Solo Notes: How Geomatics is Changing Surveying
Samantha Tanner, PLS, owner of 45th Parallel Geomatics, LLC, does a little bit of everything. After earning her bachelor’s degree in geomatics from the University of Alaska, Anchorage, she’s worked in hydrographic surveying, airborne LiDAR, geographic information systems (GIS), and more traditional surveying areas like topography, survey control, as-built and construction staking.
Two years ago, she started her own company in Oregon. She works across the whole state – including in the Columbia River Gorge and the Portland area – and has even traveled to states such as Washington and California as well.
As apparent by her impressive resume of work and industries served, Tanner loves the surveying industry for its flexibility.
“With all the developments in data collection, digital data processing, and the nature of the tasks required of the professional land surveyor, ‘boundary surveying’ no longer accurately covers the whole range of tasks and specialties that the profession deals with,” she says.
That’s one of the reasons she loves geomatics. It embraces the traditional methodologies of surveying, while pairing them with newer disciplines like remote sensing, photogrammetry, LiDAR and more.
Q: What aspects of the business do you enjoy most and why?
Tanner: I love the versatility of surveying. Throughout my career, I’ve worked in GIS, hydrography, LiDAR, aerial surveying and GPS. I’ve used all kinds of equipment from hi-tech to mapping streams with a range finder and a prism/rod I pulled out of the bin of discarded tools in the crew room. It’s about using the right tools for the project. Even the clients are diverse: different levels of government, other professionals, neighbors, science and environmental groups, or mining and exploration companies, and more. You can be inside, outside, traveling or staying put. There is something for everyone here!
We tend to think of land surveying as being for math lovers and outdoor people, but it’s broader than that. For example, if someone likes to play video games? They probably have a great sense of 3D space, and working with LiDAR or topographic data is something they should check out. We all describe this as a field for people who love the outdoors and love math, but that’s not the whole truth or the only truth.
Q: What are your favorite tools to use?
Tanner: I have a cheap folding saw that I use all the time instead of a machete. I’ve had to take it apart and repair pieces a few times, but I love it. I also have two metal detectors that I like a lot: the Hound Dog from Chrisnik and the Garrett Pro Pointer AT. The second one I love because it’s so small and easy to carry in my vest while I’m staking out pins.
Q: How do you stay on top of the latest trends and technologies?
Tanner: They are always evolving or being invented! I mostly learn from networking or conferences and finding out what other surveyors or similar fields are using, interested in, how they are using them and any lessons learned. I don’t have the money or the temperament to jump on the latest gizmo, so when I do want to purchase something, I spend a lot of time researching it and asking around first.
Q: What has been your biggest challenge so far?
Tanner: That is tough to answer, because what hasn’t felt like a huge challenge? Being a solo practitioner and business owner, there hasn’t been one day out of the last two years that hasn’t felt wildly out of my comfort zone. At this point, whether it’s a business or land surveying related issue, I still feel like I can’t tell if the learning curve is exponential or logarithmic. No matter what the challenge is, you need to seek out mentors who specialize in different areas of business and surveying. We naturally want to seek out those who share our ideals and will want to celebrate with us, but it is crucial that you have people you trust who you call because they will poke holes in your ideas. Sometimes our enthusiasm for a business idea, purchase or project blinds us.
I am incredibly lucky and honored to be a part of the land surveying community here in Oregon. The support, sage advice, ruthless redlining, and encouragement has taught me as much in the last two years as the first decade. Being a solo surveyor is hard and I often question my life choices, but I do love what I do and I don’t think my community of surveyors here would let me give up easily.
Q: Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to get into the surveying business today?
Tanner: I wrote an article for the Oregon Surveyor last year about my experience starting the company and what I thought was important to consider. There’s a lot to consider, but it’s not impossible. Find the March/April 2017 issue if you want to read my advice.
Q: How has the surveying profession changed since you started, and where do you see it heading in the future?
Tanner: When I first started university, everyone was still using 3.5-inch floppy disks and it quickly morphed into CDs and then thumb drives. Everything is evolving so quickly, and it can feel like you’re getting left behind. Technology is just going to keep improving and there is no point in fighting it – it’s just more potential tools (albeit expensive ones) for your toolbox!
The anxiety around what is surveying, what the requirements for licensure should be, are we a “dying” profession, how do we get more people interested, etc., has been a topic long before I came around and nothing about that has changed. I think we, as a profession, have been looking at it from the wrong perspective. The problem isn’t the problem; it’s how we are framing the problem. We saw GPS and panicked, GIS comes along and we shun it into its own arena. We fret that robotic total stations are the downfall of on-the-job training.
There is a generational shift happening in every industry as Boomers retire. We need to transform our melancholy perspective of “a dying profession” into a positive one of this being an opportunity to rethink our own roles in the profession as well as our role in society. Where we have been seeing this career go the past few decades is not a place of irrelevance or death. In fact, just the opposite. In “the old days,” surveying only meant a few things really – mapping/exploring/boundaries – and it meant working your way up from the dumb end of the tape. Now, it includes a lot more with multiple paths to get there.
Today, we must consider just how broad land surveying or geomatics is. That’s why I love both “geospatial sciences” and “geomatics.”
The UAA Geomatics website says that, “Geomatics embraces the traditional disciplines of land surveying, mapping, geodesy, photogrammetry, and hydrography, together with the newer disciplines of remote sensing, digital photogrammetry, high density spatial data, LiDAR, and geospatial or geographic information systems (GIS). The disciplines are based on advancing technologies and use an integrated approach to the acquisition, analysis, storage, distribution, management, and application of spatially referenced data.”
This is one of the broadest lines of work you could possibly choose. There is something for everybody. Instead of getting frustrated and feeling left behind by the trajectory we are on, we can choose to embrace and reclaim our identity as a profession by including all specialties. Most importantly, at this point in time, we need these other geospatial specialties under the “surveying” umbrella, and conversely, they also need us.
We are not going to find more people to become PLS’s if no one even knows about this career and all the possibilities within it. I think the solutions start with changing how we look at the problem and we have to do what nearly all of us dislike to do: go out and start talking to people. Host free talks at a library or a brewery about the overall process of a partition in that county, or how to interpret their own survey record, or anything that can empower land owners to also be land stewards. This would go a long way in letting people see your face.
I hear all the time that someone had a boundary survey done, and that the survey crew came out and left before anyone even saw them. Everything about us is shrouded in mystery, including what we look like, and it shouldn’t be that way. They don’t understand what is involved, and it’s part of our responsibility in protecting the public to help them understand, so they can make informed choices. Taking advantage of social media is also a great way to reach the public while also building connections with other surveyors across the globe. There are several professional societies and individuals who are doing a great job of this #surveylife.
Samantha Tanner, PLS, is the owner of 45th Parallel Geomatics in Oregon. She earned a B.S. in geomatics from the University of Alaska, Anchorage. Since 2005, Tanner has worked in hydrographic surveying, airborne LiDAR, geographic information systems (GIS), and more traditional surveying areas including topography, survey control, as-built and construction staking.
Solo Notes is a regular feature in POB magazine and highlights the experiences and strategies of solo surveyors and small business owners. To share your story in a future issue, please email Editor Perry A. Trunick at email@example.com.