How the Future Surveyor Can Be Relevant

by James M. Shaw, Jr., Prof. L.S.

I wrote a guest essay in the March 2013 issue of PSM portraying my vision of the future.  I believe I made a miscalculation—the “future” is progressing very rapidly, and a lot of what I envisioned is already here.

Here are several notable examples. Locata, the Australian-based company that developed their terrestrial-based replication of the GNSS signal to provide positioning where GNSS cannot (indoors, under canopy, and underground), has installed several production implementations. UAVs are a constant conversation topic, and companies such as Riegl are now introducing UAV-sized lidar units like the VUX-1. CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, has developed a handheld laser mapping unit called the Zebedee (nicknamed, “The Wobbulator”), distributed by UK start-up GeoSLAM. Google announced its Project Tango, placing 3D positioning and laser scanning in the hands of future cell phone users.

Yes, crowd-sourced mapping and reality capture are poised to explode. If you are unfamiliar with any of these, I recommend you use the technology known as YouTube, created less than a decade ago, to watch amazing demonstrations of these products.

While these developments are exciting, they are also scary, leaving one to ask, “How will the professional surveyor maintain relevancy?”

The professional surveyor will obviously remain the expert at boundary retracement. This is a specialized skill that even emerging technologies cannot replace, though the methods we use to research and record the results of our surveys are sure to evolve.

The real threat, or perhaps opportunity, comes from the rapid and spatially rich mapping of our world assets and features, also known as reality capture. The world is a very large place, and the economics and logistics of trying to capture everything in it are beyond imagining in the hands of paid professionals, though mass-data capture platforms like aerial/satellite lidar, photogrammetry, and remote sensing have provided nearly-global base layers. 

Providing greater coverage at a greatly reduced cost means, perhaps, turning semi-skilled persons or even the public into reality capture platforms via cell phones, smart glasses, and even tech toys like panoramic ball cameras. This will allow for massive quantities of data to be produced quickly and updated constantly. But, who determines if it is correct?

Professional surveyors must position themselves as the authorities on geospatial positioning. Is anyone better qualified than progressive surveyors who have knowledge of geodesy, coordinate systems, spatial distortions of projections, positional accuracy of different technologies, and empirical knowledge of how things integrate? Surveyors need to vigorously establish themselves as positional experts in all environments: outdoors, indoors, underground, and underwater.  Surveyors may not necessarily be providing the reality capture, but ultimately they must be the architect of the framework from which it is applied and the go-to expert when the highest accuracies are desired.

GNSS, lidar, BIM, GIS, and UAVs should all be common initials and acronyms to professional surveyors. Those who learn to successfully integrate these technologies will flourish. Or, we can resist evolving because, “This is all about technology and button pushing!”  Sure, new technologies and their outputs can be viewed as just a big pile of raw stupid data, but, with the kind of authoritative touch that professional surveyors can provide, they can become a valuable and transformative resource—one that can have lasting impact for both our profession and communities.                

—James

James M. Shaw, Jr., Prof. L.S. works as project surveyor for the Baltimore office of RK&K, LLP.  He is president of the Maryland Society of Surveyors and Surveyor of the Year for 2012.

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