Surveying and COVID-19: A lesson in essential services

May 6, 2020  - By

Open space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the professional surveyor and their crew. Their mission: to explore and survey strange new lands. To retrace old boundaries and to create new parcels and subdivisions. To boldly go where no one has gone before (unless it has been previously surveyed and platted…)!

With a nod to Star Trek fans (and apologies to Mr. Roddenberry), the surveyor has been the terrestrial version of the Captain Kirk and Science Officer Spock, exploring existing and uncharted territories. While most surveys completed in the modern day are retracements of previous parcels, there are still areas where surveyors are completing various tasks where no one has been before.

There are very few instances where a survey is performed near others. By this simple fact, one can argue that the surveyor is the original social distancer. The real question, however, lies within the determination of the value of the surveyor and if the work we perform is an “essential service.”

This article is not attempting to debate the value of the surveyor versus all the first responders, doctors, nurses, healthcare personnel and the hardworking employees doing their best to keep up with our basic needs. We are here to discuss the challenges faced by the surveyor and how technology has provided much-needed tools for crossing this abyss of doom and despair called COVID-19.

But first, let us talk about how we arrived at this extraordinary time for nearly everyone on the planet.

Photo: LeoPatrizi/E+/Getty Images

Photo: LeoPatrizi/E+/Getty Images

Worldwide upheaval or some close facsimile thereof

Every generation has a historical event, moment or era for which they remember exactly what they were doing:

  • “Greatest” generation (born before 1924): the Stock Market crash of 1929 and subsequent depression
  • “Silent” generation (born 1925-1945): Pearl Harbor and World War II
  • Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964): Korean War, the Kennedy assassination, the Moon landing and the Vietnam War
  • Generation X (born 1965-1980): Reagan assassination attempt, Challenger explosion, death of Princess Diana
  • Millennials (born 1981-1996): 9/11, Aurora and Sandy Hook shootings

Unfortunately, the series of events leading up to the nationwide shutdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic will unseat most of those events and eras. While previous pandemics (for instance, the Spanish flu of 1918) struck and killed many more people, the mobility of today’s population coupled with instantaneous media coverage provides a much different environment for this situation.



Obviously, we are not alone, and this virus has spared few countries and races. Different cultures across the globe have adapted for the pandemic in a variety of ways, and the U.S. has faced the same challenges across our diverse environments.

Depending on where one is located, they face a different set of challenges due to the pandemic. Several heavily populated urban areas are subject to a strict lockdown while states with mostly rural areas are less restrictive. One size does not fit all when dealing with limiting public exposure to others, but let us leave the debate of how much restriction is needed to the scientists and public officials. Many today do not agree with the rules we have been dealt with in going about with our lives. That is a discussion for another time and different forum.

Instead, let us discuss what we face going forward with our “new reality” of some form of social distancing and how the need for surveying and geospatial information remains for a large portion of this world. We must simply adapt to this situation with the adoption of new technologies and a revamped workflow.

Everything changes, whether we like it or not

The surveying profession is not unlike many other service-oriented and public-serving occupations, even with most of the field work being performed in solitude. We still deal with clients, governmental agencies, other consultants and the public.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we are now interacting with those outside partners with technological advances and modified communication conduits. Many of these methods existed well before this situation, but the rapid advancement of the pandemic forced many companies and employees into adapting very quickly.

Surveyors are no different, so let us run through the changes we have seen within the industry.

Project communication

The biggest challenge facing most surveyors in dealing with the pandemic atmosphere has been communication. Whether it is with employees, clients, government agencies or other consultants, communication has been affected mostly because of the elimination of face-to-face opportunities.

Technology to allow remote communication has existed for many years, but not many of us have taken advantage of it because of the convenience of in-person interaction. Who does not want to leave the office to meet with a client, shake their hand and close the deal? Or have the client come to your office and go over the intricacies of a complex survey?

Regardless of whether one is introverted or extroverted, human contact has always helped establish and solidify relationships. For most of us, this is how business has always been done, be it your client or your employees.

Obviously, the biggest area affected has been daily interaction with employees. Controlling workflow, handling projects and troubleshooting any situation is more difficult when the team is not physically in the same location. If a team member is overwhelmed, another one can immediate meet with them and help. Work is easily passed between teammates with little effort.

But working remotely? That takes more effort, consideration and technology to accomplish. Yes, video conferencing has been in place for many years, but mostly in large companies and only implemented it in a dedicated conference room. Not many employees were previously afforded a webcam, microphone and speakers along with the necessary software; all of these components are now standard issue. For many, programs like Zoom, Skype and Microsoft Teams are now a critical communication tool for timely and efficient sharing of information.

What about communication with field crews? Many would say that even a pandemic would not change how we stay in touch with field crews, but even these relationships have been affected. While there are survey companies operating with limited physical contact as a norm (large firms with projects regionally or nationwide), most surveyors still have a substantial amount of direct communication between field and office. This situation has forced many firms to take precautions, with crew members only handling specific pieces of equipment or performing a thorough cleaning if sharing during a project.

Project documents and files have typically been been handled manually with some electronic data files being transferred via email or internet. Depending on the size of the original document, having a full-size paper copy of a previous survey or subdivision plat has advantages to looking at a PDF image on a tablet or computer screen while in the field. Many companies outfit their field crews with 11 x 17-inch printers to be able to print larger detailed areas of bigger documents. Additional care must be taken if these items will still be used for field operations.

Image: Tim Burch

Image: Tim Burch

The transfer of data between office and field has become faster, more efficient and safer with technology. As data collectors have become more capable, direct connections via the internet to cloud storage is making transfer of project files and photos faster and more secure by providing immediate backup to guard against data loss. What used to take a trip to the office, connecting to a computer and downloading is now done in a matter of minutes without leaving the job site.

Field personnel are also benefiting from technology within our devices. Apps like FaceTime and programs like Microsoft Teams provide a gateway to video chatting so teammates can discuss projects in real time. Shared pictures, computer screens and face-to-face interaction provides an avenue to more effective communication and enhancing relationships between team members.

The pandemic has forced many surveyors to adapt and learn several new apps and programs to connect in new ways; however, this pandemic has also affected how we go about our field operations, too.

Enhanced data collection

Not many of the surveyor’s field activities are affected because of social distancing requirements, but the pandemic has forced our profession to be compliant with the new rules in case we are in proximity with others. Newer technology, using both terrestrial and aerial platforms, are now being utilized by more surveyors for their data collection needs.

Train employees now. As many companies have seen a slowdown in work due to pullbacks from projects moving forward, now is the time to get employees trained with the new technology and software to be better prepared for when the market comes back.

Using photogrammetry tools. Photogrammetry, lidar and laser-scanning systems are being purchased and implemented for everyday use and not just “special” projects with larger budgets. Not only are surveyors finding it keeps them further away from other people, it also allows for more efficient data collection and representation of existing conditions.

Flying unmanned aerial vehicles. UAVs continue to grow in popularity, and like the other technology discussed above, many firms are investing in becoming remote pilots and implementing aerial photography and lidar into their workflow. Previously, most surveyors (and the general public) would use Google Earth, Bing and other resources for aerial imagery to gain a better perspective on their project sites. Vendors are coming out with aerial products with more recent flights at a higher resolution, but do not offer the ability to extract reliable topographic data easily. In-house UAVs provide more flexibility and control over the information needed, and many are using their downtime to become familiar with aerial products.

Photo: GPS World

Photo: GPS World

Dipping toes into remote sensing. Another sector of surveying equipment seeing increased use during this situation are new total stations with remote-sensing capability. Many surveyors may not have the need for a standalone laser or lidar scanner, so several manufacturers have introduced a total station that provides limited remote sensing for everyday use. While the built-in scanner is not nearly as robust as a traditional remote-sensing unit, it provides enough capability and accuracy for most users. This intermediate step of remote sensing helps a firm decide how much scanning they will produce and if an investment in a full function unit is right for them.

Upgrading GNSS receivers. We would be amiss if we did not mention that more surveyors are now upgrading their GNSS receivers to take advantage of more constellations, integration with IMUs and increased computing power of the latest data collectors. Some surveyors who are not as economically affected during this pandemic are taking advantage of great deals on new equipment and using this time to increase their capability and efficiency. As more satellite vehicles become available, the ability to gain accurate and precise locations is better than ever, so staying ahead of technology is still important in these times. We will continue to see more gains with L5 and L1C signals from the new GPS Block III satellites within the next few years, so staying current now is very important.

QA/QC — The electronic method

One trouble spot seen within the new paradigm is the ability to provide a thorough quality assurance/quality control (QA/QC) process on all surveying operations. Without the ability to print/plot original surveys at full scale, it becomes a more difficult procedure to review and analyze information on a computer screen.

The monitors used for drafting and calculations are getting bigger, but studies have shown the human eye will focus differently on an electronic screen compared to a survey on paper. There must be many other professions and occupations using similar technology who have yet to solve the QA/QC dilemma. Hopefully, our industry will find a way to help address this issue and provide guidance.

Image: Tim Burch

Image: Tim Burch

More connected than ever, yet still so alone

The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 (let us hope that is all it encumbers) will be forever etched in our memories as frightening and unbelievable. More than 100 years has past since the last pandemic of this proportion has overwhelmed our population. We are much more advanced in our education of health, medicines and technology than the previous event, yet we were caught off-guard by the speed in which the virus spread throughout our lands. It taxed most of our health infrastructure beyond its limits and took its toll emotionally and financially to most of the population.

We were forced to adapt very quickly to a new norm of working remotely and independently of our co-workers and teammates. Did it hurt our productivity and profitability initially? Absolutely. Were our employees forced to learn new ways of doing their work and communicating by other means. Yes, they did. Was there a need for rapid troubleshooting of new procedures and task management? Of course. Has every transition of remote work been a success story? I doubt it, but it was not for lack of trying.

We are doing the best we can, and the surveying profession is rapidly trying to adapt. Like the rest of the world, the surveying profession will not be the same coming out of the restrictions placed upon us because of the pandemic. We have learned more about ourselves and how capable we are with tools we have. We also learned how we will transition with these skills into new technology not invented yet.

Surveyors are a tough bunch, so the social distancing and adaptation required to survive the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 — while not easy by any stretch — has been handled with grace and professionalism. I would say to bring on the next one, but would rather this pandemic be in our rearview mirror quickly and not see anything like it ever again.

1 Comment on "Surveying and COVID-19: A lesson in essential services"

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  1. Patricia Kules says:

    Good article, Tim!

    Tricia Kules