Number of trained US geodesists at crisis level

July 20, 2020  - By

By David Zilkoski, contributing editor, survey scene

David B. Zilkoski

David B. Zilkoski

I attended The Ohio State University (OSU) to obtain my graduate degree in Geodetic Science in 1979. Therefore, I will admit that I am a little biased — once a geodesist, always a geodesist. The basic definition of geodesy is the applied science for determining the size and shape of the Earth, designing and realizing reference frames, and determining where you (and anything else) is on the Earth.

In OSU’s geodesy heyday (1960–1990s), many Americans trained were sent by federal agencies: National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), NOAA/National Geodetic Survey (NGS), USGS, Army, Navy and Air Force. During the 1970s, NGS was sending two employees back to school every year. These agencies needed geodesists because they were undertaking major projects such as NGS’ to readjust the U.S. national horizontal (NAD83) and vertical geodetic (NAVD88) networks.

I was one of the employees that NGS sent to OSU to be trained to support the NAD83 and NAVD88.

The advancements in satellites and computers have enabled geodesy to expand into many different disciplines. Geodetic science and technology now underpin many sciences, large areas of engineering (such as driverless vehicles and drones), navigation, precision agriculture, smart cities and location-based services. Geodesy is actually more important than ever.

Today, the environment is different. U.S. federal agencies still need geodesists for developing enhanced and refined geodetic models and tools. However, major U.S. companies, such as Google and FedEx, as well as the automobile industry, precision farming companies and mining companies also need more accurate geodetic models, tools and algorithms. Therefore, these companies also need trained geodesists to perform important research on topics that address their specific geodetic requirements.

Today, OSU’s Geodesy Department is training very few American citizens. As the U.S. moves toward achieving geodetic-grade positioning in real-time in support of new applications such as driverless vehicles and drones, the number of trained geodesists should be increasing, not decreasing [Note: In 1990, there were 92 geodetic science graduate students. In 2019, there were 25; only three were U.S. citizens]. OSU and other universities need to educate and train the next generation of the nation’s scientific workforce of highly skilled research geodetic scientists that will expand industry’s research expertise.

The shortage of American geodesists poses a significant economic risk for the U.S. Europe and China train many more geodesists than the US. There are very few geodetic science programs in the U.S. today, and education in geodetic proficiencies has been fragmented. The OSU graduate program is one of few surviving geodetic science programs.

Users of geodetic products and services need to support geodetic departments in universities so that U.S. geodesy programs can grow to meet the geospatial demands of the future. The geospatial component of the economy is worth about $500 billion/year. So why are we allowing its foundational discipline to shrink in this country?

About the Author: David B. Zilkoski

David B. Zilkoski has worked in the fields of geodesy and surveying for more than 40 years. He was employed by National Geodetic Survey (NGS) from 1974 to 2009. He served as NGS director from October 2005 to January 2009. During his career with NGS, he conducted applied GPS research to evaluate and develop guidelines for using new technology to generate geospatial products. Based on instrument testing, he developed and verified new specifications and procedures to estimate classically derived, as well as GPS-derived, orthometric heights. Now retired from government service, as a consultant he provides technical guidance on GNSS surveys; computes crustal movement rates using GPS and leveling data; and leads training sessions on guidelines for estimating GPS-derived heights, procedures for performing leveling network adjustments, the use of ArcGIS for analyses of adjustment data and results, and the proper procedures to follow when estimating crustal movement rates using geodetic leveling data. Contact him at

1 Comment on "Number of trained US geodesists at crisis level"

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  1. Eric Gakstatter says:

    I wholeheartedly agree. With autonomous vehicles on the near horizon and RTK GNSS being readied to be used by tens of millions of vehicles, geospatial scientist expertise will be more important than ever.

    Also, why is the National Geodetic Survey shrinking significantly in headcount? RTK GNSS technology is being adopted by more people every year as it becomes easier to deploy. Is NGS going to leave it to private industry to educate the public?

    And what about passive marks? I heard disturbing comments at the CGSIC presentations in 2018 about how passive marks aren’t needed and that satellites can serve as the survey control. Nothing could be further from the truth. RTK users need to check into passive control to validate their systems are properly configured.

    So much to do…