Survey & Construction Newsletter, Late August 2008

August 20, 2008  - By
Image: GPS World

Attending the Annual ESRI Networking Conference

As much as surveyors, engineers and constructors may not appreciate geographic information systems (GIS) technology, at some point everyone should attend at least the ESRI Survey/Engineering Summit and the first couple of days of the ESRI User Conference held every summer in San Diego, California. This is not a GIS sales pitch. It’s a networking sales pitch. When other conferences are struggling to maintain attendance levels, the ESRI conferences seemingly never fail to grow in attendance. This year, it attracted some 15,000 people from 120 countries. That means gobs of GIS people, and also gobs of surveyors and engineers.

The Survey/Engineering Summit is a much smaller subset with some 500 attendees, and takes place the weekend before the User Conference. This year, it was the first weekend in August. Although relatively small in size, the conference is significant enough to attract someone the caliber of Col. Dave Madden as a keynote speaker. Col. Madden is the U.S. Air Force GPS Wing Commander, and as such he’s in charge of GPS. With a fiscal 2009 budget of $1.5B, it is the fourth largest budget in the U.S. Air Force. That means he has some clout, and that’s the quality of speaker that the ESRI conferences have the ability to attract.

It’s All About Networking

Most times, I’m like you: worried about the day-to-day stuff of running a business or department, or just getting stuff done on time and on budget. CEUs are hard enough to keep up with, not to mention taking a few days off during prime outdoor season (and spending a chunk of change) to attend a GIS conference.

But I tell you what; this is the place to mix it up with all kinds of people beyond your local association chapter. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I guarantee that networking with 15,000 people will open your eyes a lot wider than networking with 25 people. If you’re looking to expand your business, whether it’s GIS-related or not, you will probably meet someone in San Diego who is doing it already.

Take, for example, Michael Dennis of Geodetic Analysis LLC. Have a question about geodesy? Here’s a guy who gave a presentation entitled “GPS, Geodesy and the Ghost in the Machine.” Part of his presentation included dissecting National Geodetic Survey (NGS) Datasheets. Mind you, there’s a half dozen NGS people in the crowd! Sort of like giving a presentation on Windows to Bill Gates, isn’t it? That’s the kind of expertise walking around at this conference.

While I’m on the subject of NGS, they had a whole pack of people there. Soon-to-retire director Dave Zilkowski gave a lunch-time presentation to approximately 200 attendees. Want to talk to the manager for CORS at NGS? He was there. Want to talk to someone at NGS about network RTK? Bill Henning was there. Want to talk to someone at NGS about OPUS? Yep, there too.

What other opportunity do you have to sit down and have some face time with this caliber of people?

Back to Col. Madden

The theme of his presentation was about how the GPS Wing needs to improve on executing their strategy. A big part of what he was alluding to was keeping the schedule on target for the different programs. For example, there’s no navigation message on L2C and he said there won’t be until 2011, when the control segment (OCS) systems are upgraded. There won’t be a navigation message for L5 either until 2011, even though the first Block IIF (L5) satellite will be launched next year. It’s a good example of the space segment (satellites) and control segment (ground infrastructure) not being in sync. The L2C pilot carrier is available now, so carrier phase users (centimeter-level) are still able to use L2C carrier while utilizing the navigation message from L1.

When he was on the subject of keeping schedules, I asked Col. Madden about launch schedules — more specifically, keeping the schedule that they set. He said two things.

First of all, they need to do a better job of giving realistic launch dates. They move a lot. The seventh Block IIR-M satellite was due to launch last June and has been pushed out until October. The eighth, and last, Block IIR-M satellite was pushed out until December. Also, the first Block IIF satellite, in which an early 2009 date has been floated for quite some time, doesn’t look like it will be put into orbit until August 2009 or later.

Secondly, and most importantly, he said it’s all about the $$. Launching satellites is an expensive business. He said “it takes $60 to 70 million to build a GPS satellite and its $200 million for the launch vehicle.”

As successful as GPS is, Col. Madden is fighting for budget dollars like other program managers. As I mentioned above, he’s got the fourth largest budget in the US Air Force. When Congress looks at areas to save money, it’s easy for someone to say “Just cut 10 percent from GPS and we’ll save $150 million!” Also, it doesn’t help that there are now 31 operational satellites, way more than the guaranteed minimum constellation of 24. The problem is that, as high precision users, we need every one of those 31 operational satellites. We need to continue to raise our hand from the back of the room and be counted.

I know it’s hard, but plan for the ESRI conference next July. I know, I know, it’s prime field season. But, give it a chance and you can take a lot from it. Like I wrote above, don’t look at it as a GIS conference, but rather a networking conference. It may change your business model or even your career path. You’ll have the opportunity to talk to more people than you have in years.

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