The surveyor and artificial intelligence: A look ahead

July 5, 2018  - By

In the not-too-distant future, the following scenario may take place.

Image: Stockvault

Image: Stockvault

A corporation owns an improved property in a large metropolitan city and has decided to sell it to a prospective buyer. Through a series of electronic messages and high-tech operations, the seller, buyer, their respective counsels, lending institutions and a title company are provided with documentation stating the condition of the site along with holograms and 3D digital models worthy of a science-fiction movie. In a matter of minutes, the deal is closed with monies and titles silently swapping places out in the ether.

Behind the scenes, the surveyor is a big part of this transaction. But how will the operation of the land title survey look in the future? Like everything else, artificial intelligence (A.I.) and blockchain technology will play a substantial role in surveying. I don’t profess to be the next Carnac the Magnificent, but it could look like this…


The seller contacts their corporate attorneys to begin the contractual process. Requirements for the sale include acceptable and insurable conditions of the site and a clean title policy from a title insurance company, so the latest land title survey requirements will be held for site and title review. Once the seller and buyer are committed to a sale of the subject property, a blockchain is established in a transactional database to track every step of the sale.

Image: GSA

Image: GSA

The attorney will consult with “Sheldon,” an artificial intelligence system built by a leading e-commerce company and designed to assist with business-to-business commerce. Sheldon will be used to secure the services of a land surveyor for the transaction. By researching available consultants based upon the information for the parcel contained within the blockchain, Sheldon contacts firms that could meet the criteria for this part of the transaction.

Once an appropriate firm is chosen by Sheldon, the data for the survey within the blockchain is uploaded to “Thomas,” a digital assistant designed specifically for surveyors. Thomas works with Sheldon and the blockchain to formalize an agreement, secure the necessary insurance requirements, and finalize a payment schedule for services.


Once the project is secured, Thomas creates a project file, downloads current satellite images, GIS data (including parcel, building and utility information), and recorded documents for the subject parcel. Among the information is parcel data for the project site. This data is based upon historical land surveys and converted into an accurate dataset in which most of the property and land corners are now included in the GIS database. All corners within the database have been installed or upgraded to contain an RFID chip imbedded within the top of the marker.

Image: NOAA

Image: NOAA

These GIS databases also take advantage of ongoing advancements of the North American Terrestrial Reference Frame of 2022 (NATRF2022). Beyond the initial implementation, the National Geodetic Survey has incorporated additional precision gained by improved L5 satellite reception and other nations’ satellite constellations in sub-centimeter location with most survey-grade receivers. Thomas compiles all site data into a comprehensive package for submission to the surveyor.

Because of the advancements with instrumentation and sensors in locating improvements both above and below the surface of the ground, the latest land title survey standard has moved all optional Table A items into required information to be provided on the plat. The standard also now requires a drainage analysis to be prepared to determine how the subject property relates to the adjacent parcels.

Thomas reviews the current backlog of project managers and assigns/transmits the project to the first available team. The chosen survey project manager receives the project information and creates an Ethereum blockchain file to work with the master blockchain and begin the survey process. By creating additional survey programming working in conjunction with the project blockchain, all parties involved in the transaction can monitor progress every step of the way.

The first responsibility of the survey PM is to work with Thomas to evaluate the existing data available for the project location. Current conditions from satellite imagery, improvement and utility information from existing governmental GIS databases, and parcel/easement information from recorded document sources are used to determine flight paths for UAVs utilizing multiple sensors, avoiding substantial obstacles. This process will also establish areas to be surveyed/verified by mobile methods where aerial data cannot be obtained.

All available information is processed by Thomas to establish the most efficient routes and methods of data collection for the parcel through software designed to compile and review spatial datasets. This software is specifically designed to review existing information for potential conflicts in flight and on-the-ground obstacles. Once completed, a flight plan for the UAV and route plan for the autonomous mobile vehicle will be reported with missed areas identified for manual data collection.


When the time arrives for field work to begin, a technician is dispatched in an autonomous electric truck pre-programmed to go directly to the site. The truck is loaded with various survey-grade instruments and equipment (all GNSS equipped): vertical take-off fixed wing and multi-rotor UAVs (both with lidar, photo, hyper-spectral, and GPR sensors), an autonomous mobile ground robot (with GPR/lidar sensors), and an RFID reader for boundary location.

The technician works with the equipment through a universal tablet computer controlling both aerial and ground data collection simultaneously, depicting the progress of the work in real time. This gives the technician time to locate the boundary points with the handheld GNSS receiver/RFID reader to verify the limits of the property.

Once the autonomous work is finished, the technician processes the data on site, and software compares collection coverage versus the initial site review. When processing is complete, the technician will utilize a handheld GNSS receiver with lidar sensor to obtain remote areas not collected by the other methods.

The remaining data is compiled with autonomous data and re-analyzed for overall coverage and approved by the software for completeness. Once the computer determines everything has been collected, the technician checks the complete box and leaves the site.


The final field data is uploaded to cloud servers as the technician leaves the site and the survey PM is notified by electronic message of the field task completion. Thomas, the digital surveying assistant, takes the lead and begins the final processing. The data is reviewed for completeness, parsed for any anomalies within the downloads, and compiled into one database for building a 3D model of the site.

Photo and lidar data are compared for accuracy, utilities are verified against existing records and easements, and building characteristics are matched against governmental records for zoning code compliance.


Once this analysis is complete, the final drafting takes place to create the final deliverable. While the data within the model contains attributes of each entity, labels are placed interactively throughout the site to help depict the site information. This model is also suitable for use by architects and planners to utilize in their B.I.M. design programs, so the quality in the modeling output is top notch.

The final deliverable contains an overall report documenting site conditions, drainage characteristics and physical conditions of various entities. This report will also detail potential site encroachments, possible drainage issues, and zoning/parking red flags. Thomas will report back to the survey PM that all final checks have been made and deliverables made for submittal to the client, leaving only the final transmittal left to do.

Once the deliverable is received by the client, Sheldon (the B2B automated assistant) recognizes the delivery and begins the process of payment to the surveyor. With standardized surveys, automated assistant/analyzation systems, and trackable processes through blockchain, the client gets a quality product at a market rate in an acceptable timeframe and the surveyor gets paid in a reasonable period.


Maybe this fictional situation for land surveyors won’t be a reality in my lifetime, but I’m not willing to bet against it. I look back at my short 30+ year career and still marvel at the technological advancements yet I acknowledge we are still turning a corner in computing power (see May’s column). I remember the introduction of laser scanners and lidar sensors as future data-collector saviors, gathering multitudes of precise and accurate data much faster than any mortal. Now we have UAVs that can soar above us with little interference and provide images and data at a reasonable cost, so technology does benefit us.

But what about data that is automated to the point it is beyond the control of the surveyor? And what does this do to our shrinking surveying workforce?

Some may say it is a godsend on both accounts. I personally won’t turn out a product or survey in which I don’t have a good understanding of what the data represents or how it was collected; that violates a code of ethics of practicing beyond my expertise. I also don’t think automation will eliminate our technicians, but the surveying profession will need to provide adequate training for our next generation.


We live in a world in which so many things are automated (Alexa, Siri and “Hey, Google”) to assist us with even the most mundane of tasks. Amazon recently introduced a store where the customer doesn’t stop at a cashier; just grab the items off the shelf and walk out. Apple introduced its latest iPhone that opens by recognizing your face. Automation is here to stay, whether we like it or not.

Image: MGM

Image: MGM

An article by the Pew Research Center (“Automation is Everyday Life“) described in detail the amount of anxiety that automation instilled in Americans. Many felt that while there are opportunities to increase productivity and profitability in many sectors, that will be offset by lost jobs replaced by automation. Others were also troubled by automation becoming more prevalent in medical treatment of senior citizens.

For many, the thought of automation isn’t nearly as scary as the concept of “artificial intelligence.” While most of the processes involve machine learning (ML) and refining results based upon increasing datasets, computing power is increasing and introducing new methods including “deep learning.” The algorithms being produced by deep learning through neural networks are making smarter decisions as they use larger and more complicated datasets.

From a June article for The Atlantic, Henry Kissinger (yes, that Henry Kissinger) offered these thoughts on A.I.:

Henry Kissinger (Photo: The Atlantic)

Henry Kissinger (Photo: The Atlantic)

Ultimately, the term artificial intelligence may be a misnomer. To be sure, these machines can solve complex, seemingly abstract problems that had previously yielded only to human cognition. But what they do uniquely is not thinking as heretofore conceived and experienced. Rather, it is unprecedented memorization and computation. Because of its inherent superiority in these fields, AI is likely to win any game assigned to it. But for our purposes as humans, the games are not only about winning; they are about thinking. By treating a mathematical process as if it were a thought process, and either trying to mimic that process ourselves or merely accepting the results, we are in danger of losing the capacity that has been the essence of human cognition. (June 2018)

He also makes a strong statement that the United States needs to develop a national vision for AI like other countries (i.e. China, Russia, India) to stay competitive in computing power.


The point of this discussion wasn’t to be “doom and gloom” of technology. I look forward to enjoying many of the advancements of AI and blockchain advancements. Many of the advantages of both technologies have not been brought to the surveying forefront yet, but it will only be a matter of time.

My one big fear to automation attempting to overtake and regulate some functions of surveying leads back to boundary determination and the increasing use of holding technology/mathematics over monumentation, hence Kissinger’s comment regarding human cognition. The rules of construction will always hold true in my boundary analysis until there is a time and place where all parcels (original and retracement) are created in a mathematical vacuum.

I also don’t see a timeframe yet that reduces the amount of measurement error between survey practitioners utilizing differing methods and technologies. Survey equipment manufacturers are still refining ways to get more precision from their GNSS receivers, yet still put them on a pole with a bullseye bubble that needs constant checking. Even tribrachs and total stations aren’t checked as often as recommended, but we always seem willing to argue over who measures better.

Until we get more consistent in our overall measuring as a profession, I’ll hold off on worrying about artificial intelligence taking over.

In the meantime, let’s back off calling a corner monument off by 0.03’ just yet. Let’s hope that when A.I. does become more prevalent, the surveying profession will have its collective heads wrapped around our own intellect as well.

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.