Milestone Surveys is a digital child of the current century: working in the cloud and across the globe while maintaining fundamental surveying practices.
Extinction is certain for geospatial companies that plan to make a profit tomorrow the way they did yesterday. In order to survive and thrive in the 21st century, surveying businesses must blend traditional survey techniques with innovative problem solving to ensure accuracy and client satisfaction. Milestone Survey is a boutique survey company based in Brisbane, Australia that has perfected this balance between the traditional and the modern, and this has allowed us to grow into a strong player in the Australian market, even in a slowing economy.
The director of Milestone Survey, Todd Foster, is driven by perpetual improvement in all aspects of his career and enjoys finding out-of-the-box innovations to solve problems. He started Milestone Survey with me (we’re married), five years ago, after he had spent six years on two large dam projects for “tier 1” construction companies.
Currently, Milestone Surveys is working on a $1.6 billion natural gas infrastructure project in rural Queensland. We’d previously contracted with the same client, CPB, on natural gas works infrastructure projects, which has kept us busy since the company was established.
The many sites on the gas projects have been remote, with limited phone coverage and little-to-zero existing survey control. To assist the client, we designed and built solar-powered GNSS base station trailers that ensured all sites would be able to get accurate and reliable RTK GPS coverage.
Being involved in the initial site establishment of many remote sites led us to innovate by establishing primary control marks in reactive and unstable ground conditions. We designed a trailer equipped with hydraulic tools (auger, drivers, jack hammers, and a cement mixer) that could be used to efficiently establish the highest quality survey control marks.
It was the investment in these non-traditional solutions that helped Milestone Survey grow to be invaluable to our client. We could establish new sites in half the time, and by the end of the project Milestone had provided base stations and established primary control marks on 18 of the 25 sites.
Being first on the ground to a new site has a hidden advantage. As Milestone slowly grew in capacity and staff, we were in a box seat to commence the ongoing survey requirements that would normally need three to four surveyors per site with each site being constructed for 18 months.
Milestone Survey had not purchased any standard surveying equipment in the first two years of our operation; we were renting all total stations/GNSS rovers. Todd was determined to grow the business quickly but sustainably, without the use of credit or bank loans.
In any industry, the companies that rise to the top will be great at solving their clients’ problems. They must do this efficiently using solutions that evolve with the problem type as well as improvements in technology innovations. It is a balancing act to match a problem with a budget and innovation at the right time.
Due to company’s expansion into the U.S. and our desire to solidify ourselves as a pan-pacific company, Todd and I reside primarily in Los Angeles, California, which means that we must remotely manage employees and data. We’re able to successfully run a survey team in Australia from the U.S. thanks to several different tools.
Each site or group of sites is overseen by a survey manager who is based locally. On the current project, Todd is supported by one survey manager who looks after four different sites and 11 employees on a rotating roster. Todd flies to the site to assist with specialist tasks and to keep in touch with his team, but otherwise he manages the company from Los Angeles.
All data collected by Milestone Survey is stored on local servers that replicate to Dropbox, which allows data to sync between the two countries in real time. Additionally, all employees take notes in the field with digital field books from livescribe, which sync their sketches and notes to the cloud (via Evernote) so they can be accessed by other employees, the survey manager, and Todd wherever he may be.
ÊAnother digital tool that we use to monitor employees’ work is a group of iAuditor checklists that enable employees to follow procedures that are set up by the survey manager. These checklists are fully customizable and span different uses, from a vehicle maintenance checklist to one that instructs in the process of a GNSS Faststatic survey, as well as creating a report of the information required for quality assurance during processing. iAuditor is an iPhone app, and checklists can be updated remotely and synced back to each employee’s iPhone.
Remote work is also possible due to tools supplied by Google such as Chrome Remote Desktop. This free software allows you to set up a network of computers and access each computer remotely. Because of this, I’m able to manage Milestone’s Survey IT; I can troubleshoot and fix computers even when I’m in the U.S. Additionally, this tool allows Todd to assist the employees on site because he can see and remotely control what’s happening on their computers.
Remotely managing a site and employees is made easier through an in-vehicle monitoring system (IVMS). Most mine sites in Australia require vehicles to be monitored for safety reasons, but Milestone Survey has also found it practical for business. Each car is equipped with a GPS tracking device that records the driver, current position, and speed. This allows Todd and his survey managers to track vehicles and see the location of all resources. This system also has an emergency function that will contact the police in case of a collision or if a panic switch is activated.
These innovations may not be required for your company to thrive, but they prove that thinking outside the box does yield results.
Each of these innovations built around remote access are certainly not necessary for a survey company to perform a job, but they allow us to be ahead of the game. Operating on two continents in two time zones with access to site data at all times allows us to calculate reports or other needed information for a site while the employees are sleeping. Accessing each others’ computers at all times allows everyone to work as a team and problem-solve together, and tools like iAuditor and IVMS ensure the safety of the employees while they are traveling between these remote sites.
Keys to Success
The innovations of Milestone Survey may not be required for your company to thrive, but they prove that thinking outside the box does yield results. The uncomfortable feeling of unlearning things that you used to believe were true is the greatest barrier to improvement, but when you let go of your hang-ups and try new things, progress is inevitable.
Milestone Survey now specializes in high-accuracy dam monitoring and performs routine monitoring on some of the biggest and most important dams in the Brisbane, Queensland area. Milestone is also expanding to perform all the survey work on a wind farm in early 2017.
Often Todd is problem-solving on Milestone Survey’s dime with the hope that the costs will eventually turn into a profitable solution that the client can’t live without. Milestone Survey also heavily values its employees and strives for employee happiness while creating a work environment with the right level of challenge for each staff member. Innovation in employee welfare and human resources is often overlooked, but engaged employees can be the most important asset in a company.
Importantly, one of Milestone Survey’s strongest qualities is that we’re always sharing our innovations with like-minded people. Our stance is that trade secrets involving innovation don’t stay secret for long, so in this rapidly advancing world we might as well share ideas and evolve together.