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Who will survey?

Matteo Luccio


“Nothing can remain immense if it can be measured,” Hannah Arendt wrote in 1958 in The Human Condition. This could be the guiding inspiration for any geodesist or surveyor throughout history. In about 240 B.C., Eratosthenes became the father of geodesy by ingeniously measuring Earth’s circumference using the Sun, a well, a vertical column, the distance a camel caravan traveled from Syene to Alexandria and some basic mathematics. His estimate of 46,000 kilometers was 16% too large but remarkably close considering that he lacked any modern measuring tool. (For a great account of this epic feat, see John Noble Wilford’s The Mapmakers.)

Geodesy, a branch of applied mathematics, is concerned with accurately measuring and understanding three of Earth’s fundamental properties: its geometric shape, its orientation in space, and its gravity field. Earth’s true shape varies from the mathematically smooth surface of an ellipsoid due to local differences in its density that cause variations in the strength of the gravitational pull, in turn causing regions to dip below or bulge above a reference ellipsoid.

This undulating shape is the geoid, which geodesists have defined as the three-dimensional surface along which the pull of gravity is a specific constant. It serves as the zero-level surface for height measurements globally, and all GNSS are pegged to it. It is a hypothetical surface that essentially represents an extension of the idealized mean sea level over (actually, mostly under) Earth’s land surface. Unlike the surface of the oceans, however, it is unaffected by wind, waves, the Moon, or forces other than Earth’s gravity.

Surveyors are content with measuring much smaller portions of Earth’s surface, from single lots to national boundaries. Unlike Eratosthenes, they work with the latest fruit of modern science and technology — including GNSS receivers, robotic total stations, inertial measurement units, lidar, other sensors and unmanned aerial vehicles — and can measure distances with millimeter precision.

When I started in this business a little more than 20 years ago, we used to group GPS receivers by accuracy into three buckets: consumer grade, resource/mapping grade and survey grade. As accuracy has increased for all GNSS receivers, the boundaries between those categories, especially between mapping and surveying, have blurred. Additionally, we now have way more GNSS satellites — in some parts of the world, as many as 70 are in view at one time — and a panoply of public and private, ground-based and satellite-based corrections services.

So, surveyors have a growing set of tools, and they are constantly getting more accurate and more user-friendly.

Now, let me throw another number in the mix: 66. That is the average age of surveyors in the United States. In the short run, employment for surveyors hinges in part on the vagaries of the economy. In the long run, however, population growth and climate change will force large investments in infrastructure. On most construction sites, the first to arrive and the last to leave are the surveyors. We know what their tools are, but who will they be?

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