The new breed of professional surveyors

professional surveyor using a drone
Today’s surveyors use complex tools such as LIDAR-equipped UAVs. Photo courtesy of RME Geomatics.
By Brian Kerr

In survey offices across North America, young graduate professional surveyors are viewing the geographic landscape on computer monitors, compiling data from satellite photography and many other sources. From this, they are creating mapping for a diverse group of clients, whose requirements are infinitely varied.

They are using highly intelligent software to interpret and analyze this geographic data, and linking it to their clients’ databases. They are creating maps, tables and graphs which provide a “big picture” perspective that their clients can use to solve problems.

Consider a telecom company looking to densify or extend their network of cell towers to provide a more reliable service to their customers. They will need the following:

  • Locational data on the existing network.
  • An illustration of the power and reach of the cellular signals from each existing tower.
  • A land use map that shows them vacant parcels where they can site new towers.
  • An illustration of zoning data on those parcels to ensure a municipality will permit that construction.
  • Legal surveys to acquire title to, or lease the new parcels.

On a grand scale, provincial and federal governments are responsible for the management and orderly development of natural resources. Water resources, forestry, mining, soils, threatened species, wetland protection, wildlife management, agriculture, coastlines and environmental protection, all fall under the management umbrella of government.

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Approving the building of roads, railways, mines, solar and wind developments, hydroelectric dams, bridges, airports, military bases and harbours, also falls under the regulatory authority of government.

On a local scale, municipalities oversee approvals for land development, subdivisions, building construction, streets, subways and light rail, water and sewage plants, arterial roads, bridge crossings and cellular towers. Utility companies are charged with establishing and maintaining thousands of kilometres of expensive wires, pipes and rights-of-way.

As development proceeds, we place greater and greater pressure on the natural environment. To both manage our built environment and sustain the natural environment, we rely on information in rapidly increasing amounts. Linking this information to geographic locations provides the big picture of both the location and scale of the issues being considered. Geographic locations are provided in the form of mapping information, linked to information and data, to form useful policies and devise solutions.

Not your parents’ professional surveyors
electrical infrastructure seen through lidar
Mapping electrical infrastructure using LIDAR. Photo courtesy of RME Geomatics

My father began his career as a draftsman’s apprentice with the Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland in 1936, where his first job every day was to make ink. In 1936, China Ink was made by grinding, with a mortar and pestle, bits of a solid bar of black ink about the size of a domino. This was then mixed with water until it reached just the right density and colour to be used for drafting.

In 1973, when I became a professional surveyor, I looked very much like those surveyors who are, even today, portrayed in pictures: standing behind a theodolite, wearing jeans and muddy boots, waving to somebody holding a stick, and swatting a fly, while trying to make legible pencil notes in a fieldbook.

In the 21st century, professional surveyors are far more likely to be found developing a Geographic Information System for a client, or using light detection and ranging (LIDAR) data to map topography for a proposed wind turbine generating project. Or, they are creating a detailed survey plan of a complex freeway interchange from aerial data they acquired using an unmanned aerial vehicle/drone or helicopter.

This new breed of professional surveyors is young, energetic, university educated and interested in the endless possibilities afforded by new technologies of both data capture and data analysis. They want to find creative solutions to satisfy the insatiable appetite of the modern world for information, which helps government and private clients make practical, informed choices. They want to be able to work on projects anywhere in the world, and are concerned with the natural environment, with the extinction of species, with the exhausting of finite resources. They are comfortable in the digital age, and are quick to embrace technological innovation.

They become surveyors in a modern environment where university courses and qualifying exams are more tailored to their individual interests. They can work in many types of organizations, particularly those with a mandate for managing large amounts of infrastructure, or employing cutting edge remote data capture technologies, such as LIDAR and unmanned aerial systems, ground penetrating radar or submarine mapping.

Professional surveyors retain their mandate and expertise in establishing boundaries. They are the recognized experts in dealing with the often difficult task of applying boundary and property law to boundary locations, easements and leasehold rights. The new breed of surveyors is able to draw upon newer technologies to allow clients to understand and visualize the many factors affecting the development
or maintenance of their properties.

Looking ahead  

In previous centuries, surveyors were well-known people like George Washington and David Thompson, who, with their vision and energy, opened vast territories that became countries.

In the 20th century, progress was dominated by technological change. Surveyors moved from 18th century telescopes and iron chains, to high-precision optical instruments and electronic distance measuring equipment. The new science of aerial mapping was born with the advent of the airplane. Satellites provided accurate locational information anywhere on earth for the first time. The 21st century is seeing a remarkable change in focus. The new breed of professional surveyors views the planet on a global scale, a system of infinitely complex interrelationships between natural and manmade activities

Brian Kerr, O.L.S., C.L.S., is a freelance copywriter and licensed Canada and Ontario Land Surveyor. This article appears in ES&E Magazine’s June 2016 issue.

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