We have an incredible duty and responsibility to the public; now we have the opportunity to instill more trust from them regarding geolocation.

These statements are not intending to water down the importance of any of the Rules of Construction for surveys. It is intended to bring it in a brighter light so that surveyors see they have another role to fill, and that is the role of providing locations for the world in a spatial context. All of those tasks we provide can now be referenced in another view; data location in relation to the world.

The professional land surveyor and their use of GNSS provides the basis of all real and potential mapping. Our inherent background in geodesy, technology and analysis of survey data leads the way as promoting our capability as the geolocation experts. While I still believe that conventional instruments will be utilized for a significant portion of our work, it will be the GNSS portion that will further define us as the experts in geolocation.

All surveyors, both existing and future ones, need to get on board and embrace the future. This means additional education for us old timers along with planting the seeds in the junior high and high school age students who don’t know what a surveyor is or does. It means supporting the programs that train future surveyors; from the Boy Scouts through the collegiate level.

Here is where the big difference in land surveying from past generations to now lies: education. I was fortunate enough to have started during a generation that allowed me to gain the necessary on-the-job education and training to become a professional land surveyor. I will also be the first to tell you that path is not the proper one for today’s surveying environment. Higher level math, science, and surveying training topics along with specific knowledge of geodesy, GNSS concepts, and environmental conditions are among the necessary tools for becoming a successful professional land surveyor in today’s world.

Because of the family and financial barriers to formal schooling, there is a movement to roll back the educational requirements for professional land surveyors. I’m here to state for the record that surveying is much harder than when I began my career, so I can’t imagine trying to break into the profession now without the proper formal training. Just as many other occupations have need to adapt to stay current, the surveying profession need to do the same. There is too much at risk to not properly train our staffs to not just operate the equipment and software but to understand the concepts and results that are gained by it.

While I became interested in land surveying for different reasons, my focus on geolocation as a subset of my boundary knowledge has me more energized for our profession. It is this enthusiasm that I ask that you help me spread to the world but also help provide the education and guidance that will be necessary for these young future professionals. In the end, the professional land surveyor through the use of GNSS can lead the charge with geolocation. All it takes is the proper education, training and guidance; after that, everything is easy.

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