Point of Beginning

Professional Topography

April 1, 2006


When a technology is introduced, those who purchase it need some time to figure out how to use it. Then they need more time to figure out how to apply it in lieu of the technology currently used. And then it takes even longer to figure out how it actually changes the way work is done. This last step ultimately leads to the final step of implementing innovation: figuring out how to solve previously unsolvable issues with the new technology, or how to improve processes that were harder, slower, more expensive and less accurate with the old technology.

Take EDMs, for example. For many, this was the first class of surveying instrument that used electronics. Surveyors were just not that comfortable with cables, plugs and batteries. They had to keep dirt, sand and moisture out of those plug connections, carry the correct cables to the field, make sure the cables didn't get damaged by a carelessly placed boot or machete, and remember to charge the batteries. The EDMs in many cases were the first instruments that actually had onboard computing power so that the prism offset could be automatically applied to each measurement or the atmospheric refraction effects could be "dialed" in. Perhaps the most radical feature was that the angle in the vertical plane could be punched in so that the horizontal measurement could be easily recorded and used in the field!

Much of the surveyors' process of "getting comfortable" had to do with figuring out how to use the new EDM technology instead of the tape they had been using. This also meant getting used to using optical plummets as centering devices at both ends. It meant getting rod-type levels on the prism poles to ensure that the prism was on a vertical line passing through the ground point. And all of this was just the first phase of the technology introduction. I won't describe the second, third and fourth phases of integrating EDMs because we've had a generation and a half of surveyors enter the profession since the introduction of this technology.

More recently, these phases of introduction and integration apply to GPS technology. There are many things to be learned and understood with GPS. Some of them include learning how to handle GPS antenna cables (which are quite different from the power cables for EDMs); understanding how multipath works and imagining microwave reflection from objects surrounding the antenna location; and visualizing the changing dilution of precision, which is partly dependent on the satellite constellation geometry but severely constrained by objects such as trees, hills and buildings-anything from the horizon up to the zenith that could block the signals.

Field processes and thought processes that had to change with the advent of GPS included worrying about line of sight from each antenna to the satellites and not between antennae; considering the fact that all surveys done with GPS are in effect geodetic surveys that require sophisticated processing (and understanding) to get the measurements relating to the local horizontal plane; and, where GPS processes were used on the same survey with "conventional" total station processes, remembering that they could not be merged without first qualifying the measurements for accuracy and then converting all the measurements to a common system.

Some of these principles and practices are simple to learn and implement while others are not. The main question is whether the businesses, owners, managers, supervisors and party chiefs in the profession have changed as the technology has changed. Have the ways in which surveying jobs and tasks are analyzed, completed and computed changed? Do these businesses and people understand how the technology works, what its pitfalls are (all technologies have them), how to avoid those pitfalls, and most importantly, how to use the technology to contribute to the success of the business?

Many readers will probably answer "yes" to most of these questions. But if you are a business owner or senior manager you may want to look into how those "yes" answers came about. Were your employees properly trained or were they forced to learn on the job, figuring out how to use the equipment through a seemingly never-ending process of trial and error? It is characteristic of many surveying businesses to allocate little time to training, professional development and activities that hone the skills and abilities of the people using the equipment. Such activities are often thought of as unaffordable. If that is the case, people in the trenches are required to read up on the technology that has been acquired as best they can. They can talk to others, chat with users on Internet message boards, and ask questions of the instrument dealer and possibly the manufacturer.

But when it comes to GPS, let's face it: concepts of geodesy, statistical analysis of survey measurements, datums and projections are the "currency" of the technology. Inadequate knowledge of these can lead to failure of a survey task or survey project, and in some cases a survey business. Businesses can probably point to failures that required a crew to return to the field for new measurements; occasionally a survey needs to be completely re-done. Before this decision is made, many extra hours are spent analyzing the data in an effort to avoid an expensive return to the field. But this extra analysis also adds cost. Usually these extra hours in the office and field must be "eaten" by the business.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if the true investment in technology were always considered from the ground up? With this mindset in place, all the accessories (tripods, tribrachs, etc.) would be updated in keeping with the purchase of new technology. Money would be spent to send key employees for training or review of key core surveying subjects. A qualified trainer in the technology would be utilized to make sure that the business gets up to speed easily. When all four aspects of introducing and integrating new technology are considered as part of the investment, the success of the introduction is secured.