In practice, surveying is about accuracy and precision. When you try to examine surveying as a marketplace, the tables turn and it seems like the last thing you will accomplish is any type of unified or precise view.

The profession, as well as its practitioners, have many facets. The businesses themselves range from one-person shops to multi-division, multi-discipline multinationals. The practice at any one of these organizations can be even more varied – from boundary surveys to full 3D visualizations of major construction projects, complete with immersive components like augmented reality and virtual “fly throughs.”

Some would suggest that surveying is about measuring things. They wouldn’t be wrong. Metrology – the science of measurement – is a major part of surveying best practices. But measuring the length of a boundary accurately is of little use without equal accuracy in defining where the boundary is located.

Sensing a theme, rather than try to define what makes up the surveying marketplace, POB set out to try to determine where we are in surveying. The journey began with an examination of POB’s own studies and then progressed to proprietary studies conducted by Clear Seas Research, a division of POB’s parent company, BNP Media. A number of external sources were also used to varying degree, including a presentation on construction markets sponsored by Procore and presented by BNP Media’s ENR magazine. Sources are cited in context.

Defining “Who”

Surveying is essentially one of a group of professions under the banner “geospatial.” Surveys are generally acknowledged as establishing the georeference point that puts the “location” in nearly everything – from a boundary in land management, construction, infrastructure or urban development, to the critical mapping underlying autonomous vehicle operations.

Surveyors report their primary work performed involves boundary, cadastral, topographic, and engineering design surveys. Among the top 10 types of work performed by surveyors are mortgage, title, and ALTA surveys, civil engineering surveys, road and infrastructure surveys, and utilities and GIS mapping. (Source: various POB studies)

Types of Work Performed 2018 2015
Boundary Surveying 83% 79%
GPS Surveying 72% 74%
Construction Site Surveying 70% 68%
Cadastral or Topographic Surveying 63% 69%
Civil Engineering 53% 59%
GPS Mapping 41% 46%
Geodetic Surveying 30% 38%
Cartography/Map Making 29% 37%
Hydrographic Surveying 24% 24%
Water/Wastewater Management 22% 26%

The vast majority of surveyors hold surveying licenses in one or more states and may also have other geospatial-related licenses where those are required. A small, but growing number of surveyors are also licensed engineers.

Survey firms spend about half their capital budgets on equipment and another 15 percent on add-ons and accessories. Another 20 percent goes to software. Within that equipment budget, most of the spending is for Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) for surveying and mapping. (Source: 2014-2018 POB Capital Investment Study)

2018 Capital Budget Allocations
Equipment 50%
Software 20%
Training/Support 15%
Add-ons/Accessories 15%

In addition to the location tools needed for surveying, investments in data collectors and total stations are significant. On the software side, investments are highest in computer-aided design (CAD), data collector/controller, and coordinate geometry (COGO) software. (Sources: Clear Seas Research 2017 Surveying & Mapping Industry Software Study and 2017 Surveying & Mapping Industry Equipment Study)

Equipment Budgets
GPS/GNSS Receivers (survey) 24%
Total Stations (survey grade) 15%
Data Collectors 13%
Robotics 11%
GPS/GNSS (mapping) 8%
Software Budgets
CAD 40%
Data Collection 23%
Photogrammetric/Remote sensing 9%
GIS 6%
BIM 1%

Rise of Location Intelligence

The foregoing skills and tools provide some of the credentials surveyors bring to the table in their role of determining “where.” They also come into play where broader technology trends are driving how surveyors perform their jobs and influencing what they do.

But first, there is a larger trend that falls under a concept labeled “Location Intelligence.”

In its report, The State of Location Intelligence, CARTO states, “Business leaders know that in order to maintain a competitive edge in today’s market, they must understand and leverage the location piece of their data….” CARTO describes itself as an open cloud platform for turning location data into business outcomes. It was founded in 2012 by “environmental scientists, visualization experts, and big data analytics.”

The report notes 94 percent of C-level respondents to the CARTO study say their organizations collect and/or store location data. About 43 percent say they are collecting data through GPS. A third of respondents said ensuring location data is up-to-date, determining accuracy of goecoding, and having appropriate analytical tools are major challenges.

Having acknowledged the importance of location data and the challenges of getting accurate data, few of the organizations appeared to visualize or analyze their spatial data with boundaries more granular than state or ZIP code levels (only 27 percent reported having latitude/ longitude data).

Echoing the importance of geospatial data, the Geospatial Industry Outlook & Readiness Index notes a number of industries driving georeferencing, mapping, visualization, and analysis. They include, in order of importance based on its study, defense and internal security, infrastucture, urban development, utilities, retail and logistics, agriculture, BFSI (banking finance insurance), disaster management, citizen services, and natural resources. (Source: Geo Buiz Geospatial Industry Outlook & Readiness Index by Geospatial Media + Communication)

That’s a long list, but many of the industry drivers can be broadly termed construction-related. This is an area where many surveyors are already working.

Construction Outlook

After a steep decline around 2009, construction starts have been rebounding. The last couple of years have shown some volatility, with construction starts (indexed to 2000) increasing 6 percent in 2016 and 3 percent in 2017, according to Dodge Data & Analytics. The recovery is in its eighth year, says Robert Murray, chief economist and vice president of Dodge Data & Analytics. That’s a long time for a recovery, but construction starts are a leading indicator and residential starts were up 2 percent in 2017 while commercial starts followed a 22 percent increase in 2016 with a 3 percent decline in 2017. Public works were up 10 percent in 2017, and institutional buildings were up 14 percent.

There are a number of factors or drivers behind the moves in the U.S. construction market, Murray points out. Referring to infrastructure, Murray noted a number of bond issues had passed at the state and local level, which can drive some growth. The infrastructure plan announded as part of President Donald J. Trump’s inaugural address has not happened yet, he added. Public works should be a beneficiary of the Trump infrastructure program, he continued.

David Hudd, principal for Arcadis North America, also noted the potential for the $1 trillion infrastructure program in his construction outlook. Despite the fact the “jury is still out” on the infrastructure program, Hudd saw steady performance to slight increases in most U.S. markets. High costs aren’t deterring growth in New York and San Francisco, two of the highest cost construction markets, according to Hudd. The issues are productivity and cost. There are skills shortages in many categories, he noted.

The greatest potential for growth in 2018 is a pick up in infrastructure work, said Murray. He cautions that the question is whether an infrastructure bill can be passed and adds that the “promise of any infrastructure bill is often greater than what actually occurs.” (Source: ENR webinar “2018 Construction Forecast: Boom, Bust or Draw?”)

From residential building to infrastructure and urban development (including rebuilding as part of disaster recovery), the construction outlook is a mixed bag, with the overall appearance of moving in a positive direction. But, one question addressed by Hudd was a shortage of integrated design personnel. “Inegrated or better integrated project delivery is what the market needs and is asking for,” Hudd says. “A lot of people are still exploring what that looks like and, inevitably, I don’t think we’re attracting enough design individuals to the industry in the numbers we need for this to be successful.”

More Integration

Though not referring directly to geospatial, Hudd has broached the subject of integration, which includes the collection and flow of data and information. Remember those numbers on software spending for CAD, data collection, and COGO? Surveyors are in the field gathering increasingly large amounts of georeferenced data that has value not only for construction projects, but also for Smart Cities, retail and logistics, and other groups of information consumers.

Technologies are driving some of the growth in geospatial, including big data, cloud, artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, and wireless and broadband, according to the Geo Buiz study.

Big data and cloud technologies are useful in the overcoming server limitations during collection, manipulation, storage, and dissemination of the large volumes of data being collected in the field. Artificial intelligence sounds like an unlikely contributor, but along with other advances, it allows remote rendering. For instance, eliminating the lag between data collection and viewing the result makes some aspects of building information modeling (BIM) possible in the field.

The technologies the Geo Buiz report says are driving geospatial growth include GNSS and positioning, geographic information systems (GIS) and spatial analytics, earth observation, and 3D scanning. Foremost among these is GNSS.

GNSS and positioning is the most fundamental of tools that enable the rest of the geospatial industry, says the Geo Buiz report. It accounted for 59.6 percent of the geospatial technologies market in 2017 as represented by the four categories.

The report takes a big leap in quantifying the economic impact of geospatial technologies. Accounting for $202.8 billion in spending in 2013, the economic impact of geospatial technologies was placed at $1.18 trillion. In 2017, the geospatial technologies market had risen to $292.2 billion with an economic impact of $2.21 trillion.

The report’s authors describe the impact this way:

With geospatial analytics being used globally for informed decision making, location analytics becoming pervasive in day-to-day activities, and satellite imagery being used extensively for disaster risk mitigation and climate risk management, the geospatial market continues to grow. However, what remains hidden is the substantial economic impact the technology generates. The economic impact of using geospatial information and technology is often underappreciated even though it extends well beyond the core geospatial industry.

Of the three application areas for GNSS (surveying, navigation, and indoor mapping), the study quantifies the greatest proportion of the revenues come from surveying.

GNSS Positioning Market 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020
Total GNSS ($ billion) 113.9 127.2 143.6 161.7 178.4 201.5 228.7 260.8
Surveying % of total 31.7% 29.8% 27.6% 26.3% 24.6% 22.8% 20.6% 18.8%
Indoor Mapping % of total 0.5% 0.8% 1.1% 1.9% 2.5% 3.2% 4.2% 5.4%

While there are technological drivers behind some of the growth in the GNSS market, the study concludes changes in business models within the market segment are also important drivers. Some of this is structural: mergers, partnerships, collaboration, acquisitions. The report cites similar developments in the other market segments (GIS, 3D scanning, and earth observation).

Solutions Focus

There are some parallels between what manufacturers and suppliers are doing and what is influencing the geospatial technology user community. In many cases, users point out the high cost of acquisition and the challenge of developing a return on investment (ROI) as barriers. While POB’s studies show most equipment acquisition is through purchase and the majority of purchases are new equipment, there may be a growing taste for other models. The software side has already broken through some of those barriers as the software-asa- service (SaaS) model moves increasingly into the geospatial technologies.

New terms are cropping up, such as PaaS – positioning as a servce. And just as the manufacturers and suppliers are looking at partnership and collaboration models to develop and market technology solutions, geospatial professionals are looking at how they can partner to provide better and more customized solutions or expand market or regional reach. One solution to the technology acquisition and ROI issues may be to collaborate with someone who is already there. Typically, as the need grows, the capability follows.

An example of this model could be unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The barriers to entry are dropping, but many companies have an insufficiently developed business model to support the investment. The opportunity exists to collaborate with someone who has the proper certification, hardware, software, knowledge, and experience until the demand reaches a point to justify bringing the capability in-house. There may be other areas of post processing and high-end modeling where this appproach works as well.

It seems unlikely most geospatial companies would outsource core functions or collaborate for key technologies that are a fundamental part of their business. This can be implied from the continued responses to POB studies where purchasing plans are examined. GNSS leads equipment purchases while the example category of UAV/ UAS shows slow, but steady growth. In the same way that surveyors are contracted by construction and civil engineering firms for their specialized skills, survey firms may find new opportunities marketing subsets of geospatial services that may not directly involve them in performing a survey. Whether it is airborne imaging services or rendering a complex 3D visualization, these new business models are centering on providing a menu of geospatial services.

Just as Arcadis’ Hudd highlighted the skills shortage in integrated design, the geospatial professions are facing similar challenges. A partnership or collaboration model may help not only those who need to supplement their core surveying services, but also where organizations are still working out the acquisition cost/ROI issues on new technologies. Surveyors could be asking a different “where” question: “Where are the skills/technology tools I need to complete this project?”



  • 2017 Surveying & Mapping Industry Software Study
  • 2017 Surveying & Mapping Industry Equipment Study

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