This is the second column in a three-part series on The Future of Surveying in the United States. In the first column, we answered the question, “What is the current status of surveying?” In a frank look at the current survey business, we explored what we are doing right and how can we improve. As a follow-up, this month’s column will address the question, “Where are we going from here?” It’s a dream look at what and how technology will affect our business. Will we lose all significance?

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According to the DaVinci Institute, the future has already started based on the flying of drones. While at this time drones cannot carry heavy loads or passengers, it is the first step in having computer-controlled aerial vehicles. They make long-established boundaries obsolete. I recently saw a German television station showing drones playing ping pong in the air without a missed shot. This shows how far this technology has come in a short period of time.

So, let me make a couple of statements about technology. Cars will fly with computer-controlled technology and, most likely, anti-gravitational technology. This technology will make roads and airports obsolete. Computers will control all aspects of our lives, including medical, dental, banking and environmental issues related to our homes, workplace and free time. For most, this will improve our lives and extend our lifespan.


I would like to look at the next 25 to 50 years. While 50 years may sound like a long time, I have been surveying for 57 years.

If you are a recent graduate of one of the survey programs, you will be confronted by many of the issues presented. Study the February issue of POB carefully. You will see that many of the changes are already taking place: More technology, more user-friendly and, in most cases, more cost-effective.

The scary part of technology is how it accelerates as each new discovery is made. The survey chain lasted for 300 years, the steel measuring tape for about 100 years, and the Electronic Measuring Device for 25 years, when GPS has since all but taken over. GPS is not the final step.


When state governments decided to license surveyors in the middle of the last century, I am sure many older surveyors opposed the regulations. A common feeling must have been: What good could come out of licensing land surveyors?

What it did was lay the groundwork for the modern professional surveyor. Today, the accuracy of the boundary survey has never been a better product. The setting of double corners is something we must overcome as we bring more accurate measurements forward into the 21st century. Let’s consider how the future will change what we now provide as a final product.

The marketplace will always desire a product containing spatial relationships of boundary lines to improvements and boundary lines in relationship to each other; sounds like surveying to me.

How we develop the products and present them to clients is the part that will change drastically. The product will be in digital form and, as we progress toward the International Terrestrial Reference Frame, it will take into account Earth’s tectonic plate movements (see the National Geodetic Survey’s 10-year plan on the website). I strongly believe state plane coordinates will give way to geodetic latitude, longitude, height and velocities. The corner location will be shown as latitude to 10 decimal places, longitude to 10 decimal places, height to five decimal places, and then velocities. It may look something like this: 45.3647932749/ 83.2846375091/456.56473ft., plus velocities rate and direction. While this may look a little complicated, it is quick work for computers. That time may come in 50 years when you, the surveyor, may want to adjust a boundary location. It has to be justified to a governing body.

These coordinates will also become the base layer of Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Hopefully, governmental agencies will have a professional surveyor on staff to control the base mapping layer of GIS. A legal description may just be a set of coordinates. The systems used to gather this data will be addressed next.


Collection of data will continue to change. First, we lost the five-person survey crew. In 50 years, survey crews as we know them may not exist. Data will be gathered in many different ways, including drones, highly accurate aerial maps, or from already existing data gathered by others.

Many companies are already using drones to gather data including aerial photos and LiDAR data for many different things such as stockpile mapping and digital inventory of all types of utilities. The Continuously Operating Reference Stations (CORS) system will be the backbone all data will be measured against. Most states have programs to expand the CORS systems. The current horizontal location is well established on the 2007 adjustment. If we continue to be patient, the vertical adjustment will be available in 2012.


While most surveyors are thrilled with GPS technology, it still falls short of delivering the ultimate in data and falls short in other areas. Its signal cannot be received inside a building or under overpasses. It is affected by weather issues such as solar flares and lighting storms.

What is needed is an all-weather system, not to replace GPS, but to work in concert with GPS technology. Such a system was proposed a few years ago, that being a cell-tower-based, wireless broad network. It was delayed because of interference with low-power satellites signals. The problems with using high-power, ground-based transmitters will be overcome with technology. It is the type of system that would provide all-weather dependable service needed to navigate vehicles. The signal would penetrate buildings much like your cell phone location app does. I firmly believe a cell-tower-based system along with GPS will be our black boxes of the future.


The survey crew of the future is not people, but technology. The key word to the future is mobile scanning. I have been doing some research with an Alabama-based company, LiDAR USA, that makes mobile scanning units. Gathering data falls into a couple of different categories.

The first I call digital inventory, where a route is driven to document all improvement along the route. The unit has multiple cameras coupled to a LiDAR unit, or sometimes even a couple different units. The result is a complete point cloud of data connected to pictures. In digital inventory mode with GPS units running, the accuracy is about 10 centimeters or less. Some Departments of Transportation are using this technology to document their roadways, and it is also used by pipeline and power companies to inventory infrastructure. This is the future of gathering data.

The second part of mobile scanning is what I call engineering surveys. The difference is we now need an accurate vertical component. This requires good vertical control run with a level for best results. One test run we did was a road improvement project about a mile long for design purposes with two GPS units running — one on the scanning unit, and another on the site on a known point. The work that would take a survey crew about two week to survey was done in three hours once the set-up work was completed. It included a seven-lens camera documenting everything along the route, along with two LiDAR units, gathering more data than a survey crew could collect in a month. The vertical accuracy based on known control points collected by running levels was sub-centimeter. This technology is still in development phase. Just give the development process 20 more years!

This technology can be mounted on a truck like the unit we were using, or flown on drones, an ultra-light plane, or a boat to gather information on the bottom of bridges.


I am proud to say the people in this company developing these units are licensed surveyors. However, they can sell them to anyone who has the funds to buy the equipment.

The third part of this series will address how we protect our rights as professional surveyors to be the suppliers of spatial data to the world. This is the part that isn’t going to be easy.

How will we get there from here? In our next column, we will endeavor to take 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.

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. He can be contacted at For information on the company sourced in this article, visit