THE FUTURE OF LAND SURVEYING:
How Technology is Modernizing a Well-Established Profession.
The future of professional land surveying is changing quickly due to technology innovations that are increasing at an exponential rate. As this trend will undoubtedly continue, current and future professionals should be aware of these changes and what they mean for their career tracks.
We recently had the opportunity to speak with PLS Matthew Everett Gingerich. Gingerich has had a successful 25+ year career as a professional surveyor and is currently the Manager of Land Resources for NV Energy. Here’s his take on the career, how the industry is progressing and what professionals and future professionals should know about the changing landscape.
AN OVERVIEW OF LAND SURVEYING
The job of a land surveyor is to measure and map the world. However, the field of land surveying is much broader than the average person might think. There are many different employment and career opportunities–from governmental land management to small local firms to large international engineering and land surveying firms–that cover the full gamut of high-tech land surveying services. Within this breadth of services, a professional land surveyor might work on projects that range from simple documentation of property lines (mapping) to huge architectural and engineering projects (mapping, topography, construction layout and staking) to detailed measuring and mapping of acreage for a variety of agencies. Roles can vary from spending entire careers in the field, working entirely in an office, or a blend of both.
“Once you get into the business, you realize that there are a lot of opportunities in land surveying.”
Dating back as far as 1874, land surveying on the Western frontier meant dragging steel chains through the dessert. At that time, steel chains were the only technology available to accurately measure distances. This well-established measuring practice continued for almost one hundred years before the next major innovation appeared on the land surveying scene in the form of the “Total Station,” introduced in 1971. A total station theodolite is an electronic instrument used to measure distance, elevations, and angles. Total stations have become an essential tool for surveyors because of how accurately they measure both horizontal and vertical angles in the field.
Shortly after total stations, robotics and computerized data collection were introduced to help surveyors improve the accuracy and speed of the surveying process. Robotic total stations enable the recording of measurement from a long distance via a remote control.
Just a few decades later, the technology advanced again, this time in a much more significant way. Between the 1990s and the mid-2000s, surveyors were able to combine GPS and drone technology to further automate surveying. This had a dramatic effect on the profession. What once required teams of people on months-long expeditions can now be done with one or two people–who sometimes work entirely remotely–without setting foot on the land being measured and mapped.
“Professional land surveyors always seem to be on the cutting edge of technology. It’s a good career if you’re interested in technology and its challenges.”
What Technology evolution Means for Current and Future Land Surveyors
As technology evolves, so does the land surveying profession. Technological advancements are not only changing how land surveying is done, but also where the work is performed and by whom.
More work is performed in the office by fewer people than ever before. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the industry is shrinking. In fact, the demand for licensed surveyors is expected to increase by 800 jobs over the next decade, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics*. So, while field crews are becoming smaller, the industry continues to grow and offers career opportunities.
Additionally, the shift in technology is opening the field to those who have a wider and more diverse set of interests, and that doesn’t mean it’s just for newer surveyors. GPS and drones, for example, have afforded new opportunities for more experienced professionals as well. Drone operators can use drones with specialized software to calculate the volume of stockpiles of aggregate for managing project materials. The data is collected and transferred to surveyors and engineers, and they can determine exactly how much aggregate is available for future construction projects.
So, while the traditional surveying concentrations such as geography, land management, and history are still required, they are being applied in new ways for students and current surveyors. And surveying students will be exposed to even more technology in school, such as Mobile 3D Mapping, robotics, artificial intelligence, and LiDAR, a form of 3D laser scanning.
“This role is pivotal in society and is still very much in demand. I have a lot of hope for our contribution to building the needed infrastructure and communities in the coming years.”
Matt Gingerich has some practical advice for land surveyor students:
- Learn the technology while you’re still in school
The academic setting is the perfect opportunity for surveying students to learn about current and emerging technologies and their role in the field of land surveying. It will make you more marketable, and you may also be able to help teach older surveyors new technologies when you land a job.
- HAVE A CONCRETE UNDERSTANIDNG OF THE PRINCIPLES
The national exams ensure a strong academic foundation for the fundamental knowledge required for minimal competency. And the national professional practice exam ensures that a land surveyor is competent to practice as a professional in a safe, accurate, ethical manner. These are not just requirements for licensure, they are necessary to do the job.
- GET EFFECTIVE MENTORSHIP The professional experience component provides the mentorship that is so important to understanding the nuances of the day-to-day work in land surveying. As mentorship opportunities are replaced by automation and technology, it’s more important than ever to seek out mentoring opportunities whenever possible.