The New Surveyor - Geospatial Wise and Technology Savvy

November 28, 2007

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The surveyor of today is not just the guy in a hard-hat you see along the road taking control points for road or building construction. In fact, you might say that surveyors must be as equally skilled at determining site measurements as they are at managing the resulting geospatial data they collect. Both the technology and business climate are pushing them to be just that. Dr. Joseph Paiva, a geomatics consultant, offered arguments for an evolving type of survey professional during a presentation delivered at the Trimble Dimensions conference in Las Vegas a few weeks ago. He cited how tools like Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth have allowed "non-surveyors" to provide analysis and measurements. Before the introduction of these tools, licensed professional surveyors did that work. "As the appetite for geospatial data is whetted, there will be a corresponding need for 'traditional' skills like surveying." Technology makes measurement easier but that may not remove the need for the special skills of the surveyor... but it has meant that many unsophisticated measurements that are now being made used to be in the "sophisticated" realm of the surveyor."

He also identified an evolving opportunity for surveyors: creating 3D files for machine control. "Yes," said Paiva, "the need for this type of information for construction and agriculture will continue, but also more machines will need to be controlled by geospatial data."

More machines will need to be controlled by spatial data. It's a simple and profound statement. Keynote speaker Dr. Bob Ballard, famed geologist, oceanographer and sunken-ship hunter, also supported that concept. Ballard provided details of having used robotic instruments to explore the seabed in his quest for the Titanic, the Bismarck, the Yorktown, and other ships lost at sea. After years of exploring the geomorphology at tectonic plate boundaries and the astounding life forms near submerged volcanic vents on the submersible "Alvin," Ballard had a better idea. Instead of enduring the cramped quarters, wild temperature swings, and limited maneuverability of Alvin, he turned to fiber optic and robotic technology to explore the depths remotely, giving greater visual acuity, location accuracy and comfort.

So, where are the opportunities in this emerging need for surveyors? It was perhaps significant that the event was held in Las Vegas, where all you need to do is step onto "The Strip" to see how the construction boom continues to dominate the city's skyline. Machines are everywhere ... as are surveyors. This juxtaposition presents opportunities, today and in the future, where highly precise surveying might facilitate far less human involvement and decrease the potential for error.

In today's geospatial technology sector, applications in precision agriculture, transportation engineering and roadwork design supply ample evidence of the interdependencies of the machine-data relationship. Will the need for more 3D data, whether captured by surveyors or created by tools like SketchUp, lead to greater availability? And will a market be created for these data elements with the potentially erroneous assumption that they are of the same quality? I think this is what Paiva was suggesting. If we are to equip machines with geospatial information, it had better be accurate.

Late last year, Directions Magazine published an interview with Brian Bullock, president of Intermap Technologies. He explained how his company's NEXTMap project was focused on capturing accurate 3D geometry of road network data and selling the data to the automotive and insurance sectors to drive fuel efficiencies. A second application could change the positioning of vehicle headlamps as certain terrain features and changes to the topography warranted a change to the focal point of the beam. Related solutions are sure to abound as surveyors and others expand the frontier where geospatial data drive machine operation.

As these opportunities evolve, geospatial professionals, and surveyors in particular, are challenged to better understand the applications in which their unique skills can help prepare for the possibilities of driverless vehicles, robotic exploration tools and other machines dependent on geospatial data and technology.

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