Point of Beginning

Professional Topography

May 1, 2004
Tool chests.

For centuries, surveyors have had a limited set of tools to do their jobs. In the field, for horizontal position, this was the compass and chain, later replaced by the transit and steel tape, theodolite and EDM, and, finally, the all-encompassing total station. When GPS was first introduced, it was seen as a limited-use technology because it took a long time to make measurements and because the antennas had to remain fixed. A rapid progression in technology has occurred in 20 years-what was considered only the tool used by the long base line geodetic or control surveyor became the everyday mapping and stakeout tool. In those 20 years, the demise of the total station caused by the surging applicability of GPS has been forecasted. But this has not happened and isn't expected to anytime soon. This is mostly because GPS technology, like total stations, has its limitations. Instead of replacing total stations with GPS, many practitioners now use both technologies. When faced with a job task, a choice has to be made of which tool to use. Depending on the site characteristics, data required, equipment availability and crew competence (among other things), one technology or the other, or sometimes both, may be selected to get the job done.

The list of considerations when deciding which technology or technologies to use for a project is long and complex. Deciding to tackle a job entirely with one technology, to deciding to use both and determine which portions of a job will utilize which technology, involves several trade-offs. Considerations include the interconnectivity that may be required for data, chronology, accuracy, and client and third-party scheduling. Even for a single crew, laying out the order of the work can be complex. Gone-or at least quickly disappearing-is the old technique of driving up to the site, pulling out the "gun" and running a traverse to survey everything in sight. It seems that the mere existence of a second technology to do the same or practically the same thing has increased the demands on surveyors and mappers. We must now be more organized and more engaged in planning, and better at understanding client needs and how to go about meeting them. We have to be more interested in the real-time status of projects as well.

This increasing demand to be better surveyors and better business managers is bemoaned by some. But the future and success of a business depends on the capabilities of the managers and teams alike improving to meet new needs. This approach also applies to the success of the profession as a whole.

The rate of change of technology, of field methods, of office methods and of business management techniques, has been startlingly swift in this profession, setting a template for what's to come. Although the tool chest of today's surveyor and mapper offers two viable technologies, surveyors must understand that change will be even faster in the future. It is likely that there will be more tools to select from, and that continued business viability will only occur with better technical abilities to understand, select and use the technologies, and better business abilities to acquire, use and manage all resources used in performing the geomatics functions of the future.

What new technologies will be introduced in the future? We can only guess. The same goes for new techniques for office and field work. We can focus on two tools we now have to choose from, but we cannot forget that the greater and more important challenge is to learn how to productively use them in a way that constantly revisits how we do things. Many of us know what it means to calculate area using the double meridian distance method. Some of us may even know what a double meridian distance is. But many of us don't. And is that bad? Many of us know how to read the vernier on a steel circle transit. Some of us even understand how a vernier works. But many of us don't. Is that bad? The answers to these questions are not "yes" or "no"; the answer is really "it depends." The decisions surveyors and mappers make about procedures and technology uses depend on certain circumstances. The important thing for us to remember is that decisions should be made by thinking about everything we plan to do in our work.