Point of Beginning

From the Ground Up: Photogrammetry, surveying and the Model Law.

August 27, 2003
Revisions are currently under consideration for adoption by NCEES.



In 1995, the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) modified the Model Law for surveying to add specific language regarding photogrammetry and GIS/LIS as areas covered under the licensure umbrella. While NCEES has no statutory authority (that rests with the individual states), the Model Law is an important document used as the basis for most state surveyor licensing laws. The changes in the Model Law adopted in 1995 have already served as the basis for modifications made by some states. Changes in other states are sure to follow.

After the 1995 changes, numerous concerns were raised by scientific, professional and trade organizations including the Management Association of Private Photogrammetric Surveyors (MAPPS), the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS). Each of these organizations objected to the changes made without NCEES consultation with the photogrammetry community. This led to the formation of a Multi-Organization Task Force (MOTF) in 1997 to review those concerns and recommend changes to NCEES. The initial task force was formed with representatives from five national industry organizations: the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping (ACSM), the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS), MAPPS, ASPRS and ASCE. In 1999, the MOTF was expanded to include GIS representation.

As a result of recommendations by the MOTF, NCEES modified the Model Law in 1998 to include a Savings Clause, or grandfather language, to allow professionals currently practicing photogrammetry to obtain licensure without taking the national land surveying examination. Furthermore, changes were made in 1999 to address issues related to reciprocity/comity and ease of mobility for the licensees. Additional recommendations are currently under consideration for adoption by NCEES, including issues of licensure related to GIS practice.

State Law Differences

Did earlier versions of the Model Law include language that covered photogrammetry and GIS services? That depends on your interpretation of the law. Many previously enacted state laws included language defining land surveying as “measuring and locating, establishing, or reestablishing lines, angles, elevations, natural and man-made features in the air, on the surface and immediate subsurface of the earth, within underground workings, and on the beds or surfaces of the bodies of water involving the determination or establishment of the facts of size, shape, topography, and acreage...”1 Some areas of photogrammetric practice may clearly seem to fit within this definition while others are at best fuzzy.

Florida was the first state to make significant changes to its statutes by bringing surveying and mapping together in the early 1990s. In fact, Florida was ahead of the changes made by NCEES to the 1995 Model Law. To reflect the changes in its law, licensed practitioners in Florida carry the title of professional surveyor and mapper (PSM).

New Mexico, North Carolina and South Carolina have followed Florida’s lead with slightly different approaches. New Mexico and North Carolina recognize only one class of surveyor regardless of whether the licensee focuses on boundary, photogrammetric or geodetic surveying. In North Carolina the individual is licensed as a professional land surveyor, in New Mexico as a professional surveyor. This follows the model adopted and recommended by NCEES that states, “the correct course is for all those who practice within the Definition of Surveying, as revised, will have one license, and be called by one name.”2

South Carolina, however, has adopted three variations of professional licenses in its approach to surveying. Its new law divides licensees among the categories of professional land boundary, professional photogrammetric and professional Geographic Information System (GIS) surveyors.

Other states have discussed modifying their licensing laws to specifically include photogrammetry. This list includes California, Virginia, Texas, Oregon, Washington and New York. The legislature in South Dakota added GIS and LIS, but not photogrammetry to the definition of surveying without a grandfather provision, while Illinois expanded its definition of surveying but specifically exempted most photogrammetry and GIS/LIS. It is likely others are currently discussing modifications.

New Examinations?

Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina added grandfather provisions to their state laws that provided a means for practicing photogrammetrists to become licensed without taking the national (NCEES) land surveying examination. These provisions are similar to those put in place by most states when they first enacted licensure for land surveyors. The idea is to allow qualified individuals currently practicing their profession to continue to do so without an undue burden in obtaining licensure under the new law.

The grandfather provisions have since expired in both Florida and North Carolina. Qualified photogrammetrists and GIS/LIS practitioners can still obtain a license in South Carolina under these provisions through June 2004. After that, they will have to meet additional qualifications and obtain a passing score on both the Fundamentals of Land Surveying (FLS) and Principles and Practice of Land Surveying (PLS) exams, much like the current requirements in Florida and North Carolina.

This is where a significant problem is introduced by the examination process. The current NCEES examinations have a primary focus on boundary surveys and real property rights, reflecting the traditional discipline of surveying as defined in the pre-1995 NCEES Model Law and by most of the existing state statutes. The problem is only minor in the FLS exam that leads to the Surveying Intern (SI) classification. Much of this exam focuses on math, science, computer operations, communication, planning, plane surveying and geodetic sciences. All of this subject matter is fair game for the mapping professional. But NCEES places an approximate weight of 13 percent (visit the NCEES web site at www.ncees.org for the complete listing) in this examination on “cadastral law and administration” and “boundary law,” topics totally unrelated to photogrammetry.

The problem is exacerbated in the PLS exam. The majority of this exam relates to boundary topics or conventional surveying issues such as evidence, case law, construction surveys, condominium surveys, ALTA/ACSM surveys, reconciliation of survey and record data, possession, riparian and littoral boundaries, and conflicting title elements. These are generally topics that are not required in the practice of photogrammetry. Similarly, the current exam covers elements of photogrammetry and related mapping, and data acquisition subjects in only a token manner.

Clearly the public’s health, safety and welfare are not best served by an examination that does not test the applicant’s knowledge and abilities in the areas in which he or she proposes to practice. Moreover, such a test places an artificial barrier in the way of otherwise capable mapping professionals and unreasonably restricts the numbers entering the licensing arena. Therefore, the MOTF has recommended changes in these exams, which are under current consideration by NCEES.

The Need for Extension

Is there a need for the extension of the definition of surveying to include photogrammetric mapping? Many would argue there is more need today than at any other time in the history of our profession. Topographic surveys and other maps that are later used in land development, planning, engineering design or construction projects have the potential for producing undesirable or hazardous results when they are not created in an accurate and correct manner. The risks to the public’s health, safety and welfare must be minimized, and licensing can be a useful vehicle in this effort.

Further, one can argue that several structural changes have taken place over the last decade that significantly changed the landscape of the mapping arena. Technology has played a significant role as it has brought new tools like LiDAR, Inertial Navigation Systems (INS), airborne GPS and digital cameras into play. Computer systems and software have continued to make quantum leaps in the areas of productivity and affordability to the practitioner. All these are very good for the profession.

But these changes don’t come without some unforeseen negative effects. The affordability of hardware and software systems has significantly increased the number of players providing mapping services. The education, experience, knowledge and abilities of these new service providers can vary significantly from one provider to the next. Not surprisingly, a similar variation generally exists in the quality and accuracy of the services provided.

The situation is further complicated by the needs and demands of the clients in today’s environment. The last few years have seen an exponential rise in the variations of mapping deliverables. Today’s professional must be well-versed in the use of multiple projections, datums and units of measure, and also have a thorough understanding of the principles and science behind their services. It is not uncommon to work on State Plane, UTM, Albers Equal Area and localized surface coordinate projections; on multiple datums; and with varying units like the international foot, U.S. survey foot and the metric system all in the same week! The mapping professional’s technical expertise must be capable of meeting these demands.

Finally, there is a need for change in everyone’s mindset regarding the term professional surveyor. If photogrammetric mapping and some forms of GIS are included under the umbrella of “surveying,” then further changes are required in the way we view this professional group. For example, Tennessee requires the submission of two plats with an application to obtain licensure through reciprocity. How does a practicing photogrammetrist submit two plats with his or her licensure application when the preparation of these instruments would likely constitute practice outside of his or her area of competence, thus violating his or her ethical requirements as a professional?

What Lies Ahead

The licensing boards will take on the role of enforcement of photogrammetry issues once changes are made in their licensing laws. This will include the significant task of monitoring the practice by unlicensed professionals. Florida has been very aggressive in this role. The legal definition of a professional surveyor and mapper in Florida includes “a person who determines and displays the facts of size, shape, topography, tidal datum planes, legal or geodetic location or relation, and orientation of improved or unimproved real property through direct measurement or from certifiable measurement through accepted photogrammetric procedures.”3 The Florida Board of Professional Surveyors and Mappers is proactive in policing the profession in the state, reacting quickly to complaints about unlicensed practitioners.

It should be noted that one of the arguments against having only one title as a professional surveyor is that photogrammetrists would have the same license as other surveyors and could practice land surveying. This issue was addressed at the ACSM conference in Phoenix earlier this year. John Clyatt, president of the Florida Surveying and Mapping Society spoke about his state’s history regarding this topic at the meeting and in his President’s Message column in the association’s publication “The Florida Surveyor.” He states, “It hasn’t been an issue. Photogrammetrists practice photogrammetric mapping and land surveyors practice land surveying and there hasn’t appeared to be a desire on the photogrammetrist’s part to perform boundary surveys.”4 One of the responsibilities of the licensing boards is to ensure that all professionals follow their ethical requirements to only practice within their area of competence. To practice otherwise means the professional runs the substantial risk of losing his or her license and livelihood.

The next few years should be very interesting. The definition of a professional surveyor is rapidly changing. There are likely to be a few bumps in the road along the way, but hopefully, the end result will be a stronger and more capable profession.

1 Kentucky Revised Statutes, Chapter 322.010.

2 Task Force for Model Law for Surveying. George E. Freeman, PE, PLS, Chair. p 2.

3 The 2002 Florida Statutes. Chapter 472.005.

4 “The Florida Surveyor.” John M. Clyatt. April 2003. p 5.