A professional portrait of James M Shaw in a green shirt and green tie

Industry Innovation: Are You Ready to be Relevant?

This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series February 2017

Slay the beast named Apathy with progress.

This is a dire warning. There is a beast that threatens to destroy the land surveying profession. It is a danger to you, your company, your coworkers, and your employees. It sucks the life from all it contacts. Its victims are left empty, with a sense of impending doom. This monster’s name is Apathy.

Apathy is a powerful foe. Many sit at land surveying society meetings feeling Apathy’s cold grip. It stirs the weak to whisper, “Land surveying is dead,” or “I’ll be retired before that happens.”

Take heart, though. There is a powerful weapon that can defeat Apathy. This weapon’s name is Progress. The strong wield this weapon with conviction. They use new technologies to shine the light of Progress on all. It will take an army–no, a profession–to band together to defeat Apathy. I am calling on you, my fellow surveyors, to join the fight and let Progress lead the way to the end of Apathy.

A Turning Point

While I may have used colorful illustration to grab your attention, the threat is no less real or serious. We truly are at a turning point for our storied profession. The decisions made in the next decade will either lead to its early demise or take it to its new glory days. As the cartoonist Walt Kelly once famously wrote, “We have met the enemy and he [or she] is us.” The typical surveying company/department has changed little in the last 15 years, yet the technology has changed significantly. If you are not embracing the new technology, your competitor is. Increasingly, that competition is coming from outside our practice and encroaching on our practice. If we do not become experts with that same technology, we become irrelevant.

The future surveyor must be an expert at embracing new technology and profiting from it, as we once did.

However, it seems the mindset of adopting new technology has been lost. Is it fear of the unknown? Are we caught in Apathy’s grip? Worst of all, are our most seasoned and fiscally capable surveyors wishing only to make it to retirement, not investing in the next generation? Herein I repeatedly ask a very important question: are you relevant? Do you bring something unique and compelling to the discussion? Are you connected to current market trends? Are you exposing yourself or your staff to new technologies and enhancing your skills?

One Foot in the Past

Many of the biggest changes this profession had seen in centuries occurred during the decade of the early 1990s. This was the point at which our analog tools turned digital. As new technologies presented themselves, my employers took advantage of them without hesitation. We moved from hand drafting to CAD; from theodolites to total stations; from calculators to CAD-based COGO; from hand-written field books to data collectors.

Between 1985 and 1995, almost all surveying offices were experiencing these exact same transformations (see Scott P. Martin’s “Get It Surveyed” in the January 2017 Field Notes). We had a culture of embracing change. Trade magazines were crammed with the latest technology. Society meetings buzzed with stories about adopting these technologies. All of these advances enabled us to perform more work, with better accuracy, with fewer people. We saved time and gained efficiencies. The excitement was contagious!

Our Current Problem

The excitement is gone. Land surveying college programs across the United States are faltering. Membership in land surveying societies and associations continue to decline. The number of new licensees has been decreasing nationwide. The median age of licensed land surveyors continues to increase. Sole proprietors retire (or die) with no one to take over their practice or service their clients. We struggle to find worthy hires. Since the recession of 2008, there is a pervading sense of weathering the storm rather than boldly turning the bow directly into the waves and forging ahead.

This storm is never going to end. Constant change is the new normal. The pace of change is increasing yearly. Emerging technologies are redefining the entire industry.

The surveyors of 1990 would have clambered to use laser scanners and drones. Adaption was a driving force. Are we not these same surveyors? Why did we allow the status quo to become the norm? When did Apathy start to control us?

There is a clear and simple answer to defeat Apathy: The future surveyor must be an expert at embracing new technology and profiting from it, as we once did. We must lead the way to the future in order to preserve, protect, and promote our profession.

One Foot in the Future

There is much talk about developing the future generation. The NSPS and many state societies are pursuing workforce development. But how can we pursue the future generation when we are so poorly preparing the current generation?

The modern surveyor needs to be trained in the following areas:

  • Boundary Theory and Determination
  • Boundary Case Law
  • Records Research
  • Geodetic Datums & Control Adjustment
  • Global Navigation Satellite Systems: Static & Real-time
  • Point Clouds: Collection Techniques, Registration, Data Classification, & Data Extraction
  • Photogrammetry: Satellite, High-altitude, Low-altitude, & Terrestrial
  • Drone Operation & Piloting
  • 3D Topographic Modeling & Surface Modeling
  • Geographic Information Systems (GIS)
  • Computer Aided Drafting (CAD)

Carefully review this list. Are you or your staff being exposed to all of these skills? If not, is it a clear part of your strategic plan to gain this experience? If you have answered “no” to both questions, then I conclude that you are failing our profession.

These are tough words. This is tough love. I intend to do all I can to save our noble profession for future generations. Again I ask, are you relevant?

It is hard to even imagine what disruptive technologies lie ahead. Automation, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, augmented reality, the Internet of Things, and Big Data will all play major roles in our future. Will we be active participants or will we be passive spectators?

The Threat Is Real

It would be easy to dismiss what I’ve already written as hyperbole from an ardent technophile. I beg you to not dismiss my claims, but challenge them. Do the research. Prove me wrong so that I might sleep better at night. In the meantime, I will build on this position.

Location-based services are already a reality. GNSS and GIS work in harmony to give everyone with a smartphone a rich, location-oriented experience, even if very few understand the underlying technology.

Virtual reality and augmented reality are set to explode. 2016 was the first year to top $1 billion in VR sales. AR is being actively pursued by tech giants such as Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Samsung. GNSS and GIS will undoubtedly be working at the core of the AR experience. All of this means that the average consumer is becoming more and more geospatially aware, and someone needs to provide the geodetic information. With increasing regularity, that “someone” is not a land surveyor. Are we relevant?

Geographic Information Systems

We’ve all heard the joke, “GIS means ‘Get It Surveyed.'” That is ignorance speaking. That is like saying, “The only people who should use CAD are surveyors.” We know this to be blatantly false. While I get the joke, I do not find it funny when many surveyors using this line cannot even perform basic functions within a GIS environment.

GIS is an amazingly versatile software tool that can be applied to many problems outside of surveying. It is also a fantastic tool well suited for surveying (again, see Martin’s “Get It Surveyed,” January 2017, Field Notes).

CAD communicates details through graphic symbols and text that clutter the presentation. The more details, the more clutter.

I believe the primary barrier is the unknown.

GIS stores details in a database. These details may include actual photographs of the feature, copies of deeds, copies of plats, and/or video testimony of the land owners telling you they recognize a monument as their common corner. The GIS is rich with organized content and highly customizable in the data’s presentation.

CAD is project-focused. When the project is completed, the CAD files get archived. GIS is persistent. The more data added to the database, the more valuable the GIS becomes. GIS welcomes longevity and reuse.

Capturing land features has become almost completely digital. It is only a matter of time before a reliable land record system is developed that is also purely digital. The framework for this system is already being envisioned and developed, such as the Federal Land Asset Inventory Reform (FLAIR) Act and the National Land Parcel Database. The development platform is GIS.

Most compelling, government is becoming increasingly fluent in GIS. If GIS is becoming the language of governance, and the surveyor is illiterate, how will this affect the role of the surveyor in the future? If we do not speak this language, how can we effectively service our clients? Are we relevant?

Point Clouds

For centuries, surveyors have played a large-scale game of connect the dots. It was a crude yet fairly effective way to capture the reality of the world we occupy. Now, significantly better reality-capture tools perform more work in less time, with greater accuracy, and with substantially greater detail. Why then are we not using them?

Cost? Yes, these tools–particularly laser scanners–can be expensive. That said, they are far less costly than the salary and benefits of the field crews they can easily replace. It is also worth noting that in the scanning industry it is not uncommon to share these resources, as different scanners have different strengths. This makes the cost of ownership reducible through cooperative sharing.

Industry Innovation

I believe the primary barrier is the unknown. During the ten years I have been using this technology, little progress has been made in the data-extraction aspect of this technology. We can scan practically anything. It is the extraction and modeling that makes or breaks a project. You do not need to own a scanner to be an expert at point cloud extraction.

Now these scanners are placed on tripods, on airplanes, on drones, on surface vehicles, and on bipeds. The collection rates are unimaginable–particularly for the mobile variety.

Soon these instruments will be placed on self-driving vehicles. Navigation will only be a part of the picture. In the world of the Internet of Things, Big Data is looking to mine this constantly collected information in order to detect the slightest changes, whether in the quality of the paving or the tilt of a utility pole. Street-level topography will no longer be needed, as it will be constantly collected and analyzed.

Point-and-shoot topography is already obsolete. The point cloud is now our greatest source of geographic information. The problem is, point clouds are massive and therefore difficult to manage. 3D modeling is the bridge between point clouds and geospatial intelligence. The small profile of 3D objects is preferred in a world soon to be awash in augmented reality and virtual reality. 3D geospatial awareness will no longer be a high-minded goal, but rather the most basic entry point.

Is there anyone in your organization who knows how to manipulate and validate a point cloud? Can they create 3D models from a point cloud? There are non-surveyors who absolutely have these skills. Frequently it is the non-surveyor who teaches the surveyor to use this technology. Are we relevant?

Aerial Drones & Persistent Photogrammetry

Drones for low-altitude mapping. Drones for orthophotogrametry. Drones for lidar. Drones for geo-temporal analysis (fancy way of saying monitoring geographic changes over time). Drones for Big Data.

Big data? Again? At the New Jersey UAS Conference in October 2016, I spoke with a Big Data manager. One goal using Big Data is a constantly updated topographic map created with persistent photogrammetric collection. Repurposing the data is a driving force.

Big Data companies are placing serious investments into drone adoption. Part of the vision is that the delivery drone will be simultaneously collecting environmental data (lidar and/or imagery) to detect changes. These changes can then be reported to the affected utility stakeholder, the local zoning department, or the local DPW. These reports will be made for micro-fees. Spread across an entire nation, these micro-fees will turn into serious payoffs for Big Data.

At that same conference, government officials stated that autonomous parcel delivery will slowly emerge within five years and should be persistent nationwide within 10 years. Put that all together, and how important will traditional topography be in 10 years? The clock is already ticking.

Are you actively pursuing your Part 107 certification? Do you even know what that refers to? We can either market ourselves as geospatial experts who provide authoritative validation of the data being collected or we can idly watch another facet of our careers evaporate. Are we relevant?

Boundary Determination

This is our wheelhouse. This is our last garrison. The one area where the land surveyor is uniquely qualified is in boundary determination.

Now consider this. If the world is steadily marching towards the continuous real-time mapping of our physical environment, how long will vague property ownership be acceptable? It won’t. Boundaries will need to be firmly tied to the same geodetic system as all other captured elements. Boundary lines will have a pedigree and an estimate of reliability. The goal will be to eventually resolve all boundary issues so that all boundaries have the same high quality. This will require expertise in boundary law, geodetics, and geospatial databases.

This effort will take time. If the land surveyor does not lead the charge on this issue, another entity will.

Doubt this? How involved is the land surveyor in GIS? How involved is the land surveyor in machine control? How involved is the land surveyor in photogrammetry? How involved is the land surveyor in subdivision planning? How involved is the land surveyor in road design? We can cling to high-minded ideas of what we are legislatively permitted to practice or we can look at history. History tells us our area of practice is steadily shrinking.

Are we hiring people we trust will learn to make educated decisions concerning boundary location? Are we emphasizing the importance of a thorough understanding of boundary theory? Are we emphasizing a consistent approach to boundary determination? All I need to do is point to pin-cushion boundary corners as evidence of our failing. Are we relevant?

A Call to Action

Apathy has already done considerable harm. Our area of practice and expertise is dwindling. Apathy would happily see the end of the land surveying profession. Progress must be embraced. Progress must be rallied behind, with fierce pride and resilience. The future must be a key topic in every corporate boardroom and every society board meeting. Apathy cannot be allowed to win.

If the land surveyor does not lead the charge on this issue, another entity will.

We surveyors have a tremendous advantage, but only if we use it. We already are, or should be, geodetic experts. The world of highly accurate geospatial location has been our domain. Those skills and the critical analysis thereof will make us valuable to any team trying to capture reality for the augmented world. None of this will matter if we are ignorant of the tools used to re-create the world.

I know which side of this fight I am on. Now is the time to boldly show what true leadership looks like. Now is the time to assert our vision for our future. Are you ready to be relevant?

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