I Cannot Wait to Be Part of the Future

guest essay | by James M. Shaw Jr, LS

SPECIAL ESSAY SECTION: The Future of Surveying


“As a surveyor in my forties, I must be ready for any future change,” says James Shaw Jr., president-elect of the Maryland Society of Surveyors and their Surveyor of the Year for 2012. James represents the new wave of leadership in the surveying profession: he’s experienced in core disciplines of cadastral, geodetic, and development surveying and also integrates other geomatics elements such as remote sensing, information technology, scanning, GNSS, CAD, and GIS data acquisition in his role as project surveyor with a multi-disciplined consulting firm.


To predict the future I examine current new technologies and potentially beneficial academic research, considering accuracy, speed, and cost as constant forces in land surveying. I center my attention on GNSS, reality-capture devices, drones, GIS, and augmented reality.

GPS has proven that accurate and precise positioning is a vital resource. The five global positioning systems in place by 2025 will make more than 115 satellites available, allowing 15-centimeter or better autonomous positioning and sub-centimeter accuracy with proper corrections. A terrestrial-based network to augment positioning underground, underwater, inside buildings, and under canopy is inevitable. GNSS devices will be slightly larger than a standard U.S. quarter.

This advancement could just about eliminate the use of total stations and traverse networks. A single, real-time corrected GNSS device will provide locations for boundary markers and very specific single-point locations.

Outside the realm of single point locations, reality capture will be preferred. Laser scanners will be replaced by 3D orthometric cameras, outfitted with an array of sensors including infrared, multi-spectrum, and thermal capture abilities.  The prevalence of 3D capture devices will also lead to crowd-sourcing in the gathering of 3D site data.  Laser scanning will survive, limited to micron-level accuracy captured within seconds instead of minutes.

Aerial drones outfitted with GNSS and reality capture devices, working autonomously with minimal instruction and communicating with each other to ensure complete site coverage, will enable a single surveyor to capture hundreds of acres of land or thousands of square feet of building interiors in high resolution in hours. Intelligent GNSS-enabled targets onsite will communicate positioning corrections to the drones.

Aquatic drones will “fly” through rivers, ponds, lakes, oceans, and submerged culverts collecting sonar images of river beds, sea beds, and submerged structures. Terrestrial drones will map and catalog subsurface utilities. More rudimentary location techniques will be required to locate utilities into which a drone cannot be placed.

Automated modeling of 3D captured elements will eventually need minimal hands-on adjustment. Traditional drafting will cease to exist. CAD/GIS will evolve to the point where raw 3D capture becomes the base model for engineering and architectural designs.

Using these combined technologies, the surveyor becomes the recognized expert at high-accuracy reality capture, both indoors and out, and the primary source for architectural as-built data—providing existing structure models for architectural design.

Collaboration will be the norm. Proprietary practice will cease. All geospatial intelligence will be stored in vast, collective databases (GIS). Each professional will be recognized as the contributor of specific geospatial information through meta-data and branding. Income will be generated by licensing access to the data.

Virtual duplication of our world is a goal of many in business, science, and academia. As the expert in geospatial location, the licensed land surveyor must play a prominent role in the foundation of this virtual world and would regain lost esteem by contributing the high-accuracy reality capture and definitive property locations to the databases. Otherwise, we could see the end of our profession within the next 30 years. 

It will take 30 to 40 years to map the 70 million parcels, 2.3 billion acres, 5 million commercial buildings, and 350,000 industrial facilities in the United States. Then surveyors will maintain and update the geospatial locations (topography, buildings, boundaries, easements) as needed.

The building of these databases will cause the eventual elimination of many jobs in surveying, title abstraction, subsurface utility location, building documentation, aerial mapping, drafting, and construction layout. Survey field crews will be unnecessary. With a current median age of 57, the number of licensed surveyors will decrease. Technology and automation will allow the remaining few to fill the void.

The final affecting technology will be augmented reality, achieved through specialized glasses, contacts, implants, or projected holograms. In the future we will examine the geospatial database visually in real-time. A surveyor will visualize the drones collecting data to see any areas missed or that need enhancement. Property owners will see boundary lines, zoning setback lines, and easements projected onto the existing ground as a visible entity. Municipal reviewers will see proposed land improvements or buildings projected onto an existing site.  Construction workers will see where to grade or install structures. Augmented reality will make geospatial location a commonplace utility.

All these predictions are based on existing technologies. I am merely ruminating on the perfection, combination, and adoption of these technologies to solve today’s common problems.  Possibly there are disruptive technologies, yet developed, which will forever alter land surveying as we know it.  One thing is certain, the future will be exciting, and I cannot wait to be a part of it.

James Shaw Jr, LS works as project surveyor for the Baltimore office of RK&K, LLP.  He is the Maryland Society of Surveyors’ Surveyor of the Year for 2012.

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