Web Exclusive! Surveyors in Turmoil

August 26, 2003
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A glance back at the recent history of professional surveyors, coupled with a vision for the future.

It occurred to me recently that my chosen profession, that of professional surveyor, is in turmoil due to a lack of direction and organization and therefore is in jeopardy. To see where our profession stands according to the World Wide Web, I "Googled" (searched on www.google.com) the word “surveyor.” To my surprise, the Google search engine gave first billing to a Mars spaceship-related website. The second link took me to NASA; the third to Professional Surveyor magazine’s website; the fourth to the Land Surveyor Reference Page; the fifth to the ‘Surveyor to the moon’ page... But none of these led me to what I sought: a meat-and-potatoes description of the profession in which I make a living.

So off I went to Webster’s (Dictionary) on the Web, typed in “surveyor” and received the message, “No entries found that match surveyor,” and a suggestion that I check out Britannica.com. It even provided a direct link to that site with my search inquiry. After clicking on it, I found myself back on the moon! So I went in search of a real Webster’s dictionary.

I decided that Noah Webster, the champion of the American English language, must not have discussed much with George Washington, the surveyor. Washington’s early profession falls second in Noah’s lexicon:
Surveyor – 1. An overseer; one placed to superintend others. 2. One who surveys or measures land; one skilled in surveying. 3. An inspector or superintendent, especially a customs official…

So then I slid my finger up the page to the entry for surveying and found:
Surveying – 1. the act of surveying. 2. the science or occupation of surveying land.

Feeling a little unsure about whether a working definition of my profession actually exists in print, I looked at my bookshelf and felt reassured when my eyes rested upon volumes dedicated to surveying by trusted names like Clark, Brown, Wilson, Robillard, Wattles and Madson.

All my research supported my concern that my profession is not understood by the general public. And if the various manufacturers that say surveyors are their champions have their way, with us buying the next “new and better” thing every year or so, most of us will be asking, “Would you like fries with that?” in the coming months and years.



The History of Surveying

Many books authored by better authors than me have detailed and documented the history of great surveys and surveyors; my history begins with the insertion of electronics into our world.

How many of you 15 to 20 years ago said something like, “for two cents I’d throw the darn data collector in the lake,” or something similar? I remember hearing statements like that. I’ve been lucky (or maybe unlucky) to have traveled across most of this great country of ours for survey-related matters and if I had a dollar for every time I heard a manager or owner lament about the closet full of computers that were out of date, I wouldn’t have to write this. I’d be retired already.

The irony here is that very few, if any, of those managers/owners had the slightest clue how to operate one of those ‘darn machines’ back then. They knew how to operate their cars; they knew how to operate their toasters. Those were all just machines too. So you say the car and toaster didn’t have software, firmware or any of those other “wares”… just the bewares. Well, they all do now, don’t they?

Who’s to say what might have happened to our industry if those managers and owners back at the birth of the electronic age of surveying would have had a positive attitude toward those machines. That would have made them leading edge-type guys, unafraid to take a stand about what was to come and insert some sanity to it. But they didn’t and neither did we… How many of you went to your local high school or community college to take a course in computer basics sometime between 1985 and 1995? The writing was on the wall even then; now more important things like Play Station 2 instructions have covered the computer basics. How many of you today know how to operate that system? Too many I fear. We’ve all heard of the “three strikes and you’re out” rule haven’t we?

Data Collection Software
Let’s turn our attention to data collection software. The first on the scene were the data collectors and the full array of software packages created to run on them. We started hearing words like “proprietary” and “version sensitive,” scary words—they had the power to imply that we might not be able to get our jobs done the way we thought we could, or worse, on time. Which vendor was first on the scene is hard to say. Hewlett Packard (HP) was certainly a leader; they had easy-to-use basic offerings back in the mid ’80s. Tripod Data Systems (TDS) showed up in the late ’80s. C&G Systems has been around about that long as well. There was one company located in Michigan called Retriver. Then came what was supposed to revolutionize the industry: the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) that developed the Survey Data Management System (SDMS). On the way to its first release the software contractor went bust. The state of Minnesota was its champion, helping to keep it alive, and it’s had about as many contractors as version upgrade releases since then. Wild had Wildsoft, which was not bad, but where is it today? Sokkia has SDR. It seemed all the total station manufacturers have tried to infiltrate the data collection market at one time or another. Have you ever heard of Alpha Numerics? That’s the system where alphabet soup letters can be used with good old trusted numbers, e.g., instead of point 1 you would have A1 or any combination thereof. Not one of the above vendors allowed this originally; only TDS and Sokkia have added it in later versions. Down in sunny Florida this feature has been around since the ’80s in a hybrid developed by the Florida Department of Transportation called Electronic Field Book (EFB), which has another little ditty called history included. What’s history, you say? What you did today will be available for you to use tomorrow. And then there’s the feature codes, which give points and chains (connected points) automatic color, line weight, symbology and style and are a real power in data collection just now showing up in other places. EFB was one of the best-kept secrets in the business. It was free back when it was developed and it still is. So there we have it—which one(s) do you use? Or maybe you still sharpen your pencils and do everything in a paper field book!

Then there is the software to crunch the data coming from the field. Many of the collection software applications crunch it on-the-fly and the final coordinates come right off the data collector. What about adjustment software? Stuff with which we can tweak, adjust errors, those sorts of things? Does any of the available collection software allow users to actually do geodetic traversing? C&G does; so do SDMS and EFB. What about First Order traversing? The same three. What about Third Order traversing? Again, the same three. Let’s try leveling—does any of the collection software allow leveling? Only SDMS and EFB that I know of.

Data Processing Software
So, what’s the big deal about processing software? “When I have to do serious traversing or leveling, I do it manually.” I’ve heard these words and read them on the industry chat boards from time to time over the past several years. These folks will wrestle with Crandall or Compass rule and do the laborious reductions, apply the correction factors, and so on. We don’t need electronics to do this work and there’s nothing wrong with doing it manually. It’s just in this dog-eat-dog world we live in, not many can get paid to do that anymore. So we hear about our colleagues putting in 10-, 12-, 16- and, yes, 26-hour days, just to break even. I’m not impressed. As any of you who have taken courses in calculus or statistics can affirm, a good system to solve the survey equation is Least Squares for both horizontal and vertical. For those of you who have taken the time to understand and use Least Squares, I applaud you. You’re part of the 21st century. The rest of you (and I think that’s the majority) will be, and possibly already have been, left behind. You just don’t know it yet.

Hardware
Next is hardware. Let’s start with the Electronic Distance Measurement (EDM) device. When the manufacturers figured out how to include it into Leonard Digges’ instrument, the theodolite, we had the total station. This was heralded as the greatest advancement to the surveying industry ever. I, on the other hand, herald it as the first of a series of instruments to be the nails in the surveyor’s coffin. Have you ever noticed that almost all of the total station manufacturers have something in common? They make cameras, or at least they did back then. When the camera went electronic it was a short leap to the total station. How many new total stations have you purchased? A better question, how many of you still carry a steel chain in the truck? And how many of you can still throw one? The total station made widgets of the steel chain. What do you measure the diagonals with? Oh, you don’t have to anymore with the total station. Well, I’ll tell you, steel chains are on all my trucks and we use them. The total station just can’t do everything. I like the robotic and prismless ones myself. I remember telling my crews when we got our first total stations that nothing about good surveying had changed, just some of the toys. But over the years I have noticed that the majority of practitioners of surveying don’t believe that, and their methods have indeed changed. Check out the industry chat boards if you don’t believe me. That’s Strike ONE.

The Global Positioning System (GPS) is another of those great advancements to the surveying industry. Except GPS had so much potential that its use transcended surveying in a heartbeat. In the early days GPS receivers were very expensive and firms that had this technology passed the cost right along—$2,500 for a single point wasn’t uncommon, and the z was no good. Today, I can buy the system for that much and have sub-centimeter accuracy in x, y and z. These devices were so advanced we had to take classes. Today it seems everybody has GPS, including my neighbor who can do mortgage surveys faster and cheaper than me, and he’s not even a surveyor! Therein lies one of the problems—we, as a profession, never standardized the use of GPS. Because of this, we have words like “geomatics” being used to define surveying. One of the leading universities changed the name of its surveying course to geomatics. Just took the word surveying right out of its vocabulary. Fortunately, Webster’s hasn’t caught up with them yet. Geomatics isn’t listed—yet. On big projects like airports, golf courses and subdivisions we use a handheld to guide us to the control points from time to time and they’re great. Why didn’t we standardize GPS use?

Here’s a relatively new word in our vocabulary as surveyors: spatial. Write it down, say it three times and cry. This system, more than any manufactured so far, will put us out of work. Everybody says the surveyor has to set the control. I don’t think so… Let’s say I’m ABC developer, I’ve got a GPS unit and I go to my site. I pick three physical objects that exist and x, y, z them. I do that myself because I want to be sure the control is good. Then I send the technician trained to use my scanner and voila! I have a complete survey of my site in living 3D. ABC developer doesn’t even know how to spell surveyor; he’s a geomatics guy. And there’s no law that says he has to employ a surveyor. That’s Strike TWO.

Then there’s Computer Aided Drafting, CAD, or is it CADD? What can I say? In the beginning, it was nothing more than pencil and paper in the computer. Not any more. To say it has grown is an understatement. How about, it’s taking over our world. There are really only three major players: Autodesk, Bentley and ESRI. To we end users that’s AutoCAD, MicroStation and ArcView. These parents are much larger than their CAD beginnings and they keep getting bigger. Just recently Bentley and ESRI announced their interoperability, dealing with ArcGIS.

And GIS (geographic information systems) is the final nail in the surveyor's coffin. Tax collectors in various counties across this great land have been quietly perfecting their skills in GIS. If today you can go to an appraiser’s website for your county or parish and look up the property you live on and view a little graphic of your land, that’s GIS. Do you know where the pins are on your land? Chances are you do, they’re being shown to you on your computer screen, yet nobody surveyed it! The government has all the country—make that world—mapped. With the network of NGS, BLM, NOAA, HARN and GPS stations, GIS technicians have been able to rectify the mapping to a high degree of accuracy and guess what? Your house is in the picture!—Did anybody survey those street intersections? Does anybody care about the government subdivisions? Ever heard of ExpressMap? Ever heard of Title ‘B’? The following sample wording is from a generic form: “Satisfactory survey by an approved surveyor showing no variation in location or dimensions, encroachments, or adverse rights, ans such evidence of possession as may be required.” How about removing that statement from the form? Why, you ask? Because title insurers are realizing they have NO liability. If they have NO liability, why should they keep the survey clause?

That’s Strike THREE.

When I was growing up, if I got three strikes I had to sit down. The umpire normally yelled, “YOU’RE OUT.” I fear the horses are out of the barn and running at full steam ready to trample the surveyor. We let them; we stood by during the ’80s and ’90s and complained. We now have a public that pretty much doesn’t know what we do or who we are. Those who do, professionally speaking, don’t really seem to care. Did you notice the spelling error in the generic quote above? If you chuckled a little, that’s OK. I cut and pasted that directly from a website. It only helps to demonstrate a lack of concern.

Can we do something about this turmoil? Maybe is the best answer I can give. Changing laws to give our chosen profession more clout is a very expensive proposition. Hiring a public relations firm to re-educate the people might be less expensive and might work even better.

I work in the five percent that will be spared. Perhaps you could retrain yourself to fit into this percentage. I close my eyes and see a big oak door with shiny brass hinges. A sign painter has begun to paint something. It appears to be three letters. S-U-R is all I see. Will it read, ‘SURVEY DEPARTMENT,’ or will it say ‘SURVEYORS KEEP OUT!’? Which will it be? It’s up to us.

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