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Professional Topography - The newest tool after robots and RTK.

January 1, 2008
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Based on the buzz in the industry, you might assume that the newest tool after robots and RTK is 3D GPS machine control. At the Trimble user conference last November, I heard some of the contractors in attendance say that 3D GPS machine control is so good for their businesses--and there’s enough scope to apply it in projects in their markets--that they are beginning to decline jobs that require manual staking (regardless of who does that staking).



The contractor’s ability to manage project costs, and more importantly the predictability of costs and schedule, is tremendously enhanced when 3D GPS machine control is used on the jobsite.

Despite all this buzz (much of which is justified and proven), 3D GPS machine control isn’t the newest tool I want to focus on. The tool I want to discuss has just as much--if not more--potential for changing the workflow of surveyors and others yet hasn’t garnered the attention that 3D GPS machine control is getting. The tool I speak of is GIS.

I’ll admit that I’m engaging in a little hype by calling GIS the “newest tool after robots and RTK.” Geographic Information Systems continue in many surveying circles to be controversial. Questions raised about GIS include “Who should do it?” and “What should ‘they’ be allowed to do?” While I have emphasized from the beginning that GIS is another tool, most surveyors don’t think of GIS in the same way as their hardware tools of levels, total stations and GPS receivers. But it is a tool nonetheless. Think of it as similar to your word processor, spreadsheet program, CAD or COGO package.

Try to remember a time when a new technology was introduced to you, say, the EDM. Surveyors complained about the high price of EDMs though they appreciated the range and accuracy. The early EDMs were heavy and power-hungry, and took substantially more time than what they take to make a measurement today (sometimes as much as a half-hour or hour to today’s two to four seconds). Similar stories about the slow uptake of conventional total stations, reflectorless total stations, robotic total stations, GPS and RTK GPS can be told. But while the introduction of new technologies continues at breathtaking speed, the uptake of the technology with the most potential for changing workflow--GIS--continues at a crawl!

Parcel data is captured, stored and managed in a GIS system. Image courtesy of ESRI.

In a recent survey conducted by CE News,1 47.5 percent of the 588 respondents indicated that they used GIS as a tool in their civil engineering workflow. It is most used, they reported, in site design, roadway layout and design, hydrologic analysis and design for stormwater management, and hydraulic analysis and design of pipe systems. Respondents also reported that they use GIS and CAD together to improve visualization of the design.

Why is the information from this survey important? It represents changes that have already happened in the civil engineers’ workflow. And these changes and growing adoption of GIS are likely to increase in intensity in the workflow of those who use data prepared by surveyors. I know that not all surveyors perform surveys so that consultants can use them as the basis for conceptualization, planning, design, construction, as-builts, maintenance, etc. But this activity represents a large part of what may be referred to as the “surveying economy.” So if your business, or your business’ growth, is predicated on generating data for these types of clients or activities, you might want to take notice.

In the past, these clients (usually but not always design firms) used to take the data from surveyors, often in the form of hard copy plans. Even if such plans are delivered digitally now, they represent “feature poor” data because they are digital versions of flat drawings. Design firm clients want information from which they can extract knowledge. Surveyors specialize in collecting data, but very often fail at providing the comprehensive service of taking that data and adding value to it by delivering information to their clients. When these same clients incorporate GIS as a tool in their workflow, the analysis possible with this new tool is sharply reduced with “feature poor” data.

One way to overcome this paucity of information in the deliveries to clients is to use GIS as a tool together, of course, with a better understanding of the qualitative aspects of the information required by the client. This way, the surveyor is able to help form the preliminary opinions about the area that has been mapped or surveyed. Further, it’s best to deliver this information in some kind of vector format (e.g., Shape files, attributes, geodatabases, etc.) that is easily received by the client’s GIS. This eliminates or greatly reduces the loss of data and time that can occur in converting the two-dimensional data.

One conclusion I hope you will draw from this is that if you perform surveys to help designers get the preliminary information needed for their analysis and design, it will be more and more likely that you (and surveyors in general) will be asked to deliver it in GIS form … or not at all.

But the wider conclusion is that surveyors who persist in not learning how to use GIS as a tool to perform their activities will at best have businesses that are stunted, and at worst become increasingly irrelevant. Many surveyors continue to focus on who should be designing and implementing geographic information systems, instead of figuring out how they can use them in their businesses to improve the span and quality of the products they can deliver to their clients of the future.

With new technologies and tools, surveyors often find that their ability to manage and predict costs and schedules can transform their jobsites and businesses. Contractors are discovering this with 3D GPS machine control technology. Civil engineers and other project stakeholders are developing similar opinions about the analysis, evaluation, and even design and visualization capabilities of GIS as they conceptualize, design, build, monitor construction, archive as-builts and perform ongoing maintenance of facilities. When will surveyors be part of the team that uses the incredibly versatile tool of GIS?

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