Editor’s Note: The following is a review of the ESRI conference in San Diego in July.


Donny Sosa opened the 2014 AEC Conference with an overview. He announced there were about 275 surveyors attending the conference this year. But he was referring to the International User Conference. And those surveyors were not necessarily American. The AEC looked smaller than 2013.

I did like the venue configuration. The meeting room for the plenary session was laid out in tables with workgroups of four persons. This is a big improvement over theater style seating. Computers with Esri trainers were available all day for both days.

Some might ask: Whatever happened to the Summit? I think it’s fair to say perceptions have changed considerably since 2001. 2001 is the first year ESRI had a GIS/ Survey Summit. It is also the year I jumped into the fray (as a writer). In the years since I embarked on this spatial odyssey the landscape has changed.

It is no longer a case of surveying versus GIS. It is now clearly surveying and GIS partnering. The vast majority of surveyors now use GIS in some fashion. It is assumed to be a fully integrated required tool by many. Gary Jefress, Ph.D of Texas A&M Corpus Christi, offered that half of his 40 or so annual graduates pursue surveying while the other half get directly involved in mainstream GIS.

The AEC offered little in the way of survey-specific training. But there are plenty of CEUs (continuing education units) available. And they are accepted by many states. Some of the familiar faces of past years were missing, most notably Curt Sumner, Executive Director of National Society of Professional Surveyors. The California Land Surveyors’ Association was also absent from AEC. The corporate thinking seems to be that survey-specific training and review is best done at the state conferences.

Program Coordinator Dave Totman introduced the concept of engineering as a service. That was explained as placing the “infrastructure life cycle” in the cloud. Basically, that means putting all of the data from planning to construction review in a web based data base that all stakeholders can access. It also makes that data conveniently available to migrate directly into asset management.

Many believe GIS has gained an equal footing with CAD. This is important because BIM infrastructure regulations deploy in 2017. Totman pointed out that with point cloud and DTM technology the designer can work in 3D with far less effort. But he stressed data sets must meet design criteria in the future.

The biggest buzz at the AEC and the UC was about drones. The keynote speaker, Billy Gilliland, President of General Atomics Systems Integration, presented a program he called UAS (unmanned aerial systems) 101.

Gilliland is deeply involved in the Predator Program. The Predator is the unmanned vehicle that handles the heavy lifting for the government. The Predator B or Guardian is used for monitoring floods, fires, and other purposes along U.S. borders.

He pointed out the advantages over satellites in getting imagery with UAVs. This was certainly true for us here in San Diego in our spring 2014 fires. In 2003 getting satellite data took hours. Getting data via UAV was close to instantaneous. Fifty-eight Predator systems fly every day. And the gathering of intelligence is still the primary mission.

Joe Paiva warmed up the audience for Mr. Gilliland by going over the current frustration with the FAA for not finalizing the guidelines for the operation of UAS.

As was the case last year, there were no vendors displaying their wares at the AEC. ALTUS, the conference sponsor was the lone representative. Neil Vancans of ALTUS spoke briefly about their Gisela product at the plenary.

Brad Gorrondona of Goronndona LLC gave a lightning talk about his experiences with the Leica product Pegasus One Mobile Mapper. The Pegasus is an instrument that houses multiple GPS receivers, cameras and even inertial instruments This talk was about large-scale highway mapping. The Pegasus collects datasets almost impossible to comprehend in size only a few years ago. And those datasets, basically point clouds, can be output in most common design formats.

Michael Dennis, the new face of National Geodetic Survey ran through the latest news from his agency. GRAVD or the Graphic Redefinition of American Vertical Datum is well underway and due for release in 2022. OPUS Projects, which is a version of the Online User Positional Service that allows multiple receivers but requires a mandatory training session, is up and ready.  Geocon and Geocon11 , the latest in datum transformation from NGS seem to be works in progress.

The International User Conference

The level of enthusiasm at the User Conference gives no indication of falling off. GIS has clearly matured into a true mainstream industry. The vast majority of the attendees are keenly focused on their business. Travel budgets have been squeezed by the Sequester and the economy, but the “true believers” still show up in droves.

Penny Pritzger, United States Secretary of Commerce, and Dr. Kathleen Sullivan, Under Secretary of Commerce for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, were dual keynote speakers at the Plenary. Dr. Sullivan, who is also an astronaut announced the forthcoming hiring of a chief data officer for the Department of Commerce and stressed the need to make more and better data available.

Jack Dangermond has lost no passion for his calling. He promised : “More streaming data will be offered soon.”

The exhibit floor looked about the same as 2013. The busiest place I found was the EPA/Homeland Security area. There is little doubt the event is still suffering from the effects of the government sequestration and associated budget cutbacks. Fewer management-types strolled the exhibit floor.

But the faithful still show up in numbers. This is still the world’s premier event for those involved in the earth sciences.

For those who want to learn everything GIS in a hurry, they had the general theater, which offered more than 40 30-thirty minute sessions covering every major Esri product. If you didn’t leave the theater with sensory overload there were dozens of work stations scattered about the floor and a cadre of Esri staff waiting to help you with hands on instructions. The theater was also a very efficient way of viewing the latest product updates in one place.

To attend the fully structured sessions, it was a good idea to pre-plan. The San Diego Convention Center is a huge facility. I typically log three to five miles a day trying to cover the event.

AEC Summary

The renamed Architectural Engineering Conference was disappointing. With the exception of the plenary session, the speakers seemed unprepared or disengaged. They just didn’t seem to display the sort of fire-in-the-belly enthusiasm for their work we have seen in the past.

I don’t believe we attend these events simply to learn and network. We go to be inspired. This rarely fails to occur at the User Conference. The AEC planners need to address this. There were no boundary surveying offerings. The name change probably didn’t help that.

Although it was implied in some sessions, there was one place the AEC falls short. There needs to be more emphasis on how to grow businesses. Yes, there are references to an array of products, but how to market them to expand your services is glossed over at best.

The new focus (of the AEC) is mainly on design. If there is a silver lining for surveyors as paradoxical as it may seem, the User Conference had several programs on parcels. Much of this was about compliance with new and existing regulations. Whether we like it or not, our landscape is changing. And we need to stay abreast of these changes. Life can turn on a dime. And we need to be ready.

Michael L. Binge is a private GIS consultant, certified GIS professional and licensed land surveyor in Arizona, California and Colorado.