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Surveyors: Who are they?

The average age of surveyors in the United States is nearly that of retirement. Can new technology attract a new generation to the profession?

“We do not fully understand the trend in the United States,” said Simon Peng, ComNav Technology, “but in China we find that modern survey technology — such as UAV/lidar mapping and total stations — make field work simple. New trends such as computer imaging, point clouds and building information models (BIM) attract young surveying engineers.”

Using the equipment in the field is becoming increasingly easier, said Bernhard Richter, Leica Geosystems. “Our goal is that operating the field equipment should not be more difficult than playing with your smartphone. That means that you don’t need the super expert in the field so much anymore.” However, he argued, “someone who studied surveying should now be more the data manager, have the expertise to put the data in geospatial relation, and know in which reference frame he is operating.”

For example, that person needs to know about orthometric and ellipsoidal heights, especially for engineering projects between countries that might have different height codes. “Anybody who has an interest to geolocate an object can capture the data and upload it to the cloud environment,” Richter said. “Then there are the data managers. Certainly, they need to know the physical limits of surveying technology, and they need to manage the complexity of modeling Earth. They need to become data managers to really put data to work.”

“The anticipated number of new professionals is not necessarily replacing all the surveyors who are expected to retire over the next 10 years,” said Boris Skopljak, Trimble. To tackle this challenge Trimble is using a two-pronged approach: attracting younger workers by raising awareness of surveying as a future career and modernization of the profession. For the first prong, Skopljak cited “phenomenal programs out there, such as Get Kids into Survey.” He pointed out that many Trimble employees are part of those education programs, “promoting inclusion of not just a younger generation, but also of women and minority groups that are heavily underrepresented in our industry today.”

For the second prong, “Digital data capture workflows present opportunities. A very common interview question we ask these days is ‘Do you play video games?’ Generally, those young professionals who are gamers thrive in the 3D environment. The technology aligns well with the interests of younger folks.”

Additionally, a growing number of educational institutions are evolving their curriculums to meet these needs, said Skopljak. Trimble is establishing Trimble Technology Labs in selected academic institutions around the world that are helping students access the latest technology and the best modern engineering practices. Boosting productivity also helps compensate for the declining number of surveyors, because it reduces the number of people needed to get the job done. “As the technology becomes easier to digest and operate and more focused on the workflows, it also becomes easier for companies to standardize it and attract talent,” Skopljak said.

One of the biggest threats to the survey profession, according to Huff, is that it “let bits and pieces of traditional surveys fall off to the wayside.” Geographic information systems (GIS) use the same positioning technology, he pointed out. “Fifty years ago, that was more of a function of the surveyor than it was necessarily the GIS profession. In many ways, while the surveyor is aging — the licensed cadastral surveyors certainly are aging — there is a new generation of folks coming through who are leveraging the new technology, such as drones and mobile mapping systems.”

This new generation, Huff argued, will achieve the same accuracies as the previous one partly because it’s getting easier to do so. “We definitely have more of a generation of digital users that can leverage the technology to do things where even my mentors performed many calculations by hand, on the fly, from plain tables in their logbooks with sine, cosine and tangent in them. Now, I think that technology and 3D immersive technology, which hinges on GPS location, attracts a younger crowd to certain facets of the profession.”

François Freulon, Septentrio, agreed that new technologies now available “can be easily adopted by new generations in the profession,” yet added that “quality surveying requires a good formation and experience in the field.” Therefore, he argued, “surveying education systems will need to adapt their programs and incorporate newer techniques such as new positioning modes and corrections.

Surely RTK remains as the main accuracy technique, but this could change quickly in the coming years as correction services bring better performance and regional coverage.”

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