Solo Notes: Surveyor Goes the Distance Down Under
South Australian surveyor talks technological transformations of the trade
For nearly four decades, Richard Abbott has been working as a licensed surveyor in and around Adelaide, South Australia. His service specialties include boundaries, minor and major land divisions, engineering, civil detail and setting out.
Abbott goes it alone and says a big part of why he loves what he does is the development of electronic instruments and digital data transfer to clients. Looking back to when he got started, Abbott says the constantly evolving tools and applications for the surveying profession have dramatically changed what can be done and how it is accomplished.
POB: How long have you been in the surveying profession? How did you get your start?
ABBOTT: My mother emphatically stated that if I were to attend Sydney University to read veterinary science, a floozy would lead me astray. Belatedly forced to select an alternative outdoor career, I marked time repeating my final school year before nominating surveying. That was in the era that the Beatles came to Adelaide.
My “surveying life changer” occurred while studying surveying at Adelaide University, when I chose philosophy as a general elective subject. The principles later enabled me to philosophically assess complex boundary definitions and logically communicate.
In 1971, South Australia’s largest surveying firm employed me as their first graduate surveyor. I am eternally grateful for the mentoring from their experienced, articled, licensed surveyors. I recall the occasion when they purchased a Hewlett-Packard 1100 distance measurer and thought that I would be the last to use the HP 1100. However, as only one mentor saw its potential, I regularly used it. At the time, I did not realize that was to be the commencement of me “hanging 10” on our revolutionary surveying technological tidal wave over my entire survey career.
Later, I was invited to join another surveying practice and was further mentored by experienced old-school licensed surveyors, prior to submitting my longhand calculated and hand-drawn blue linen rural survey for my license surveyor project. Upon receiving my licensed surveyor certificate, dated April 13, 1978, I was immediately prompted by some young professionals in May 1978 to commence my own surveying practice and become a hands-on licensed surveyor, specializing in land division, cadastral and engineering surveying.
First, discarding the traditional six-figure trig and log tables and hand calculator to write basic programs for the then revolutionary HP calculator to enable traverse closures, computation of areas and point coordinate, prior to embracing the evolving computer digital technology era in 1990. I purchased the original Liscad DOS surveying computation and drafting package, and Leica’s initial data recording total station, later purchasing the state’s first Leica solo total station package. My earlier experience with the HP 1100 had convinced me to change long-held traditional methods of surveying to accommodate the advantages of new technology — not try to force evolving technology to fit tradition, a path that many of my colleagues sadly pursued.
No more evident proof than to be able to comment today that I am still using my code table, point numbering and CAD parameter layering systems initially devised for my original Liscad software. Over the years, Liscad has upgraded their software to Windows, enabled access to the older survey data, communicated with other proprietary survey packages, and introduced new modules for the emerging technology. Consequently, I can access all field survey data, computations and generated plans since 1990 on my laptop.
POB: Do you have any memorable stories from field work and/or a favorite project you worked on?
ABBOTT: Forty-five years in surveying is a long time to recall a favorite project, as I have had a variety of unusual surveys and memorable experiences.
That said, an interesting project before the days of the office compute and total station was the hand calculations and 3D setting out of an intricate water slide. I also recall, after obtaining Liscad software, developing an efficient total station set-out process for road and curbing construction in land subdivision estates, only to see the process made redundant by real-time machine control GPS technology.
My two career highlights were actually away from the surveying field.
The first, as a South Australian Surveyors Board member in the mid ‘90s who introduced the concept of a structured, rigorous mentored training scheme for the graduate surveyor, now adopted in principle in all Australian states.
The second, having implemented my electronic solo surveying system I subsequently found the popular POB chat board. Through countless posts discussing the then-new approach to solo surveying, I understand that my posts influenced a number of U.S. surveyors. Notwithstanding that, I then formed great personal bonds of friendship with many surveyors that I met while attending a number of conferences in the U.S. No doubt, a number of contributing surveyors on that POB board will recall that I signed my posts as RADU (Richard Abbott Down Under) and to this day am still called RADU by those posters.
POB: What has been your biggest challenge so far?
ABBOTT: Employing and training graduates and imparting survey experience and knowledge is an equal challenge for the solo operator and the surveying profession in South Australia, as we must personally supervise the raw graduate surveyor in the field and through the office process, which effectively means foregoing earning an income. Consequence, it meant that I could only engage young licensed surveyors who would then depart and start up in opposition.
POB: How do you stay on top of the latest trends and technologies?
ABBOTT: I was fortunate that for the majority of my surveying career the technology changes were in the data gathering and output from the total station and GPS. Today, it is a different story, as the technological applications are amazingly diverse, but with narrow applications, thus making it impossible for the solo surveyor to be both competent and financially viable in more than two fields of data gathering.
POB: Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to get into the surveying business today?
ABBOTT: Certainly do! I was all for the small surveying practice, as the first licensed surveyor to break the traditional brass plaque, prominent shop front, cast of a thousand model:
- Subcontracting out searching Lands Titles Office plan records, drafting of plans and the hiring of part-time experienced field assistants
- Concentrating on a niche cadastral arena of land development in the form of large residential subdivision, minor land division and engineering surveying
However, to be both competitive and successful in today’s technological surveying revolution, you require a total station, GPS, laser scanner and or an aerial device to capture imagery, together with the associated data processing and manipulation output software. This rapidly evolving technology data capture means a return to larger surveying firms with surveyors specializing in specific technology.
POB: How has the surveying profession changed since you started and where do you see it heading in the future?
ABBOTT: I have already indicated the dramatic technological changes that I have experienced in the profession. No better exemplified than to say that, when a university student, GPS was not even a twinkle in a surveyor’s eye. Yet 50 years later, we can now obtain real-time 3D point accuracy to one centimeter, point cloud details of intricate detail and digital data of traditionally inaccessible features.
Very different from the day when I commenced in the field — simply equipped with two plumb bob, 100-meter invar chain, tension gauge, pocket tape, Wild T1A, level and staff for gathering and setting out surveyed data.
The future will see many surveyors losing their traditional fields of data gathering and processing, as today’s digital computer era is now specifically specialized and dummy operator proof.
Here in South Australia, the only guaranteed field of surveying in the future will be for the licensed surveyor to maintain the state’s unique Torrens Title land registration system. Given that we are also heading towards a coordinated cadastre, it will mean boundary redefinition will no longer require the resolution of complex boundary hiatuses and instead eventually become a mundane button-pushing career of generating coordinates.
For me? Well, one day I may reluctantly retire from a profession that has provided me with a unique, exciting, and rewarding career, which has ultimately enabled me to seize more than the moment.
Richard Abbott, LS, offers surveying expertise in cadastral, boundaries, land divisions engineering, civil detail and setting out. Based in South Australia, he works in both urban and remote areas. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Solo Notes is a regular feature in POB magazine and highlights the experiences and strategies of solo surveyors and small business owners. To share your story in a future issue, please email Associate Editor Valerie King at firstname.lastname@example.org.