Leaders in the Geospatial Community

guest essay | by Sunil Bisnath, PhD

SPECIAL ESSAY SECTION: The Future of Surveying


In the eyes of Dr. Sunil Bisnath, research scientist and educator in the fields of geodesy and precise GNSS, surveyors are uniquely poised to assume leadership roles in our geospatially aware world—if we are proactive. Dr. Bisnath is currently an associate professor in the Department of Earth and Space Science and Engineering at York University in Toronto, Canada and has previously held positions as a geodesist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Boston, Massachusetts and assistant research scientist at the University of Southern Mississippi, NASA Stennis Space Center, Mississippi.


It is clear that geospatial information will play an ever-increasingly important role in the coming decades, both in the developed world and the developing world. What is less certain, however, is the breath of function the professional surveyor will play in geospatial activities.

The advent of the total station, GPS, and GIS more than a quarter-century ago began a sea change in position gathering, representation, and analysis technology. Surveying students at the time were told that because they were embracing the new technology, the future of the profession was bright.
Today’s students hear similar statements related to digital airborne and satellite imagery, 3D imaging, and the latest developments in GPS and, more generally, GNSS. But how much of this technology has the profession really embraced?

In the past, the land surveyor was the master of certain technologies and methods and, therefore, certain measurements. What will be the surveyor’s role in the future? Will the future be a limited one: prescribed by legislation, a cadastral-focused one? Or, will the surveyor’s role develop through the embrace of sensors and methods so he becomes the master of certain technologies and methods, and, therefore, a leader in the geospatial community? I, for one, have always focused on the latter.

In some ways our profession is in an enviable situation. We collect precise spatial data; new technologies, in the form of ever-more sensitive and lower-cost sensors, are available to us, and society is willing to pay for the management and integration of these data to produce information for decision-making. It can be argued that these value-added activities are in the purview of others, but there is great value in our profession’s understanding of the data and the metadata and the production of information. We should not limit ourselves with what we know, but expand our knowledge. 

It can be further argued that the technology is being put in the hands of everyone, limiting our role.  GPS and digital imagery come to mind. But, for the layman finding few meter-level coordinates, not knowing what a datum is, or viewing an image that may or may not be orthorectified, using these techologies are limiting activities.

Examples of immediate growth in the surveyor’s arsenal are the delivery of 3D surveys using subsurface sensors and 3D software and coordinated surveys using GNSS methods such as RTK and PPP. In the coming years, lower-cost yet high-precision terrestrial imagery scanners and GNSS/IMU (inertial) systems can be considered.

Coupled with this technology is a need for business acumen and an entrepreneurial spirit to allow for growth of our enterprises through change, as the world around us undergoes rapid change. From an educator’s perspective, this means to have students learn to be practitioners as well as developers.
Yes, the future can be “boom,” but only if through education and industriousness we are willing to embrace it.

Dr. Sunil Bisnath is an associate professor in the Department of Earth and Space Science and Engineering at York University in Toronto, Canada.

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