I was born in a small town and I live in a small town. I’ll probably die in a small town, but only if you want to call a blue-collar city of 75,000 people small. My friends are small town and my parents still live here in this same small town. It was here in this small town that I started my career as a surveyor and circled back for an opportunity to be near family and friends.
There are many towns, villages and cities in the Midwest that fit this description — mostly because of the agricultural background, but also because of the labor-intensive industries that provide most of the local jobs. Like those who prefer the large city hustle-bustle lifestyle, the small town attitude is the same, but in the opposite direction.
My career as a surveyor has provided me with opportunities to work in both small and heavily populated areas. I have seen the definite distinction between the two environments, and have seen many of the technological advancements of the past few decades. Having worked in both the large urban multi-discipline engineering firm and the small town surveying firm, I see much disparity between how surveying is done today from varying firms. The biggest difference I see today is how surveyors are using GPS technology for their field operations.
For the modern surveyor, GPS has become an everyday tool for measuring and data collection, but it wasn’t always that way. I began my career in the early 1980s working for a seven-person engineering firm in my small town, so GPS was never in our budget. Like most surveyors, I read about GPS use in technical publications, and was amazed what these magical boxes could do. The first generations of static receivers produced were very complicated and expensive. With long occupation times and even longer processing times, only the few companies who could afford the high-priced equipment and software were buying these units. Our small-town market could not justify this purchase, so we made do with conventional equipment as the norm.
Today’s environment requires the working knowledge of handheld data collectors that are more powerful than the computer on the Apollo moon mission, laser scanners that collect millions of points per second, and GPS receivers that talk through cell phones to get sub-centimeter accuracy. Around the corner is wider use of lidar data collection as well as the unlimited use and application of UAVs with cameras and scanners, so there is no end in sight for technology and the surveyor.
Most of the larger urban firms have established equipment and training budgets stay current with technology and not lose ground with the competition. Because of these strategic and spending plans, fee structures have increased over the years, and thus the cost of surveying has increased accordingly. This has also afforded those who stay up-to-date with current technology to push the limits of the equipment, and to continue to find new and useful ways to perform our work and provide newer services.
By keeping their costs down, small-town and rural surveyors have kept their fees down as well, but to the detriment of the profession. In fact, the cost of a typical land survey in a small town has come nowhere close to inflation for the past 40 years in most places.
In comparison, however, many industry partners of the surveyor have spent a great deal of money and time staying current with technology and production methods. Excavators and earth movers now have GPS-based computers controlling their movement and placement of material, as well as utilizing robotic instruments and GPS for layout of improvements and utilities. Architects and structural engineers are utilizing scanners for building and piping as-builts for existing and future improvements. Almost all farmers have tractors equipped with GPS-based control systems to help them plant and harvest with pinpoint accuracy, as well as apply herbicides or pesticides based upon high-tech mapping performed by crop analysts. Many land-management companies are gearing up with UAV technology to assist future operations with the information gathered by these flying wonders. Everyone around us is tech savvy, but the small surveyor seems to lag behind.
I wanted to be exposed to new technology when I moved from a small town to a large urban city in 1998. The big improvement for the surveying community was the introduction of real-time kinematic (RTK) methods. The firm I worked for during the late 1990s and early 2000s had been using RTK systems since their introduction. Being able to collect points “on the fly” both manually and with ATVs greatly increased our productivity as well as accuracy.
By the mid-2000s, almost every big-city firm utilized this technology as standard equipment for their crews. The only drawback to the RTK system was the need to leave a base-station receiver, so the introduction of the real-time network via cellphones in large market areas was another step in solidifying GPS use for everyday work.
Another benefit of extensive GPS use in the large city area is that most of the firms keep their surveys on state plane coordinate systems, so exchange and verification of data is a much easier process. These larger urban firms also continue to upgrade to newer equipment as more satellite systems are introduced. The addition of GLONASS has increased our precision and coverage levels, with future systems including Galileo, IRNSS and BeiDou set to raise that bar even higher.
On the contrary, many firms in small-town and rural areas have not progressed into new technologies because of cost and lack of cellular coverage needed for RTN systems. I moved back to my small town several years ago and have experienced this slip in technology firsthand. The big cellular carriers say they have 3G and 4G service in most places, but I can tell you from my travels that there are many places I have not been able to use our RTN receiver because of lack of cell signal. Most of the surveyors in our area still utilize an RTK system and will establish a position through OPUS or will assume a local coordinate system. Not many have upgraded their equipment to take advantage of GLONASS, so there are several steps they will need to take in the future to catch up to the industry. We also must travel greater lengths to recover NGS monuments for our positional verification, which will become more important as static monuments become a thing of the past.
So with my apologies to Mr. Mellencamp, my job as a surveyor has not been just small town, and has provided me with many big-city opportunities. Our crews face challenges here every day that many take for granted while in the big city market, including RTN coverage, GLONASS constellation usage and many more NGS monuments for QA/QC. Having more of these items could greatly help our productivity, especially when stronger cellular coverage is expanded to more of our rural areas.
I look forward to these improvements but will continue to work with our existing systems until that time. So look for us, surveying on in our small towns and locating all those little pink houses.
This column introduces Tim Burch, GPS World’s new co-contributing editor for survey. Tim will alternate with Dave Zilkoski in contributing monthly columns to the Survey Scene e-newsletter. Tim is survey department manager for Chastain & Associates LLC in the Decatur, Ill., area. He has been working as a professional land surveyor since 1985, and is the secretary, Board of Directors, National Society of Professional Surveyors.
For his next column in January, Tim plans to write about farmers and their technology in his area, focusing of course on GPS use. His article will compare surveyors’ processes with those used by farmers. (For Dave Zilkoski’s last column in October, see Establishing Orthometric Heights Using GNSS — Part 3.)
Contact Tim via email@example.com.