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State of: Surveying

Surveying is the timeless science and profession of geographic measurement and boundary determination that has evolved over the centuries, constantly improving with advancements in technology to keep pace with the world around it. One aspect, however, has not and should not change: the fact that surveying is a profession. Per professional licensure and supporting laws, surveyors are required for performing boundary measurement and placement and, in many jurisdictions, topographic measurement and/or measurement in support of engineering.

While some surveyors see the profession as defined by that discipline alone, the reality for others is that surveying is much broader; historical and present markets for surveying services reveal that this honorable profession has been and will always be about professional boundary research, retracement, determinations and expert measurement.

History can sometimes tell us more about where we are than where we were. Ancient Sumerian priests in the early Bronze Age (3000 – 1000 BC) were charged with boundary arbitration and field establishment. Evidence from this era shows that these early civilizations had a firm understanding of fundamental geometry (principles of lengths, angles, areas, volumes). The Egyptians used “rope stretchers” to reestablish boundaries after flooding along the Nile River and to construct the pyramids. The concepts of most of the geometry we use today were formalized by the Greeks (600 BC – 200 BC), perhaps out of necessity for ancient surveying; “geometry” (Greek γεωμετρία; geo = earth, metria = measure) translated from Greek means “earth measure.”

The American Congress on Surveying and Mapping’s “Definitions of Surveying and Associated Terms” defines surveying as, “The science and art of making all essential measurements to determine the relative position of points and/or physical and cultural details above, on, or beneath the surface of the Earth and to depict them in a useable form, or to establish position of points and/or details.”

At its core, our essential role today is much the same as it’s always been: an expert measurer and evaluator of evidence—even when performing non-boundary work. This is a generalization though, as I’ve yet to meet someone who is truly an expert in all things surveying; we all have our passions and specialties that are too numerous to list. For the layman to understand the profound effect we have in the world, it may be easier to break down our role into two main categories from the “rope stretchers” of ancient Egypt: land surveyors (land boundaries on the Nile River) and construction surveyors (construction of the pyramids).

In North America, land surveyors are generally regarded as a distinct profession rather than a branch of engineering. In most cases, they use a title acronym that includes the letters L.S. to distinguish them as licensed/registered land surveyors under state or provincial government rules. What is considered the practice of land surveying varies according to jurisdiction, but the one thing that does not vary is the responsibility to research and locate real property boundaries. If you own property, your deed contains a legal description of the boundary which was (hopefully) written by a licensed land surveyor or it references a plan/plat/map prepared by a licensed land surveyor.

Construction surveying is often unfairly regarded as a trade, despite the importance of what the practitioners do and the pride they take in their work—it has legal, health, and safety implications. Construction surveyors are often under great stress to stay ahead of the various trades that use their marks and to meet the high tolerances set forth in construction plans that vary in clarity and quality. If you’re reading this at your office, you drove to work on a highway that was staked out by a surveyor and you’re possibly sitting in an office building that was laid out by a surveyor; be thankful the support beams are in the right place.

In recent decades, our profession has been greatly affected by technology: robotic total stations, on-the-fly real time kinematic GPS initialization, 3D laser scanning, the transformation from GPS to GNSS, and software advancements—all have revolutionized how we conduct our business. Change does not come easy; there are those who wish to blame technology for the ups and downs of surveying services markets or the dynamics of deliverables and products brought on by a more geospatially charged world. Others, typically the successful adopters of new tech, see a world of opportunity —a wealth of “and” rather than “or.”

Current trends include a digital update on a technology that has its roots in the 19th century—photogrammetry. These new technologies include Trimble’s V10 imaging rover, cameras in total stations like the Leica MS50, software to utilize images from stock (and prosumer) cameras, and the many small unmanned aerial systems (UAS).

We are still in the early years of implementation, but PPP-RTK could take GNSS surveying to another level. Some precision may be sacrificed (in its current state), but for appropriate tasks, you can jump out of the truck with just a rover unit to perform a topographic survey. Surveyors can now gather more data in many wonderful new ways.

It’s hard to fully capture the true nature and state of a profession that has a richly storied past, a technology-influenced present, and an exciting future. Perhaps the best way to understand is not by chasing definitions of our roles or dwelling on the high-precision equipment we use, but instead by who we are as people, often carrying common traits. We’re detailed-oriented. We care about precision, accuracy, and, above all else, being correct. But we also understand that accuracy and precision don’t necessarily yield the correct solution. We’re equal parts mathematician and adventurer, detective and story teller, code breaker and artist. We strive to place service before profit, honor, and standing of the profession before personal advantage, and the public welfare above all other considerations. We’re expert measurers and evaluators of evidence, so please understand why we defend our data so adamantly. We are bound by law to provide accurate data to a high precision that must also be in the correct position on the Earth based on applicable evidence and legal instruments. We are geospatial brothers and sisters and, occasionally, brilliantly eccentric aunts and uncles.

Photo: Surveying student works with GPS in front of transit theodolite shadow. 

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