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Technology: the Bane of Surveying Traditions?

This entry is part 22 of 64 in the series Field Notes

I have been surveying going on 39 years now. It’s a darn good thing I have succeeded, or at least survived in this profession, because I never really learned how to do anything else. Never really wanted to.

As I have watched our profession change drastically over that time, mostly driven by technology and the tools we use, I can’t help but feel a bit saddened by what has been lost, or is close to extinction, as a result. Sure, we can measure better, faster, and more precisely and accurately than ever. We are able to operate as one-person field crews with that whiz-bang robotic total station, saving on the bottom line. We can run almost idiot-proof levels with amazing closures. All great stuff and attractive to the younger generation, no doubt, but what have we lost in that time?

The most obvious loss, and likely the most detrimental to the profession, is mentoring. In the age when a field crew had a specific pecking order, when the pack mule dreamed of someday just being able to touch that magical instrument, much less learn to operate it, there was a lineage of knowledge-transfer down through the crew. There was an incentive for subordinates to improve their skills to work their way up. With a few exceptions, that crew structure is gone, and the ability to mentor future party chiefs and professional land surveyors has gone with it. I can’t think of any feasible way to ever get it back, but there are representatives from many factions of our profession diligently working towards solutions to this issue.

Gone are the days of maps with the personal flair of the draftsman who prepared them. Many of them were and are works of art, in my opinion. But even the best “ink slingers” I ever knew became dinosaurs as CAD evolved to replace them.

Gone are the days of setting up a “beer leg” for a stakeout session chaining in lot corners or construction stakes. It was almost an honor to have to buy the crew that beer at the end of the day and to be on the receiving end of the party chief’s ribbing.

Gone are the days of slope chaining, making corrections on the fly, and adjusting for tape stretch as the day got hotter. Do any of the up-and-comers even know how to use a plumb bob anymore? Do they even carry one? I think not.

Gone are the days of having to “raise for red” or “wave the rod,” because a digital level never reads or writes down the wrong foot or takes a reading on an out-of-plumb rod.

Gone are the days, mostly, of manually wrapping several sets of angles, then quickly doing the math in the field book. Today’s servo-driven total stations with automatic target recognition will wrap as many sets as you tell them to and electronically book the results instantly.

Gone are the days of doing station/offset topographic surveys with a right angle prism and a rag tape or using those same tools to layout rough grade for an entire construction site. With 3D models and automated machine guidance, staking is almost obsolete using any tools.

Gone are the days of bound field books used to capture every detail of a survey, including sometimes elaborate and ornate sketches. Who needs them when you have data collectors and digital cameras, some even built right into your total station?

Gone are the planimeter, dip needle, plane table, Rhodes Arc, and the top mount EDM.

Not gone are the hard-working, intelligent people of the highest integrity who comprise our noble profession. So, while our tools have changed dramatically because of technology, our purpose, role, and importance regarding determining boundary locations has not. Hopefully, it never will.

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Technology: the Bane of Surveying Traditions?” Comments

  1. I have to agree with 90% of what you had to say. I wish that early on in my career that I had worked with a real surveyor instead of a guy who just knew how to do layout and topos. I did hand draft those topos and did learn how to do a damn good topo and pretty damn good with the construction layout..but the boundary I started learning later on at another company and even then, we had less boundary surveys then topos and layout… I would have loved to work with some of the older, wiser super knowledgeable surveyors so i could learn their ways and their tricks or experience that they had. Ill never get that now with the newer personal. In fact, every job I do i still draw a sketch and write data down in my field book while all the others I work with just write down where they set up and what they back sighted…no drawings or sketches at all.. And they think Im nuts for doing it.. Its become where everything is done for the surveyor by technology, even the thinking at times. Today, they say anyone could be a surveyor cause once you learn to set up a total station and work the data collector, thats all you need to know.. what a shame, I dont think you ever stop learning as a surveyor and should continue to learn and broaden your knowledge on all types of surveys.

  2. Simply put Great Article

  3. While those days are gone, we should never lose sight of them because that knowledge may come in handy. I ran into a situation a few years back where there was a glitch in the data collector’s software where it was adding several minutes to the mean angle of a repped in traverse point. Turns out we needed to update the collector which eliminated the problem.

  4. Great article. Though the methods of collecting data have improved over the years, you cannot substitute knowledge and experience in boundary line surveying. My mentor, and I was lucky to have one, always said that the collection of data with improved technology was science, but the decision of what to hold for a corner or set a new corner was an art based on experience of using intent, natural monuments, man-made monuments, distance, bearing, etc.

  5. Scott, the points you made in the article are similar to the ones I have been using. My first party chief in 1967, Joe Glidden, was a wonderful man who believed in mentoring a greenhorn like me. My intention is to pass it along to the next generation while I can.

  6. Yes, I too agree this is a good synopsis of where we have come from, it’s a fascinating look into the past and a fun read.

    This article points to an era that established a hierarchy of surveying: chairpersons, instrument persons and crew/party chiefs. And it worked. It gave those without experience and knowledge “carrots” to reach for and achieve.

    But technology and the recession helped to successfully curtail and destroy these trends of informal instruction in our industry. Budgets and higher levels of production became more important than mentorship and training the upcoming ranks of surveyors. I spent years as a “one-person” crew (oxymoronic?), the proverbial nail in the coffin, all due to squeezed budgets and project managers not vying for the profession.

    I’m looking at the open positions on my state’s job board today: PLS, Survey Supervisor, Survey Party Chief, Boundary Lead Positions are at the top. Who is going to fill these slots? Most of those postings will be up in excess of 6 months or even a year.

    And surveying schools? Their programs are struggling to remain viable to keep the doors open, not enough students.

    Answer? My opinion? Respect ourselves by demanding better pay and working stability for our surveyors. Don’t allow engineers and project managers to marginalize our budgets and hours spent working on projects. And training – demand training budgets for our staff to gain proficiency of old and new technologies we’re utilizing.

    Or we can continue this massive decline: as surveyors with 30 – 40 years walk out of the door, retiring, taking all that experience with them. Just saw this happen two weeks ago where I work….

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