When I first started surveying, I spent a lot of time on highway construction projects. The job required not only taking the correct measurements for staking clearing limits, setting slope stakes or laying out a box culvert or bridge; it also required the ability to visualize the finished roadway. Computations were done on the hood of the truck with a right triangle, a scale and an HP11 calculator. Then, using a theodolite, “jake” stick, lock level and surveyor’s chain, we laid out centerline and set stakes.

This process often challenged our professional skill. At times, a layout mistake, misinterpretation of the plans, or incorrect or insufficient original survey data would require rework, costing the company money and guaranteeing an unpleasant conversation with management. We were working from a 2D perspective in a 3D world; it was an art as much as a science.

Fast-forward a couple of decades, and it’s amazing how technology has improved the process. Multistations (robotic total stations that combine basic survey functionality with robotics, laser scanning and imagery), modern GNSS receivers working on real-time networks, laser scanners, mobile mapping systems and unmanned aircraft systems empower surveyors to quickly and easily capture comprehensive data, speed the construction layout process and increase the value of client deliverables. Combining these technologies with the ability to easily transfer data between the field and office has increased accuracy and efficiency, so that now a single surveyor can be just as productive as a firm with multiple field crews.

Today, with the latest hardware and software, we have a complete integration of data, so that we can see the final design in 3D on our instrument and work with the data in a real-world environment. We can easily move between 2D and 3D views to make sure we capture everything required while onsite, and we can create linework and points with a few swipes on a screen. We have the ability not only to see very clearly what we’ve located on overlays of digital imagery and scan data, but also to capture reality in a photograph and send it back to the office in near real time. And if we do happen to miss something in the field, office software can be used to create points and linework from images and point clouds without sending crews back to the field. Accuracy, productivity and ease of use have made a giant leap forward.

We’re quickly moving into an era in which surveyors can deliver a 3D plan that’s ready to use with minimal manipulation. A lot of the hard work that used to be done on the hood of a truck is now appropriately done in the design realm. Professionals can now have complete, highly accurate 3D data captured and ready to use in the office before they leave the field. What’s more, the latest generation of total stations and GNSS solutions provides easy access to 3D data and high-resolution imagery from a variety of different sensors and sources, and allows users to manipulate it, design to it, and then take it to the field and stake it out with a much faster and easier workflow.

With these developments, 3D information is no longer limited to the scan technicians or modeling pros, but is available throughout the entire survey workflow at any time as a seamless integration of survey data, scan data and imagery. The implications for the surveying profession are enormous, not the least of which is the opportunity to change the value proposition of a survey once and for all.

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