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Tools of the Trade

What Does a Surveyor Do?
If you were to ask a group of people what a surveyor does, a majority (if not all) would describe a worker on the side of the road looking through a short telescope to be taking pictures. While greatly misunderstood for their profession, the surveyor plays an important role in many aspects of infrastructure development. So, who is the surveyor? The International Federation of Surveyors defines the profession as follows:

“A surveyor is a professional person with the academic qualifications and technical expertise to practice the science of measurement; to assemble and assess land and geographic related information; to use that information for the purpose of planning and implementing the efficient administration of the land, the sea and structures thereon; and to instigate the advancement and development of such practices.”

History of Surveying
Throughout the history of surveying, the surveyor has been regarded for their work establishing property boundaries and is typically known as a “land surveyor.” Possession of real property has always been an important part of society, with the early recorded instances of land surveying being found during the Roman Empire. For many cultures in Europe and the Middle East, the local surveyor was a highly regarded member of the community and was relied upon to establish homesteads for growing towns and cities.

According to the Bureau of Land Management, surveyors were utilized in the early 1800s, during the westward expansion of the United States, to establish a public land survey system (PLSS) based upon direction from President Thomas Jefferson.The duty of the surveyor has continued to modern times, but the duties of the survey have increased considerably. Modern surveying is not simply establishing boundaries; topographic surveys, construction layout, and infrastructure mapping are part of the regularly completed types of surveying.

Early Surveying Tools
For many years, the surveyor relied on a compass and link chain for performing their surveys. Like many aspects of our lives, technology has revolutionized the surveying profession. The 1960s introduced the electronic distance meter (EDM) and it allowed longer yet more accurate distance measurements. The 1970s delivered an electronic version of the transit (also known as a theodolite), a telescopic device used to measure angles. Starting in the 1980s, a wave of futuristic instruments and computing devices became available for surveying applications. The introduction of the personal computer and CAD software streamlined office tasks, while electronic data collectors moved recorded information from pencil and paper to an electronic medium for easy transfer.

GPS Surveying Tools
It was the 1990s, however, that brought us the true revolution for surveying measurement: the global positioning system (GPS) receiver. Originally developed for the military, several firms developing GPS for the federal government also created civilian versions for positioning use. Early use of GPS was cumbersome and time-consuming but was well worth the time if measuring over long distances was necessary. By the 2000s, an advanced version of GPS became available with a technique called real-time kinematic (RTK) positioning. This new data collection method increased the reliability of the measurement and decreased the time necessary to collect the information. Other nations jumped on the satellite positioning bandwagon and developed their own constellations; these additional systems make up the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), now utilized worldwide. Learn more about GPS in our History of GPS blog, and GNSS is our GNSS vs. GPS blog.

Remote Surveying & Sensing Equipment
Another big development from that decade still used today, but with much smaller fanfare, is the robotic total station. This instrument comprised an electronic theodolite upgraded with motorized servos and a radio system mounted on the prism pole. This allows the operator to control the instrument remotely at the location of the desired survey point.

Remote surveying instruments also continued with the development of remote sensing equipment. Early versions of laser scanners were bulky, slow, and costly, so the use of this technology took longer to take hold. Technology of this equipment and operation, like computers and cellphones, became smaller, more efficient, and cost- effective for surveying purposes. Scanners have also moved from the traditional static setup to being able to operate on mobile platforms, including vehicles and UAVs.

While photogrammetry has been around for over a century, surveyors have only begun to embrace the method in the past few decades. The two factors for this rapid embrace of a previously expensive data collection method: the unmanned aerial system (UAS) and photogrammetry software applications. While the implementation of the UAS has been given most of the credit, equal billing needs to go to this sophisticated software that can produce phenomenal results. Together, this service market has exploded to provide crisp aerial photos (both georeferenced orthometric and oblique images) and enhances the current survey products being produced with a high-resolution visual background. 

Big Data & Surveying
While the measuring instruments seem to take center stage on the technological front, the ability to process and manipulate big data (millions of data points) would not have been possible without the advances in computing power and storage. Early standards were measured in megabytes; current storage capacities are measured in terabytes. Multi-core processors, 4K video cards, and large monitors dominate the computer technician’s desk for dealing with the complex datasets of today’s survey files. It is only fitting that the software necessary to process this data be also cutting edge, with automated programming to increase the user’s efficiency to unprecedented levels. Three-dimensional modeling, including building information modeling (BIM), has become the standard format for topographical mapping and engineering design. By using real-world data in 3D, proposed designs of building sites are integrated into the survey data to allow the development of virtual reality landscapes. Most of these computing enhancements, while in the minds of designers years ago, are now possible because of the computing technology available today. 

The Future Of Surveying Tools
Many of the instruments used today will continue to be enhanced through technology to make them more efficient and affordable. Some of them, however, are being adapted to work with other “tools” we currently use. Several GNSS receiver manufacturers are designing new models that will work with a user’s smartphone instead of a proprietary data collector. New receivers have cameras and scanners incorporated into the body of the unit to collect additional information via remote sensing while locating the base position of the receiver. We will also see more unmanned vehicles in the air, on the ground, or in/under the water collecting topographic information autonomously much faster and more efficiently than human operators. It is safe to say that there is technology that the surveyor has not dreamed of yet that will become available for data collection within the next decade.

Surveying is no longer just finding property corners to establish the line for installing a fence; it is now a fast-paced, cutting-edge profession that our expanding world relies upon for accurate data. So, when you see that new development being built near you, chances are that the surveyor was the first worker on the site and the last one to leave.