After taking a break from this series of columns to bring you a special article on “Managing in Hard Times” in the December 2007 issue, we are returning to my four-part series on company planning.

The first article covered business structure and profitability (September 2007), the second covered management of the company (October 2007), and this article, the third, will cover technology.

The Changing Face of Surveying

“Boy, has surveying changed.” I hear this statement everywhere I go in the United States. I understand what most people mean when they say this. In reality, they are saying the technology of surveying is changing−not the profession or practice itself. There is a difference. The things that a boundary surveyor does will never really change: researching deeds, finding field evidence, setting property corners and producing plats. What has changed is how we accomplish these tasks with modern technology.

Today at the courthouse we call up deeds via computer and print out copies instead of copying the deed by hand as surveyors did years ago. Surveyors kept handwritten notes of each traverse that was computed on an eight-key Marchant calculator to see what the error of closure was on the fieldwork. Drafting the survey plat was done with ink on linen. Today’s survey is all about data collectors, digital cameras, computers, GPS, total stations, plotters and printers. But the important things are still the same: surveyors find or put the property corners in a defendable position, then present a plat of the final survey of their findings to the client.

New Technology

When we talk about “new technology” we need to define what time period we are talking about. Optical plumb on a transit was a new technology when I started in this business. So let’s talk about where we are currently with technology and where it may lead us in the future.

I have said this previously but will repeat it: Today every surveyor needs to be using technology such as total stations, data collectors and computers with the latest CAD programs. Every surveyor needs to get started with GPS if they haven’t already. In most firms, GPS already plays an important role on many projects. In the Western states, most work is performed with GPS because of the lack of tree cover. GPS is not some trick technology but a tool that allows a surveyor to gather data cost-effectively over larger areas. This data will help make the best decisions in calculating property corner locations.

I have believed for a long time that one day total stations would not have telescopes. Recently, I was talking with some factory reps from one of the major equipment manufacturers. As I expanded on my theory of total stations without telescopes, their reply was, “Milton, we already have them.” I asked, “How do they work?” They told me to think of a digital camera with a large digital screen. You can zoom in and out, up or down with crosshairs on the screen. Simple--all software and digital technology. I can only guess at all the features it could have. It could include GPS, take pictures through the same camera, scan features, and maybe have a camera pointing downward to help put you over the point. It would be much cheaper to manufacture because it would be all computer and existing digital technology. You ask, why isn’t something like this on the market now? I think the answer is that the manufacturers need to continue the current operation of building total stations for now. When the first of these instruments without a telescope is introduced, the whole market will follow very quickly.

The Perfect Storm

Many of you have heard of the perfect storm−a coming together of special conditions that form an outcome far greater than the sum of the individual parts. I believe strongly that we have a perfect storm brewing in survey technology that will bring advances far greater than all the different technologies we now employ.

Let’s look at the individual parts that will be converging in the near future. The first technology is GPS. We all know of the advances with this technology, including new satellites with improved clocks and signal strength. Add to this other satellite systems such as Russia’s Glonass and Europe’s future Galileo and you have some instruments that can already track 72 channels of satellite data. This satellite technology is an important part of our future.

The next piece of the perfect storm is being able to apply this data to the existing control on the Earth’s surface. The National Geodetic Survey (NGS) has provided control coordinates of existing monuments since NAD 1927 based on the Clarke 1866 spheroid, including the vertical NAVD 1929 datum that became NAD 1983 and NAVD 1988. NGS has undertaken a final adjustment of these data systems and is now publishing NAD 1988 (NSRS2007) to be known as NAD 1988 (2007). The agency is also currently at work on the new adjustment of the vertical that will be known as NAVD 1988 (200?). These adjustments are very small, but will better define a GPS position on the surface of the Earth.

The next part of the perfect storm is the work being done throughout the United States to modernize the Continuously Operating Reference Station (CORS) system. Currently, a limited number of CORS are operated by federal agencies. But many states (mostly through their departments of transportation) are establishing complete coverage statewide with the help of NGS. This will result in real-time GPS data available 24/7 in many states, and someday in all. The end result will be a CORS data link available in all areas. A field person would only need one GPS unit since the CORS will be the base station. This is already up and running in many locations.

Eventually data from LiDAR and digital cameras will be available to the surveyor on a statewide basis. The vertical accuracy of the LiDAR may well be in the 3–5 centimeter range or less.

If we bring together all the parts of our perfect storm: more satellites, improved datum, 24/7 CORS, and GPS units with 72-channel tracking, the result will be the following, as described in the NGS 10-year plan: “NGS provides 1-cm access to the geodetic latitude, longitude and height components of the NSRS [National Spatial Reference System] for all GPS-exclusive users (with geodetic quality receivers) with less than 15 minutes of data anywhere in the United States or her territories.”1 Note this is only the American GPS system. If you also access other systems, the results will most likely be in the millimeter range.

How Do We Get From Here To There?

To get our technology from here to there, we surveyors must buy equipment carefully. Equipment purchased should be upgradeable if possible, and we should plan to replace it with newer technology when it becomes available. A hard concept for me to grasp is that many pieces of equipment today have a short life and may not be able to be repaired. A major consideration for any businessperson should be whether the new equipment saves time and thus pays for itself.

In the coming perfect storm, I think we are in for a wild ride. There is an old saying that “he who dies with the most toys wins.” I think in the future the surveyor with the most technology wins!


1 “The National Geodetic Survey 10 year plan: Mission, Vision and Strategy,” draft released by the National Geodetic Survey (NGS), page 19. Available at

The next and last column in this series on company planning will be published in April. It will feature planning for retirement and buying/selling a company.