Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln laid the groundwork for land surveying to be warmly accepted as one of our nation’s oldest practices — sweet with tradition and as American as apple pie.

Lately, though, whenever survey work leans too hard on geospatial technology, old-timers will use those famous figureheads to bemoan the days of real surveying, when everything done was down to earth.

Those were real surveyors, they say.

And they did real surveying! 

Rather than being encouraged to cultivate the profession’s history, aspiring surveyors may find (as I have) that tradition is treated as something to be conserved — a resevoir that could run dry if we aren’t careful. Yet, in trying to preserve land surveying's little slice of history, I think we can all agree that we sometimes lose sight of the point.

“Real” surveying, what can be traced to ancient Egypt, was progressive. Some might even dare to say forward-thinking. That is what we, at POB, think of when we hear traditional, and the pandemic has only moved us closer to where we want to be: the future.

In the aptly titled article, the “Future of Surveying,” National Society of Professional Surveyors president-elect Tim Burch shares: “The techniques now used to gather data are more complicated than the lawful analysis of boundary principals, but both are critical to the successful completion of a surveying project.”

Speaking about the fundamentals of surveying, our POB Editorial Advisory Board members unanimously agreed that the fundamentals aren't changing. However, technology is expanding the scope of those fundamentals and giving land surveyors more solutions to reach the right outcome more than ever before.

Here, POB's Editorial Advisory Board shares their thoughts on how we can reconcile the fundamentals of surveying with technology to push the land surveying profession forward: 

Jeff Fagerman

Jeff Fagerman, LiDAR USA

"The fundamentals of boundary and property surveys, the heart and soul of surveying, remains unchanged in concept, but there is no question technology facilitates better solutions with less effort. Positioning via GNSS for geo-referencing and the use of drones, imagery, and lasers (lidar), along with virtually unlimited online resources allow for a more thorough and reliable product whether it is a map or an elevation surface. Given the advent of all of the powerful tools and software, coupled with readily available geo-referenced imagery and cadastral data, today’s surveyors must be able to collaborate all of these factors to solve the fundamental 'walking in the original surveyor’s footsteps' boundary requirements." 

He adds, "Additionally, one of the common issues when reviewing controversial survey results is the 'common man' principle. Today’s surveyors are setting the standards higher and higher using the latest technologies, upgrading the 'common man' principle to reflect these new tools and technologies." 

Jason Stoker

Jason Stoker, Ph.D., USGS

"In my opinion the fundamentals of surveying haven’t changed per se, we are still acquiring positions based on angles and distances. But the application of the fundamentals have changed a lot over the years. For one, we are no longer satisfied with knowing a location of a single point or even a set of points, but desire millions to billions of points with the precision and accuracy equal to or greater than any of those traditional individual points. Tools such as LiDAR, structure from motion, and other 3D capture technologies have dramatically transformed the information a surveyor can provide. The concept of a ‘digital twin,’ or completely virtual rendering of a scene at precisions and accuracies unheard of even a decade ago are now commonplace. We are no longer just measuring, we are completely mapping and rendering complex environments in 3D."


What tools does the modern surveyor need today?

"Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones, have become more capable and affordable, making them an ideal tool for any surveyor. UAVs provide the ability to survey larger areas more quickly, especially in complex terrain or areas with many obstructions. UAVs also make the job safer, so human operators don’t need to fly over or enter hazardous environments to take measurements. UAVs are quickly becoming a standard, necessary component of any surveying businesses. Using them may soon even become an industry standard. Though delayed some, the modern surveyor will also need to have a complete understanding of the new reference frames very soon. While most of us have known that what we are measuring and mapping are not actually fixed positions but sitting on top of a dynamic, moving Earth, the detailed temporal component of these positions will dramatically increase the complexity of any surveyed location."

Emily Pierce

Emily Pierce, NSPS & Berntsen

As far as fundamentals are concerned, I don’t believe they have changed much at all. They are the building blocks of our profession and I believe are built to stand the test of time. What I do see changing with our profession is the tools in which we use to find the solutions we need. Our world has become more reliant on location information, and we, as surveyors, should be the source of that information. We use a variety of tools to get that information, including traditional surveying, GPS, laser scanners, drones, LiDAR, and the list could go on and on. But the result should still be the same, we use those tools to locate things on the earth, and through our specialized training, regulation, and knowledge, make informed decisions. That shouldn’t change.


What characteristics and tools does the modern surveyor need today?

The modern surveyor should be curious about the world around them, have a desire to always be learning, a historical context to understand what has happened up to a certain point in time, a futuristic outlook to foresee development that makes sense and is healthy for our environment, and determination to achieve goals. Oh, and a good shovel and not being afraid to get a little dirty every once in a while goes a long way.

Michael Dix

Michael Dix, Trimble

I had a crew chief that used to lay maps on the hood of the truck when we got out to a new site. He'd turn it to the correct orientation, and say, "This is how the world sits." Even though there are a lot more people holding maps in the palm of their hands these days, I think this message still holds true: We need surveyors to tell us how the world sits, understand complex coordinate systems, establish reliable control, set out guideposts for where to build roads and bridges, and to map our world with exquisite detail. 

Technology hasn't changed the fundamentals, but it has made surveying more approachable to a wider range of disciplines - construction foremen, civil engineers and GIS related disciplines are more aware of the role of surveying, and how the data is collected and delivered. Technology has also made survey data more complex, more to process and explain. So I think today's world looks to the professional surveyor more than ever - as owners of both the core fundamentals and the complex data. It's this combination that lets the surveyor keep us all in line, and show us how the world sits.

Wesley Crawford

Wesley G. Crawford, Professor, Veteran Professional Land Surveyor 

The fundamentals are still the same. We are still measuring distance, direction and elevation which translates to determining precise and accurate location. The methods to obtain location have certainly changed with the advancement in technology which has allowed us to measure very quickly. Unfortunately the new measurement processes has become so easy that many in the field have become button pushers with  no depth of understanding of how to use traditional methods when technology fails.  The surveyor today needs to understand the fundamentals as well as the latest technology. 



Jim Van Res

Jim Van Res, Riegl Senior Vice President

The fundamentals of surveying are intact. They have been since Eratosthenes measured the earth circa 240 BC. The thirst for knowledge and truth is innate in all of us, and I would argue, even more so in surveyors.

The work, the profession, the business model, the tools, and the industry ecosystem has experienced unprecedented change.  For some, it feels as if the profession is undergoing constant threats and challenges. The future of surveying will be in addressing those challenges head on and having the intellectual fluidity to accept the changes and to incorporate them as much as possible. It is critical to hold on to the professional standards that are timeless.  The world is constantly changing and the demands upon the surveyor is changing with it.  We are a part of the times in which we live and so it is important to adapt changing requirements from customers and the new tools that are needed to fulfill them. The surveyors professional judgment is more important now than ever before.

Drones, Mobile Mappers, LiDAR, multi-sensor technological approaches to data collection are all part of the technology shifts. Data is more important than ever before. This requires new management and analytical skills. The path to merge the physical world with the digital world runs through the profession of surveying. It is only through the work of the surveying professional that the world can rely upon the validity of the models. The fidelity of the surveying profession brings the result of correct information.

The challenges of measuring boundary lines are critical. The things that have been thrust upon the profession are the challenges of the built world.  Urbanization, construction, climate change, geotechnical shifts, inspections, project management, environmental management, all have shifting demands and requirements. The new tools that will address this work requirement are both with us and in development as new products with new approaches. The surveyor’s thoughts on licensing models, education, skill development, mentor programs, and the paths to bring the next generation of surveyors are needed.

As a technologist, I hope that my association with POB will contribute in a positive fashion to the discussion of the issues facing surveyors. It is an important time for all of us to embrace the future together.

Scott Bishop

Scott Bishop, P.S. - NCEES

I don’t feel that the fundamentals of surveying have changed much over the years, certainly the tools and methods have changed, but the fundamentals, well, they are still the same. Measuring a distance, making a boundary determination, setting an elevation, calculating a curve, are fundamental principles of surveying. We certainly use different tools today than they did 50 years ago, but the fundamentals are the same.

What characteristics and tools does the modern surveyor need today?

In my junior year of school, one of my professors was debating on whether or not he should buy a GPS unit for his private practice, he didn’t think it would pay for itself. He finally broke down and bought one the next year, after a few months I asked how it was working out. He said he couldn’t believe how much more work he was able to do and how quickly he could get things done, it was definitely paying for itself and then some. I think the modern surveyor needs to be able to adapt to and embrace new technology. Just like the debate 20 years ago over whether to transition from a conventional total station to a robot to GPS, the modern surveyor needs embrace the possibilities of the future and consider mobile lidar, UAV’s, remote sensing and whatever else comes up in the next few years.

Kipp Ivey

Kipp Ivey, Key Account Manager for AEC for FARO Technologies

Technology has shifted the basic fundamentals of the modern surveyor from a math-centric world to a world driven by digital collection processes that drive everything from the machinery to the model. This has provided enormous gains in productivity and time savings., but when you understand the old school process and embrace the new digital world, that is where surveyors will find the most success.