The Business Side: So, Just What Is The Future of Surveying?
- Boundary Surveying
- Engineering Surveys
- Mapping, Scanning and Digital Products
- The Surveyors' Education
Column two’s focus: Where are we going from here? A dream look at what and how technology will affect our business. Will we lose all significance?
The third column will discuss the following: How will we get there from here? A realistic look at the changes that need to be made, not just window dressing but changes that will keep the surveyor relevant in the future.
Let’s first address the current land surveying part of our business. The product has never been provided in a timelier manner at a cost most clients can afford. The most glaring problem is the setting of new corners near existing corners accepted by property owners in peaceful existence with their neighbor. This action can result in a dispute or even end in a court fight that benefits no one. This dilemma is caused by a complete misunderstanding of the role of the land surveyor. Why was a license system started originally? To protect the public and their precious right to own land. I guess you could say we are an agent of the courts to define the boundaries of property. Not to just place a legal description on the ground, but to weigh the evidence carefully and decide the correct property corner location. In most cases, these corners already exist. No, they do not fit the deed distance exactly as they were done to a different accuracy standard, when measuring to a hundredth of a foot was unheard of by the original surveyor. Existing corners do not measure up to a modern angular or bearing standard, but they are the corners. I call this evaluating the evidence or the “The Art of Land Surveying.” Surveyors my age learned the art of surveying by working in the field under surveyors that understood the importance of correctly defining property boundaries.
Today, we send out crews with very little training or supervision with instruction to just place the legal description on the ground. Why should we be surprised when it doesn’t fit existing corners? So, we just set new ones. My apologies to the many good surveyors doing the work correctly, but we all know we have a problem. If a problem exists, there must be a solution! We could start by educating our employees about the art of surveying. What would be a good place to start? The federal government had a similar problem based on the 1973 Manual of Instructions, setting new corners and a failure to accept existing corners. This resulted in a new manual titled “Manual of Surveying Instruction 2009.” This manual discusses in great detail survey evidence. Chapter 6 is advice to the private surveyor. The chapter is titled “Resurveys and Evidence,” subtitled “The Nature of Resurveys.” While this manual is published by the U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, and is not binding on the private surveyor, it is some of the best advice on what constitutes a proper boundary survey. While it was written for GLO states, it is appropriate advice for all states. The one exception to setting new corners is on most ALTA surveys. The companies that provide this service have learned that accepting the corners from the previous survey is a surefire way to not get the closing delayed. In some cases where my distances did not match the distance in the deed, I was asked to sign a document that stated that my surveyed property was the same as described in the deed. Not a problem. I have now updated the old deed distances to current accuracy standards.
I talk with many surveyors in different parts of the country. A current theme is property boundary surveying has not recovered from the 2007 crash in many areas. A recurring problem is that many surveyors are willing to do the work at a sub-standard price just to get a job. These are also the surveyors who will not put in the field work time to study and evaluate the evidence. This makes it hard on surveyors trying to provide a quality product at a fair price. Education is the answer, not just classroom work but field workshops on the art of finding and evaluating evidence. I do have other possible solutions I will share with you later.
The second part of our current surveying system actually consists of two parts. The first I call engineering-related surveys. These are the site surveys and topographic surveys requested by architects, engineers and designers for all different types of design projects. Most of the contracts for this type of work come from design firms or city and state government agencies, such as highway departments. These tend to be repeat clients. If you provide an acceptable product, this work can continue for many years. I include in this product utilities location and other related survey services. These clients value a good product and will contract at a fair price the work to a select few companies. These contracts are the backbone of many small surveying and engineering companies. I would guess that this type work is the bulk of the money spent for surveying services in this country. Clients expect the survey company to have purchased modern equipment with the final product in a digital format such as CAD or the software that they utilize. The current downside to this work is the lack of investment in infrastructure improvements. If the country ever gets serious about improving our infrastructure, we may experience a shortage of surveyors to fill the need. These are the services that keep in business many small companies that could not survive on just land boundary work.
We have batted around for years what role surveyors should play in GIS (Geographic Information Systems). A few states have not gotten this right. That is, a licensed surveyor should be in charge of the base layer of the GIS system. I wish all states would take a look at doing this for the protection of the public.
Providing mapping-related products is the second part and the fastest growing part of our business. Many options exist to get into this market. The downside is in many states these products can be provided by persons not licensed as either a surveyor or engineer. When it comes to mapping, a few states have gotten it right and included aerial mapping under their registration law. Having worked in the aerial mapping business, I have seen many inferior products delivered by the low-bid mapping company, including defaulting on the contract.
It should come as no surprise that some companies are providing mapping services using drones. When the final approval of licensing drones for commercial operations is put in place, you will see this technology used for everything from getting an aerial view of the jobsite for planning purposes to stockpile mapping, contour mapping and infrastructure inventory. In most states, this work can be provided to a client by anyone having the money to buy a drone.
Another product gaining in popularity is mobile scanning. These units are vehicle-
mounted using LiDAR scanners and cameras to gather data. These systems can gather data in two hours what would take a survey crew two weeks to collect. The data gathered falls into two categories: the first being infrastructure inventory and the second is engineering grade data at millimeter accuracy. Remember, at this time in most states, anyone who can afford the equipment can collect this data. I hope you are beginning to see we have some challenges ahead to protect the products delivered by the licensed surveyor.
By now most states require a college degree to be eligible to take the national test to become a surveyor. I am in favor of this and required all my children to go to college. The real challenge is to graduate enough people to replace all of the people over 60 who want to retire. We have some wonderful programs with dedicated instructors. The problem is not enough students. The problem is twofold: those who can’t afford college and those who choose other related careers that would provide a better income when they graduate. I have said this before: if all the state societies that have cash reserves would invest in our future surveyors, we could fill up the survey programs. I believe this problem is one we can solve, or best said, we must solve. If the survey profession cannot provide enough surveyors, state governments will assign some of our duties to other professions.
The bottom line is I don’t believe the profession is badly broken, but we do have great challenges ahead. The next 25 years will bring more changes than in the last 300 years. How we react to these changes is in our hands. The members of our profession must provide leadership to guide our path to make wise decisions on our future.
In the next column, we will jump ahead 25 years to see what the survey profession of the future may involve!
Milton Denny, PLS, the owner of Denny Enterprise, LLC, is licensed as a surveyor in seven states. He has written and provided seminar services on business and marketing topics for the surveying and mapping community nationwide for 40-plus years. POB is thrilled to welcome back his insights to our pages. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.