Point of Beginning

Connections for the Future

October 1, 2008
A collaborative effort works to ensure New Mexico’s GPS technology leadership.



Central New Mexico is the focal point for some of the world’s most advanced applications of GPS technology for surveying and precision location. The Albuquerque Real Time GNSS Network (ARTGN) was implemented in 2007 as a real-time positioning component of the Albuquerque Geodetic Reference System (AGRS), which now comprises more than 2,000 control monuments and eight ARTGN base stations. Established with high-accuracy surveying methods and maintained by the city, AGRS provides a single coordinate system for the orderly development and positioning of the city’s infrastructure. The geodetic data is available to both public- and private-sector users through the city’s Web site. One such application is the development of Mesa del Sol, a huge master-planned community south of downtown Albuquerque that is being developed start to finish using a common data set provided by AGRS.

This map from PNM, New Mexico’s largest electricity and natural gas provider, is an example of how advanced GPS and GIS capabilities are being used in practical applications. The map depicts a network of electric distribution feeders that originate from a number of electric substations. Attribute information regarding the facilities is gathered by a surveyor using GPS technology and is tied directly to the images through the GIS system. Cartography by Chris Carpenter, courtesy of PNM

All of this activity has created a tremendous demand in many fields for surveyors and skilled workers who are competent in the use and application of both GPS and GIS technology. “Bridging that gap between the surveying and GIS community is the right thing to do,” says Tony Trujillo, president of surveying instrument supplier Holman’s Inc. in Albuquerque. “Quite frankly, the days of taking an instrument out of the case and putting it on a tripod--and that’s all you did--those days are gone.”

For two decades, Trujillo and others have been working to bridge the gap by leading efforts to create a best-in-class educational model for surveying, CAD and GIS that will meet the changing needs of the community, produce skilled professionals proficient with GPS and GIS technology, and keep central New Mexico at the forefront of GPS-based technology leadership. “We need to be able to support recruitment efforts (in our case through the New Mexico Professional Surveyors) for future needs of technicians and professional surveyors and mappers,” Trujillo says. “We need to support the high school students looking for a career opportunity.”

Connecting the Dots

The CAD Advisory Committee, which Trujillo worked to implement in 1998, was part of the Albuquerque Public Schools School-to-Careers initiative. The initiative’s stated purpose is to help students develop the skills required to succeed in the high-performance workplace of a global marketplace. The advisory committee’s initial goal was to create and deliver programs that incorporated CAD and surveying technologies into the high-school classroom. Eventually, this goal expanded to include GIS technology.

Trujillo’s aim was to build an educational “ladder of success” for careers in surveying, CAD and GIS. “I call it a fast-track process,” he says. The objective was to get students started at least in the 11th grade, offer dual high-school/college credit and move them into the community college. With a technician-level certificate or associate degree, he says, students can enter the job market, be employable and make a decent income. “But if you don’t want to stop there,” Trujillo says, “you can then go to higher education, like New Mexico State University, get your degree and probably double your income and your opportunities.”

Originally comprising high school CAD teachers, the informal committee grew to include the Chamber of Commerce; politicians; surveying, GIS and engineering professionals and associations; manufacturers and distributors of technology; and employers who need skilled workers, including general contractors, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the New Mexico Department of Transportation and the Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM). “Our mutual goals have been to develop a career path for our youth and reduce the student dropout,” Trujillo says.

As a result of the committee’s efforts, students in the Rio Rancho High School Engineering & Design Academy now use some of the most advanced technologies available for their coursework. The school, which opened in 1997 as a unique cooperative effort between the district, the county and Intel Corp., consists of five academies in which students focus on a specific discipline while completing core classes.

Students at CNM get hands-on training with some of the latest surveying tools, such as the Topcon GTS-233W wireless total station shown here.

The Engineering & Design Academy’s landscape design and water management curriculum now includes projects that use the 3D capabilities of Topcon GMS-2 hand-held GPS receivers to locate features on the school’s campus. Students in the school’s CAD classes then use the field data to generate plans and maps just as they would for a commercial project. “In the next academic year, we will be adding a surveying class,” says Paul Stephenson, head of the Engineering & Design Academy. “Those students will use the GMS-2 receivers and a total station we will be adding to learn the fundamentals of land surveying.”

The academy also offers an apprenticeship program, in which juniors and seniors work 10 hours per week with industry partners, and articulation agreements that allow students to get college credit for advanced high school courses. “What we are attempting to create is a career pipeline from high school directly into the community-college and four-year-college level,” Stephenson says. “Even the student who doesn’t want a four-year degree will leave [the academy] with marketable skills using state-of-the-art Topcon GPS and surveying systems.”

Today, the advisory committee’s goal has grown to encompass college-level education. It was instrumental in the fall 2006 launch of the geographic information technology (GIT) certificate program at Central New Mexico Community College (CNM). Credits for the GIT certificate, as well as CNM’s Associate of Applied Science degree in GIT and its geomatics certificate, are transferable to the University of New Mexico’s four-year geography program or to New Mexico State University’s four-year surveying engineering program.

Equipped for the Future

Trujillo recognizes that providing skilled workers is only one part of the equation that will keep central New Mexico at the forefront of surveying, GPS and GIS technology. Future professionals also need hands-on experience with state-of-the-art tools. “Education is very poorly funded,” Trujillo says. “If they [schools] have anything, it’s been donated to them. And if it is donated to them, it’s probably something that’s really out of date.”

So when Trujillo, who had been active in the implementation of ARTGN, heard that the chair of CNM’s GIT program wanted to install a reference station on campus, he and the Topcon Educational Partnership Program worked together to make it happen. “Our goal was to provide them state-of-the-art equipment so they could get some hands-on experience with the GPS equipment, on the field computer, the data collectors, the software,” Trujillo says. Topcon, whose components were used for the ARTGN system, provided substantial discounts; Holman’s helped the college find grant money and now provides training and support. Without industry support, “they [CNM] would never have been able to have the equipment that is now there on campus,” Trujillo says. Today, the students have access to a reference station, GPS, total stations and small GIS devices.

With an on-campus reference station, students can use GPS for campus improvement and maintenance projects, including landscaping and the location of unique facility items, like hydrants, and digitally put them on drawings. The campus’ reference system is also incorporated within ARTGN, which gives the city more area coverage.

The next step, Trujillo says, is to find community members who will provide CNM students with on-the-job work experience using the equipment. “They’ll be able to come out of school with some hands-on experience on this technology to go along with the theory,” he says, “so that makes them very employable.”

Students at Rio Rancho High School learn the fundamentals of surveying.

Advancing Capabilities

This is all good news for firms in the public and private sector that are faced with a shortage of skilled workers able to integrate survey measurements, GPS coordinate data and GIS, a proficiency that is becoming increasingly important to employers.

One example is the BLM, which is the only recognized authority for surveying federal lands. “Anyone who needs a federal boundary survey that will become a permanent part of the public record, we’re the folks who do it,” says Robert Casias, BLM branch chief of cadastral surveying for Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and New Mexico. “There are only about 243 BLM land surveyors nationwide right now, and 40 percent of those individuals are eligible for retirement in the next four years. So we’re facing a pretty big institutional knowledge drain here.”

A major issue of consideration for the BLM in its search for qualified candidates, Casias says, is that the geosciences are now a marriage of measurements on the ground, which are supplied by surveyors, and GIS, which spatially depicts the measured boundaries. The BLM has resource-management responsibilities that deal with recreation, minerals, water and archaeology, among others, and all of those fields need individuals with GIS capabilities. Therefore, more emphasis needs to be placed on GIS and tying together land surveying and geospatial technology to attract new workers. “It’s not so romantic to pick up a GPS receiver and collect coordinates,” Casias says, “but then if you bring the information into the geodatabase technology and you start working with it--everything that the bureau does is dependent on those measurements and GIS layers--I think you start getting people a little more excited about the variety of work available in the surveying and mapping fields.”

In Casias’ office, the mapping and surveying professions are being integrated. “I think that’s the way the profession is going in general. That’s the marriage that GIS companies are heading toward,” Casias says. “Working with the high schools and exposing students to the surveying profession, GIS software and other spatial science technologies early on will help us continue to advance our capabilities.”

The shortage of workers proficient in both GPS and GIS also concerns Michael Castillo, PE, LS, vice president of development, design and construction for Forest City Covington NM LLC. A joint venture between Forest City NM LLC (a subsidiary of Forest City Enterprises Inc.) and Covington NM LLC, Forest City Covington is the developer of Albuquerque’s Mesa del Sol, a 9,000-acre master-planned community, whose population is projected to exceed 100,000 within 40 years. “We hire a number of people both nationally and locally–surveyors, engineers, architects, renderers, contractors,” Castillo says. “There is a definite need for people who are competent in GPS and GIS fields and understand on the ground what the machines are doing.”

There’s been a major shift from the old pen-and-ink drawings to AutoCAD over the years, and most surveyors have gone to GPS technologies, Castillo says. “But now the challenge is putting the two together and meshing them and going to the next step of GIS and putting all that information into information systems.” The work that Forest City Covington does is all computerized and based on the GPS system. The company uses that GPS information and translates it into GIS formats, which are presented, studied and made available to related professions–builders, the county assessor, title companies and others who can make use of the database. Finding intelligent, hard-working employees who understand the technology and the base fundamentals is a challenge, Castillo says.

Efforts like the one in New Mexico are critical, according to Castillo. “Schools are probably two years behind in the technology curve,” he says. “They need to realize what technology is available and that there’s a true need. Then they have to develop the curriculum and find qualified teachers with the right credentials to teach the courses. All of these things take time. Collaboration with professionals who are in the field is crucial because we know what the needs are.

“There’s a lot of work yet to be done, and we need to attract young students into this relatively new field,” he adds. “If we don’t, then we’ll be wasting the potential of the technology.”


For more information on Holman’s Inc. or Topcon, visit www.holmans.com or www.topconpositioning.com. To access the Albuquerque Real Time GNSS Network, go to www.cabq.gov.


Online at www.pobonline.com

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