The Evolution of the Geo-Data Manager

July 21, 2011
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From restoring the boundaries between fields in the Nile River valley during the time of the Pharaohs to supporting the work of the Roman engineers that built the Appian Way, surveyors were a fundamental part of early cultures. They fulfilled needs to demarcate property boundaries, conduct reconnaissance and make maps for planning. They planned, monitored and archived the details of construction projects, and provided a host of other services and products that involved measuring and depicting the earth’s surface with the natural, built and planned environments.

These black and white photos illustrate the rapid progress of optical distance measurement equipment. As systems grew smaller, their precision and ease of use increased.

As civilizations and society evolved, higher standards of living have demanded more from the professionals that served them. Over the years, surveyors have kept up with the increased demands for broader knowledge and higher accuracy and have became part of a more skilled and knowledgeable workforce now known as “design professionals.” Today, the advances of technologies including computing, communications and geospatial data mapping have made geographic information more accessible. As a result, the needs of society have placed increased demand and importance on accurate, timely and user-friendly geospatial information.

Over the last half century, technologies such as the EDM, electronic data collection and computation, robotic total stations and GPS have changed the paradigms related to surveying fieldwork. But the changing role of the surveyor was barely evident until the advent of machine control. Today, the active control of machines using RTK GPS, robotic total stations and lasers is common in construction, mining and agriculture. Construction machines such as dozers, graders, excavators and even pavers have become massive position sensors. The concept has radically changed the surveyor’s role in construction projects, from initial investigations to the as-built as well as in the maintenance and rehab stages.

Surveyors previously were needed to set grade and alignment stakes to provide guidance for the heavy equipment operators; now the surveyor’s value lies in supporting construction through planning processes used by construction organizations. Today, the surveyor’s role includes communication with various stakeholders including engineers, architects, planners, local government, landowners, utility service providers and others, sometimes well in advance of breaking ground.

The surveyor’s new function has transformed to that of geo-data manager, creating or verifying the digital terrain and design models that are placed in the machine. The surveyor’s activities also include monitoring progress, field checking the work as it occurs, updating changes to the model as a result of inevitable design revisions, and ensuring the creation of complete and accurate “as-built” documents to serve the project life-cycle. Though not grasped by all, these activities represent the modern surveyor’s principal role in construction. Other activities include setting up calibration systems and processes to ensure that machines accurately create the desired design; managing on-site communications to ensure that all machines are using the correct version of the terrain and design models; monitoring each individual machine’s performance; and providing input into the project’s building information model (BIM).

Another key technology is GIS. Far more than “mere” mapping or simply providing survey data to the GIS professional to become part of an accurate and appropriate base map, GIS for surveyors means being an active part of the broad spectrum of GIS activities. Such activities include creating, populating and maintaining a GIS, and using it as a tool to manage the natural and built environment as well as the cadastre.

A surveyor collects field data in an urban area. Integrated surveying combines optical and GNSS measurements to provide optimum precision and efficiency.

Importantly, the surveyor’s activities in GIS data collection are not just measurements. Surveyors also collect and manage attributes about the elements they geo-locate, using sensors and data collection technologies that extend beyond the normal surveying instrumentation. The GIS is a live, dynamic management tool that uses data from a host of sources, but with spatial attributes. In the face of abundant opportunities, many surveyors are still standing on the fringes. Forward thinking surveyors, however, are actively exploring and shaping GIS through their direct involvement in it.

Technology will play an even greater role in the future of the surveying profession. Developments such as terrestrial, mobile and airborne scanning, digital photogrammetry and remote sensing have enabled the collection of more complete data, speedier field campaigns and nearly instantaneous data analysis. Software solutions are constantly being improved to furnish more solutions to niche applications. These systems--focused on acquiring and managing position data--are supplemented by an array of adjacent technologies. For example, surveying systems can be coupled with mobile phone and Internet access, cloud computing and Web-based geodatabases. This combination adds a range of products to the surveyor’s information set, including control data and information, visible, infrared and multi-spectrum imaging products of the earth, obliquely-sensed aerial data, cadastral information and regional mapping products. As a result, the surveyor (now the geo-data manager) can combine information and techniques to meet the needs of the entire project, or a tiny part of it.

A surveyor using an RTK rover works on a construction site. Jobsite connectivity lets surveyors and machines share common databases and positioning information.

Surveying technologies have become so user-friendly that many non-surveyors who formerly relied on surveyors are now able to use those technologies to get basic information themselves. It may seem they have bypassed the surveyor. However, even in these situations, the surveyor’s role has not been eliminated. When lacking the surveyor’s training in theory and mathematics, it is hard to spot errors and mistakes that cause flaws in the information. This need presents an opportunity for the surveyor to provide services that enable best practices in data collection and quality assurance. While data collection has become much easier superficially, below the surface it is much more complicated than before. For example, it is easy to visualize and understand a steel tape, compass or transit. They are much closer to the commonplace tools non-surveyors use. By contrast, it is harder to gain the surveyor’s understanding of the potential errors with GPS. Multipath, the effects of the ionosphere, even the principles of redundancy and quality assurance that surveyors use with all their technology is something the untrained user of surveying instrumentation will never completely grasp.

Not all non-surveyors will engage in their own data collection operations merely to save cost. Engineers and natural scientists, who need to collect their own monitoring or verification data, often work with surveying instrumentation. Experts in disciplines such as accounting, risk management and facilities management may have an interest in survey data as well.

A bulldozer equipped with 3D GNSS machine control. GNSS can increase productivity and reduce fuel consumption in earthmoving applications.

Although GIS has matured in terms of technology and uptake by planners, scientists, construction professionals, engineers and facility managers, among others, it will prove to be an opportunity for the surveyor in the future if the surveyor takes the first step. The properly prepared surveyor can offer expertise in several areas, including provision of backdrop data from orthophotos to DTMs, data collection for populating and updating the GIS, quality assurance and data management and analysis. The ability to plan with a GIS and to use it to understand ongoing processes is a huge opportunity for a geo-data manager. Extracting new information and knowledge from existing datasets is a core role that surveyors can provide to those who manage the land and what’s on it. And as the data users insist on speedier data collection and generation of useful information, it becomes imperative to be prepared with analysis tools for managing, verifying and interpreting this vast volume of data.

A key challenge for the surveyor, even with well-developed technology to assist, will be in communicating the information to the users. Surveyors can present information using a variety of media including static and dynamic visualizations. In addition to 3D representations, data displays can incorporate other dimensions such as cost, profitability, schedule and levels of project risk.

Survey data management combines data from GNSS, total stations, levels and scanning as well as onsite and background imagery. Moving information among stakeholders is a key function of modern surveyors.

Building information modeling is an ongoing area of development, and the surveyor’s contributions will be critical in the future. Engineers, architects, facility managers and construction organizations are quickly embracing BIM. It enables more efficient management of the building life cycle from planning through facility maintenance, repair and rehabilitation. While many stakeholders contribute data to a BIM, surveyors will collect most of the location-specific information. Thus, management of the BIM geo-data is an opportunity for surveyors to collaborate and expand their role in the construction process as design professionals and peers. This type of participation requires the surveyor to see the project from the viewpoint of the construction or facilities managers, and to gain new levels of expertise in the other BIM knowledge areas.

First responders can use BIM to obtain 3D information on buildings and structures. BIM will play a key role in building life-cycle management.

It seems to be a paradox. Surveying sub-specialties will proliferate and narrow, producing highly focused skills and activities. At the same time, in order to be an essential part of the building process, the surveyor of the future must demonstrate a much broader set of multidisciplinary skills. It’s not an unreasonable undertaking. For example, consider a surgeon who specializes in a few cancers. The surgeon is a specialist yet still understands enough about general medicine to be able to communicate ably and knowledgably with colleagues who are other medical specialists. Likewise, the surveyor must have the skills to navigate various cultural and technical barriers as well as the ability to communicate across different knowledge areas, disciplines and customary local processes.

A Trimble VX Spatial Station collects scanning data in a Virginia tunnel. The information is used to compute the thickness of wall coatings.

The world of today’s surveyor will evolve from data collection into geo-data management and information and knowledge extraction. Such a change does not diminish the surveyor’s role. Rather it is an expansion, in which the data collection phase is the foundation for the broader set of skills and services. Such a change requires a mindset change of tomorrow’s surveyor to be a true professional, providing analytical tools and results for clients who require increasingly complex location-based information.

Understanding and embracing these changes is not enough. Individual surveyors, and the societies they belong to, must collaborate with academia, government and industry to achieve common goals and benefits. Together, they need to reinforce the proposition that surveyors are the geo-data managers of the future--and that tomorrow’s professionals are prepared for the challenge through education, training and professional development.

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