Point of Beginning

Solo Notes: Riding the Technology Waves

March 25, 2011
Richard Abbott, owner of Richard Abbott Surveyors, works in the hot, fine white dust of the Coober Pedy opal mines in South Australia.


Solo surveyors in the United States face a fair share of challenges as small business owners in a profession struggling to define itself in a modern context. Half a world away in South Australia, the profession is more difficult to enter but easier in many ways to practice thanks to a comprehensive state-wide GIS cadastre. Richard Abbott shares his perspective in this exclusive POB interview.

POB: How long have you been in business as a solo surveyor?

Abbott: I originally put up my consulting surveyor’s shingle in 1978, as a newly licensed surveyor, around eight years after graduating from the University of Adelaide with a bachelor’s degree in technology (surveying). Apart from a period in the 1980s when I employed licensed surveyors, I have spent my time surveying as a sole practitioner. In 1999, I purchased a Leica total station and robotic surveying system and became a true solo surveyor.


A flowering desert plant with a lifespan of days and a 40-year-old boundary corner reference mark are both treasures amid the desert rocks. Photos by Richard Abbott.

POB: How has the surveying pro-fession changed during this time?

Abbott: The major change has occurred with technology. As a graduate surveyor, I was privileged to obtain immeasurable hands-on practical tuition in boundary surveying from my first employer’s seven experienced senior partners. Initially, the surveying instrumentation was the T1A theodolite, 300-foot or five-chain invar, and the then-new bulky Hewlett Packard electronic distance meter (EDM).

My traditional surveying data gathering and presentation methods were revolutionized in 1990, when Leica launched its data recording total station and an Australian company released LISCAD, then a DOS-format field surveying, computation and drafting package.

1999 was the commencement of my solo era. Having already established the marriage of electronic data gathering and the Windows version of LISCAD, the only noticeable change to solo operations for me was that I actually performed all the field work.

It is incredible to comprehend that I started my career as a surveying student calculating with seven-figure logarithm tables, needing to interpolate to the second of arc to first determine a trigonometric function. Then, you could only read angles and measure distance along an unobstructed line with a series of slope corrected distances. Now, approaching my twilight surveying years, I am using RTK GPS to determine data between non-visible points.

POB: What are the most notable differences in surveying practice between South Australia and the U.S.?

Abbott: In 2002, I began to communicate and share my solo experiences with fellow surveyors on RPLS.com [POB’s professional online community] before attending conferences in the United States. Based on those interactions, I have concluded that the major differences between South Australia and the United States surveying practice are the education requirements and the land tenure systems.

In South Australia, only the cadastral boundary surveyor is licensed. An annual license is granted by the surveyors’ board after an individual initially obtains a four-year surveying degree, then completes a minimum of two years in a rigorous structured mentor training program and finally completes a major cadastral survey evaluation project.

Since South Australia is Australia’s only colonized state, it enabled orderly planned development. The region’s remoteness, lack of infrastructure facilities, subsequent fraudulent land transferring and an expensive land transfer process led to the establishment of a central land tenure recording system, the Torrens title land registration system. This also incorporated a central plan register that today enables cadastral surveyors to electronically access and lodge survey plans.

The central plan register, along with the foresight in the 1960s to found a coordinated cadastre with all boundary surveys connected to the coordinated reference mark system and the advent of electronic technology, has resulted in the production of a comprehensive state-wide GIS cadastral base plan.

A telescope vista at Google Earth reference 29° 0'8.36"S,134°44'59.11"E, 850 km from Adelaide. Photo by Richard Abbott.

POB: What has been your biggest challenge as a solo surveyor?

Abbott: Given that I am principally involved with boundary and engineering surveying, I realised as a solo pioneer that I needed to develop rigorous routines to achieve efficient practical outcomes. That initial planning still stands me in excellent stead since I can access any job with the knowledge that the coding, point numbering system, layering, etc., are still the same.

While never a personal challenge, I have nevertheless concluded that if you do not like your own company then you will never survive the rigors associated with solo surveying.

Cutting to the bone, the biggest challenge as a solo surveyor was finding meaningful time with family.

POB: What have been the keys to your success as a small business owner?

Abbott: It only recently dawned upon me that I am now knocking on the door of 33 years running my surveying practice. I still have a passionate desire for surveying. The key to success? Well, I can only say that when I first stepped into the surveying consultancy world, I knew that I needed to develop rigorous systems of surveying. I did this by originally writing good electronic calculator computation programs and then later developing an electronic field-to-CAD process.

In my humble opinion, it is vital to have a character that is a blend of genuine sincerity and reliability, the stamina to meet deadlines, the ability to generate clientele, a basic knowledge of and sense for business, and a competency in land division procedure, planning regulations, CAD drafting, manual work, total station and GPS operation.

POB: Where do you believe the surveying profession is headed, and how can today’s professionals best prepare themselves for the future?

Surveying new road boundaries through unseasonably green miles of stark desert. Photo by Richard Abbott.

Abbott: The future is impossible to predict, as the electronic era appears to know no boundaries. For the first 140 years of South Australian surveying, there was minimal change in the field to plan procedure. However we’ve seen a tremendous amount of change in the last 35 years. I am privileged to have made the electronic transition and am also amazed with the advent of GPS, machine control, scanning technology and computer data recording and processing that a number of field procedures developed and introduced in that period are now already redundant--or, as we would say, “old hat.”

The serious future problem is the structured training of the surveyor, as economic times and technology advances have resulted in the growth of smaller practices that make it difficult for graduates to obtain rigorous training. The technological boom has resulted in many senior surveyors not keeping pace with the evolving technology and, as a consequence, there is a knowledge transfer rift that once ensured the passage of rigorous procedure and boundary definition to the young surveyor.

In South Australia, a co-regulatory system between industry and government ensures the licensed surveyor is a protected species, as we are the data providers for the government-guaranteed land cadastre. However with the increasing number of solo practitioners, it may become necessary for graduates to gain practical experience by working for a pool of solo practicing mentors.

I am extremely fortunate to have a survey career that has allowed me to “hang 10” on the breaking technological wave, finishing my professional career as a Mr. e-Laptop Surveyor.


Richard Abbott is a licensed surveyor and owner of Richard Abbott Surveyors in Adelaide, South Australia, established in 1978. He has attended conferences in the U.S. and in 2010 presented “Paperless e-Surveying with Mr. Laptop Surveyor” at the International Federation of Surveyors (FIG) congress in Sydney. Abbott is a vocal proponent of surveyor education and, as a member of the Surveyor’s Board, proposed the concept of a rigorous formal post-graduate/mentor training program for the licensing and registration of graduate surveyors that now operates in South Australia. He can be reached at survab@internode.on.net. You can also find him on RPLS.com as RADU.

***Solo Notes is a regular feature in POB and highlights the experiences and strategies of solo surveyors and small business owners. To share your story for a future issue, e-mail pobeditor@bnpmedia.com.***