Solo Notes: A Surveyor’s Place in History
History is a deep-rooted concept in surveying. In fact, surveying has played a role in human environments and development since the beginning. And it’s said to be one of the oldest professions of all-time.
Philip E. Adams, RPLS, is president of Adams Surveying Company LLC in Richardson, Texas. With 38 years in the profession and 10 years of owning his own surveying company, he knows a little bit about history. However, he finds that his love of surveying is ingrained in its ability to allow surveyors to follow in the footsteps of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Civil War soldiers and more. And he’s passionate about finding the next group of surveyors who want to dive into that history – and make their own.
Q. What aspects of the business do you enjoy most and why?
A. I’ve enjoyed the history of surveying. I’ve been fortunate to have worked in the original 13 colonies, primarily in Virginia and surrounding states, as well as Texas with its rich history of the six flags of Texas. Following George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and then in Texas, following the land grants from Spain, France, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, the United States of America and the Confederate States of America.
Following the footsteps of the original surveyor is more difficult in the colonies and Texas due to such diverse land acquisitions, ownerships, and being metes and bounds states. I have found the PLSS states have their fair share of history such as various rules established for closing corners or placing/recording section corners. The more I learn, the more I realize I need to learn; surveying is one profession that requires neverending learning from the beginning of your career and every year thereafter. The longer you are in the profession, the more you must learn. It’s evolving fast; laws, technology and applying our skills to new problems that we never dreamed of in the past, like determining relative positional accuracies of mobile or aerial LiDAR/photogrammetry.
Q. What are your favorite tools to use?
A. I’ve always enjoyed the older instruments — turning angles with an old K&E or using an Alidade on a plane table — but more recently, we have been using drone technology, aerial photogrammetry and LiDAR. These new tools have provided a much needed spark in interest in the younger generation, and it’s been a huge benefit to the profession at large. The accuracies that are now obtainable and the speed in which they operate have required all of us to step up our game and embrace the new technology.
Q. How do you stay on top of the latest trends and technologies?
A. We perform a lot of research and development within the company, continue to read as many periodicals as possible, attend seminars, partner with other industries, and work with the local universities and community colleges to help train the students and hire those that are learning the new technologies. We are members of most professional associations like ACEC, SAME, NSPS, TSPS and the like, which provide great mentor/protégé opportunities with our peers and those in parallel professions.
Q. Do you have any memorable stories from field work and/or a favorite project you worked on?
A. My most memorable story is when I was a young technician in Virginia, I was responsible for traveling around the various counties and states performing research and helping develop the alignments for overhead transmission lines from power plants to the sub-stations. We had a line that was to cross the famous Bull Run, Va. I had performed some reconnaissance, took pictures and scouted possible alignments for the crossing for the route. Once I returned to the office in Richmond, I was working with the engineer for the project when he noted that the pictures appeared familiar to him.
The next day, he brought a photo book in from a Civil War photographer. He turned to the page where there was a battlefield of dead Union and Confederate soldiers that lined Bull Run from the exact spot from which I took my photograph; both photos showed an old railroad crossing, and my photo showed the abutments and no bridge, with trees and underbrush. The old photo showed the rail itself, but the field was empty of life, no trees or grass, just the remains of the battle. It was surreal and sad as I felt the history of our country and the struggles it’s gone through. It was at that moment that I also felt the pain and sorrow of war. I had a great-great-uncle that died in that battle. I was happy to be working on a team that helped preserve the area for future generations to witness the battlefield. After that, we worked to place the crossing to avoid the unsightliness of the overhead line.
Q. What has been your biggest challenge so far?
A. I believe the hardest or biggest struggle was starting and running a growing surveying firm 10 years ago during a major recession. The time, perseverance, demands, responsibility and accountability have at times been overwhelming; however, it’s been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. The hard part is most surveyors love surveying — we love the history, the math, the jigsaw puzzles of putting the pieces together and developing a perfectly accurate, drafted survey for our clients. However, as the president of a large surveying company, I spend most of my time resolving “bigger picture” issues: developing and modifying business plans and strategies, banking, accounting, marketing and business development. I also find my time is spent on community issues, politics, training, working with schools and universities developing future surveyors, preparing proposals, watching market trends and preparing the company for future technologies.
Most of us do not think of ourselves as businessmen/women — we are surveyors. However, just being a good surveyor doesn’t pay the bills or provide health insurance, 401K or benefits to our employees. We must constantly challenge ourselves to do better, to be better for our employees, our clients and our profession.
Q. Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to get into the surveying business today?
A. I highly encourage those who love the outdoors, enjoy being part of history and love the challenges of finding solutions to problems to think about surveying. The younger generation has an opportunity to help surveying continue its evolution from the Egyptian rope stretchers to the sUAS pilots performing remote sensing and beyond. Surveying is said to be one of the oldest professions, second only to one other…
When you get to follow Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, and know that one of the greatest commodities in the world is land and it requires a land surveyor to perpetuate the sale and acquisition to every transition of real estate in the world, or to layout the supercollider or keep the high-rise construction of a 44-story building square… you’ll realize that you would always have a job. And you will always have a place in history as being part of the rich history of those surveyors that came before you. It’s exciting, rewarding, challenging and rarely dull.
Q. How has the surveying profession changed since you started, and where do you see it heading in the future?
A. The changes are vast and far-reaching, as I mentioned in the other sections. I started my career in the early 1980s before data collectors and EDMs (electronic distance meters). We still pulled chains and turned four sets of angles on traverses. My first topographic survey was with an Alidade on a plane table for a United States Army Corps of Engineers project. I’m now using drone technology that requires an FAA license that captures more information, is more accurate and 90-percent faster. I would never have dreamed that I could program a flight from my desktop, use GNSS to establish ground control, develop state plane coordinates in real-time, then launch a drone, and in 15 to 30 minutes, complete a topographic survey of 50 acres.
I suspect we are at another paradigm shift in the technology of surveying, like when we first started using EDMs. We will always need on-the-ground surveying. We will always need bright, energetic, and intelligent people to support the technology and find ways to do the work needed to develop, map and navigate the future.
Philip E. Adams, RPLS, has 34 years’ experience in the surveying industry, working in over 30 states. In October 2009, Adams founded Adams Surveying Company LLC, in Richardson, Texas. ASC serves a wide range of clientele including public, commercial, industrial, retail and residential developments. He has been a member of the Texas Society of Professional Surveyors since 1984 and is a past-president of the Dallas Chapter. Before beginning his surveying career, he served in the United States Air Force in the Civil Engineering Squadron as a Fire Protection Specialist in the Tactical Air Command.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.