Career Notes: A New Kind of Surveyor
While many remote sensing specialists come from a GIS or hard science background, Evon Silvia, PLS, says his roots in land surveying give him a unique perspective. The solutions developer at geospatial firm Quantum Spatial has a unique understanding of the underlying hardware that makes the data available, in addition to the datums all of the products are based on. That awareness helps Silvia troubleshoot and make sure the data aligns with the real world. “More importantly though, it helps me to predict and prevent potential problems at every level before they occur. Additionally, a surveying background helps me to communicate clearly and easily with subcontractors and clients,” he says.
Ironically, obtaining a master’s degree and becoming pigeonholed into a specialty are two things Silvia intended to avoid after finishing up his undergrad career at Oregon State University (OSU). But “life happened” and he’s accomplished both.
Asked how surveying has changed over the last six years, the extent of his time with Quantum Spatial, he says, “How hasn’t it changed may be a better question.” He characterizes the profession as being in a constant state of flux since GPS hit the global market. “Land surveying has gone from this niche profession that mostly does 2D boundary and construction surveying to this huge universe of 3D data. Now everyone wants 3D data of their building, infrastructure or land, and it’s unclear who’s supposed to provide this service. Drones suddenly hit the market a couple years ago and now everyone is talking about topographic surveying in a matter of hours instead of days. Technology has made it cheap and easy to find our location in the world and measure our surroundings. Anyone can do it — not just surveyors — with $40,000 worth of equipment. Mapping data has never been more accessible.”
Silvia expects drones, robotics and GNSS to continue making the act of measurement more accessible. He anticipates accurate, reliable 3D models growing more important with the advent of self-driving cars, location-aware robots, ubiquitous navigation devices and machine-controlled construction. “Personally, I see land surveying as a profession transitioning into the idea of us as measurement professionals. Although anyone will be able to conduct the act of measurement, surveyors are uniquely qualified with the skepticism, education and skills to ensure that a dataset is sufficiently accurate, precise and meets other quality metrics that the general public blindly trusts the devices to produce.”
Will the need for boundary surveyors remain? Yes, he says; their knowledge of the nuances of monument location and boundary law in a particular state is valuable. But the the idea of a mapping and modeling surveyor will also become key in protecting the public because they want 3D models of everything, he says. “The really successful surveyors, 10 years from now, will be the ones that embrace this new facet of our profession and make it their responsibility. I’m not sure whether we will absorb that into the current idea of a licensed PLS or if a brand-new license will emerge, but either way this needs to happen in the next 10 to 20 years. If we don’t, we’re allowing any techno junkie with a drone or scanner to claim that they can ‘survey’ someone’s property/railroad/bridge/tunnel, which could result in producing terrible data without realizing it and put the public at risk.”
Digital data as a norm requires land surveyors to become computer experts, he says. He encourages fellow surveyors to get started now because holding off will create a steep learning curve, making services more expensive and potentially causing surveyors to price themselves out of the marketplace. What skills should surveyors focus on? Silvia says learning how to talk to one another, how to produe data that is useful for efficient modeling, how to distribute data conveniently and cheaply, and how to effectively communicate with clients.
Those new to the field should learn about LiDAR and remote sensing, and the land surveyor’s role in producing good data, Silvia says. Remote sensing data is often worthless without good control, he says, and people who understand how to produce that kind of data are in demand. “Most importantly, learn how to use GNSS with excellence. This means understanding geoids, scale factors and projections, as well as tectonic movement and how positions change over time. … A young surveyor should gain a thorough understanding of the NSRS and read everything that NGS produces. Land surveyors are society’s experts on datums, geoids and control, and will be relied upon to ensure new data aligns with existing data in the real world. If you don’t understand it, who will?”
POB: What path did you take to end up where you are today?
SILVIA: A big part of me always thought I’d become an engineer of some kind. I’d never heard of land surveying as a career. I’ve always been good at math and logic puzzles, and my dad was an electrical engineer, so I guess you could say engineering is in my blood. I chose to pursue a civil engineering degree at OSU because I liked helping people and getting outside. Civil engineering seemed like the best engineering option for keeping my options open, avoiding getting stuck in the lab and doing work that matters.
In my junior year of college, I took my first land surveying course. It was so hard, but the creative challenges inherent to land surveying appealed to my meticulous nature. I realized I was bored with what felt like cookie-cutter engineering problems and took as many undergraduate surveying electives as I could. Upon graduation, I jumped at the chance to work for a small engineering/surveying firm. That experience gave me a taste for boundary surveying and site design.
When survey work dried up as a result of the real estate crash in 2009, I found myself looking for a job. Instead, I discovered a new professor at OSU teaching geomatics and researching LiDAR. Most importantly, he had enough funding for grad students to cover the cost of rent. So although I had never intended to pursue a graduate degree because I didn’t want to get pigeon-holed into a specialty, I fell in love with OSU’s eclectic mix of remote sensing, GPS, traditional surveying, computer programming and LiDAR — or “geomatics engineering” for short, which, up until that point, had just been fancy talk for land surveying to me. I realized this was a career that combined my interests. Two years later I became the first master’s of science graduate from OSU’s surveying program in two decades and joined Watershed Sciences (now Quantum Spatial) as a control surveying expert/computer programmer/general LiDAR guy – a position I still hold.
POB: What did you want to accomplish when you were first getting started?
SILVIA: The economic crash in 2008 convinced me that step one after graduation was simply getting and holding a job. Even better if it’s with a company that’ll teach me valuable skills. Bonus points if it’s a nice place to work.
On the less pragmatic side of things, I had gotten quite a bit of exposure to ground-based LiDAR and wanted to learn more about airborne remote sensing and its relationship to land surveying. Finally, I wanted to get licensed as a professional land surveyor.
POB: Which of those accomplishments have you achieved at this point?
SILVIA: I’ve managed to stay in the profession and stay employed for the past six years, so I’d say that I’ve been wildly successful in step one. I love my job, I’ve learned a lot and I’m having so much fun right now.
As for those more ambitious goals, I have gotten enough expertise in airborne laser scanning to be appointed as the chair of the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS) LAS Working Group, the committee responsible for the most widely used data format for point clouds. Furthermore, in 2014 I was first licensed as a professional land surveyor in the state of Oregon. Currently, I am licensed in all four Pacific coast states, adding California, Washington and Alaska to the list.
POB: What have you done that wasn’t on that list or may be a bit unexpected given where you thought you would go?
SILVIA: I never expected to do land surveying because I hadn’t ever heard of it; go to grad school, do computer programming on a daily basis (I was supposed to be an engineer) or become a chair of a specialized committee. So I guess you could say that my whole career track is somewhat unexpected. In retrospect, though, it isn’t all that surprising. This weird combination of math, history, law, computers and robotics that we call land surveying fits me perfectly.
POB: What has been your most significant career lesson?
SILVIA: Although this is starting to change, during my education I frequently got the impression that mapping and GIS were for the unwashed ignorant masses, while real surveying — that is, boundary and construction survey — belonged to the land surveyor. As high-accuracy mapping becomes cheaper and easier to achieve, mapping professionals are gaining access to technology and problems they never had before. Their software simply can’t do it right at this incredible level of precision if they continue to ignore fundamental surveying concepts like reference frames, plate tectonics, projections, subsidence and scale factors, especially in the West. I have learned that the line between mapping and surveying has largely disappeared, and they desperately need our help.
POB: What advice would you offer someone who is still at the early stages of their career in surveying?
SILVIA: Never stop learning. Land surveyors are experts on measurement, and the technology for making these measurements is changing rapidly. That means becoming an expert on boundaries, research, datums, projections, drones, international satellite constellations, real-time networks, the public land survey system, laser scanning, vehicle-mounted positioning and GIS. Go to conferences. Meet people and ask more questions. Call or email your National Geodetic Survey advisor and learn everything they know.
If you’re a student, stay away from student loans because they’ll limit your options. Pay for school through a paid internship with a local surveying or mapping company, and you’ll be better able to get a job later. If you don’t know where to find one, ask your professors. I was too shy to engage with my professors as an undergrad, and I regretted it because they had so many connections with the industry.
Finally, expand beyond the boundary/construction survey niche that we’ve carved for ourselves over the years. Although it’s absolutely essential for the public welfare that boundary surveys continue to require the expertise of the licensed land surveyor, there are so many more applications for our skills and knowledge. Some states, like Washington, have already started legislating topographic mapping as land surveying, and more will follow. The wide world of mapping is begging for highly skilled land surveyors to join the team. Don’t believe me? Just look at our job openings.
Evon Silvia, PLS, is solutions developer at Quantum Spatial. He specializes in remote sensing, topography and control surveying, and is chair of the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS) LAS Working Group. Silvia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Career Notes is a regular feature in POB magazine that aims to help surveyors learn from how others work. To share your story in a future issue, please email Managing Editor Valerie King at email@example.com.