Surveying is experiencing a surge of technology that to some might seem detrimental, while others see it as an opportunity to expand into new service areas and achieve higher levels of productivity and profitability. In 2022 and beyond, the trend toward faster, more accurate data collection will continue, with a corresponding increase in the volume of data being handled requiring more storage and high-performance processing to keep up.
Advances in technology are impacting every facet of our lives, and surveying is no exception. The increasing capabilities of GPS/GNSS, laser scanners, robotic total stations, 3D software, mobile mapping and drones, among other things, are driving a shift in expectations related to workflows and deliverables. Projects that used to take weeks can now be completed in days, and survey-grade accuracy is defined in millimeters instead of centimeters. Although sometimes difficult to keep pace with the changes, the benefits are far-reaching and offer new opportunities for those interested in exploring the possibilities.
Shift in Resources – Innovative Services
Attracting the next generation of surveyors is critical to the future of surveying. With the average age of surveyors hovering around 60, a significant loss of experienced surveyors over the next five to 10 years is expected. The Bureau of Labor Statistics in the U.S. Department of Labor predicts 4,000 openings for surveyors per year between 2020-2030.
New technology and the innovative products and services being developed with these tools are a key selling point for the younger generation that has grown up with video games, simulations, virtual reality, smart phones, etc. As demand for 3D models, BIM and digital twins continues to increase, surveyors will have to step up to provide the necessary data; however, as data collection becomes more automated in the field, there will be a shift in resources to the office where the bulk of processing and production of deliverables takes place.
Second-generation surveyor Tim Burch, president-elect of the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS), has big plans to leverage new technology to expand the range of professional services offered by surveyors and to attract the next generation of surveyors.
“Technology is really driving so much of surveying,” says Burch. “Over the past 35 years I’ve had the opportunity to watch new technologies come into the profession and have a profound impact, not just from a performance, productivity, and accuracy standpoint but also from a cost perspective, and cost affects implementation and barriers to entry.”
Burch likes to compare the changes occurring in surveying to the evolution of the automobile. “Technology has improved the automobile almost to the point where anybody can drive with literally any skill level or no skills, thanks to automation and GPS, GNSS, and other built-in sensors. That is what some of the surveying equipment is like now—highly automated. We’re sending UAVs in the air, unmanned vessels across the ocean, and underwater vehicles to scan the sea floor. They are collecting data autonomously, however, it’s still crucial for the humans involved to understand the science behind surveying to recognize good data from bad data.”
One of the arguments against adopting new automated technology is the loss of math and science knowledge and the technical aspects of what surveyors do. Without understanding the process, an operator may not be able to catch mistakes that could have serious consequences. A surveyor needs to relate the horizontal and vertical coordinates to legal descriptions or construction and engineering plans and translate them from paper to the ground correctly.
“On the pro side, technology is making things more efficient and more accurate and reducing costs in some places,” says Burch. “But on the con side we might be putting this technology in the hands of people that know just enough to get the drone in the air or to hold a GNSS receiver and collect points. There’s a fine line between maximizing efficiency with technology and losing valuable expertise in the field and in the office because of the automation.”
By using advanced technology, a licensed surveyor can manage a larger number of technicians than in the past, maybe three to five crews each instead of one or two. There is a trend for less-experienced technicians to be conducting field work without supervision by a licensed surveyor, which lowers cost but may sacrifice accuracy and effectiveness of the data. With proper verification processes in place, firms should benefit from lower costs while maintaining data quality.
Education for an Evolving Profession
To make the most of new technology, educational programs must incorporate relevant material and stay current on the latest tools [see Sidebar]. Even though future drone pilots and 3D drafters have been developing spatial skills and computer skills through gaming and programming from a young age, they need to learn to relate that knowledge to surveying.
Many young people do not consider surveying an appealing career because of a lack of understanding of the job. Public perception is that a data technician is a blue-collar occupation, partially because they are not compensated at a level that reflects the responsibility they carry. In reality, they are handling $150,000 worth of equipment and collecting measurements that will impact ownership boundaries and multi-million-dollar construction projects. A lot of knowledge is required to ensure the accuracy of the data.
“We need to educate everyone about the importance of the work and the technical aspect of the work, and we need to pay technicians accordingly,” says Burch. “Licensure is not the only path to a successful career in surveying. An experienced technician can hold various certificate levels that show mastery of certain equipment. They should be promoted and compensated based on their value within the surveying profession.”
Office and field technicians do the bulk of surveying work, so they need continuing education to stay abreast of the technology. It’s important to understand the science rather than just pushing the buttons, which raises this occupation above a typical entry-level hourly wage job.
Construction Relies on Surveying
Surveyors play an integral role during all phases of infrastructure and development projects, starting with the raw ground survey, followed by the engineering design, then staking and translating the information into instructions that fit the terrain. The construction industry has embraced new surveying technology that provides faster and more accurate data collection and streamlines the entire process, while helping stay on budget and on schedule.
“It’s been amazing to see how survey technology is being used in the construction industry,” says Burch. “It is the surveyor’s responsibility to integrate and disseminate all the information. Technology has revolutionized construction with digital models that get loaded into the GPS-equipped construction equipment, so they follow the design exactly.”
There are also drones flying the sites to get progress updates and additional spatial data so more analysis is possible to make a better end product. There is so much surveying and engineering data being collected, it is inevitable that surveyors will move toward cloud-based storage systems, which is another area of technology growth.
“Surveying and construction go hand-in-hand, and I don’t see that stopping anytime soon,” says Burch. “NSPS intends to bring the professional community together with the key industries that we support, including construction. In the future we want to be the provider of news about professional surveying and provide valuable information about what’s going on and advocate for promotion of the profession to the business world and the general public.”