Embrace a New Vision

What will surveying look like in 10, 15 or 20 years?

Here’s my two cents worth. I’ve been involved in surveying, primarily geodetic surveying, for more than 45 years, the majority of which was in the service of the National Geodetic Survey (NGS). The program transitions that NGS has experienced since 1984 may provide insight into how the surveying community might address its future. 

What’s special about 1984?  The changes in surveying technology, primarily due to advances in electronic systems, actually began in 1953 with the introduction of the geodimeter, the first electronic distance-measuring instrument (EDMI) using lightwave techniques by Erik Bergstrand from Sweden. 

This was followed shortly by the tellurometer that used microwaves to measure distance.  Initially these were large and cumbersome and, because of cost, were almost exclusively limited to use by government surveying organizations.

Prior to 1970, tools like EDMI had been enjoyed only by the feds, but they soon became available to the average surveyor commercially; the Hewlett-Packard 3800 is another example. Smaller, cheaper EDMI evolved to where they’re included as a standard feature of today’s total stations. NGS found that surveyors could make exactly the same types of measurements they made.

In 1978 with little or no fanfare, the U.S. Air Force launched the first NAVSTAR Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite.  It took several years to create a constellation with sufficient satellites to allow someone to position him or herself.

NGS was on the forefront of this technology by acquiring the first commercially available GPS receivers in the early 1980s, costing around $200,000 each.  In 1983, NGS performed the first operational GPS geodetic network survey for Franklin County, Ohio, and, as they say, the rest is history. 
What’s special about 1984? That’s when the NGS abandoned classical triangulation as the primary method for propagation of the national geodetic framework, with a profound impact on the organization.

When I joined NGS in 1972, the agency had nearly 900 employees involved in various aspects of geodetic surveying, adjusting and publishing the resulting data. When I retired in January 2013, the agency was reduced to barely over 200, with only a minor field presence to maintain operational capacity and to perform specialized surveys. 

To a great extent NGS transferred their efforts to developing standards and guidelines, to data management, to creating and supporting special tools and applications, and to providing technical support services to the surveyors who were now making the measurements.

Surveyors today face the same issues. Measurement, positioning, and mapping tools will continue to become more accessible to the public—that is a fact. 

The surveying community today needs to have an organized dialog about what this means.  State and national professional surveying organizations need to lead the conversation—this will not be an easy process.

The unique character of the surveying profession in the United States stems from surveyors being licensed at the state level and generally working in small geographic areas; it’s very difficult to maintain a consistent national vision of what surveying should, or could, be. That needs to change. 

Surveyors cannot hold rigidly to the past but must embrace a different vision of how they see themselves and the next generation being able to serve their communities, the state, and the nation.

~Dave Doyle

Dave Doyle is geodesy editor of this magazine. 

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