Tomorrow’s Land Surveyor, Today!

I am a licensed land surveyor by trade. My job is primarily about geospatial location of concrete information (sometimes literally!). I spend a lot of time on construction sites, from bridges and roads to schools and office buildings. Less often than I used to but still occasionally, I tromp through the woods searching for evidence of property ownership that may be years, decades or even centuries old. In Connecticut, fieldstone walls, ancient wire fence and cedar posts, and very large trees are all potential boundary markers.


For any given piece of land or construction project, there is a huge amount of geospatial data associated with it. These things can be boiled down into categories: limits (from property lines to wetlands setbacks), existing structures (both old and recently built) and potential structures (both those proposed in the project and those that *might* exist due to spotty recordkeeping). Moreover, each of these things exists in at least three dimensions, and oftentimes four (those pesky potential structures I mentioned, in particular).


So what does any of this have to do with writing, particularly the writing of speculative fiction? Well, when it comes to writing about could-be and might-be worlds, it is important, I think, to imagine how those worlds operate not just in the action set pieces or dramatic dialogues, but in the everyday world outside the windows of your characters. Usually, we use technology to describe that world, and it so happens that land surveying, as old as it is a profession (I think we rank third, after prostitution and bartending), is highly technological. We adopted the use of electronic distance meters, laser levelling, computer aided drafting, 3D scanning and GPS into our work and nothing suggests that we will not do the same with emerging technologies. So I want to look at what the future of surveying might look like, both for my own amusement (I am a long way from retirement) and as an example of how we as SF writers can take what is otherwise a pedestrian, mundane element and apply our prognosticating abilities to it.


What really got me thinking about this subject was Google Glass. Augmented reality has existed in fiction and film for quite some time and there have been a few minor attempts to integrate our smartphones into AR in recent years, but it is Glass that is really the first step into an AR world. Sure, Glass is ugly and nerdy and stinks of hipster, but it is the future. Whether it is Google or Apple or some yet-unknown startup that turns it from niche to necessary, augmented reality is the next world changing consumer technology. It will infuse everything from warfare to medicine to amusement parks, and it will certainly be used in land surveying.


Imagine standing in an open field, recently bulldozed of a dilapidated townhouse so that a multi-story elevator parking garage can be built. Today, you would have a roll of maps in your hand, a field computer and data collector weighing down your survey rod and an expensive robotic instrument sitting off site, either unprotected or guarded by a paid employee doing very little else. You might have determined your starting location by tying in to municipal or State survey control, or you might be using GPS. In either case, you have to translate that starting location into angles and distances from your instrument and pray for line of site.


Fast forward ten years, perhaps less. Instead of holding a survey rod weighed down by a field computer, you are wearing OSHA approved safety glasses with a built in heads up display. Those same glasses are linked to GPS and RTK location networks. Instead of a roll of plans showing you where the futuristic car park is to be built, a ghostly image of the structure fills your view. You can banish it at whim, or add or remove detail with a word. You can see the property lines and building setback limits on the ground as surely as if they were marked with paint, and when it is time to place a stake for a column location, it became a pulsing target accurate down to the thousandth of a foot. The plans for the garage are themselves stored in the cloud, so when the architects and engineers apply changes to the plans, they are updated automatically. Your roll of plans can never be out of date. In addition, as you work and the structure itself is built, it is scanned by your glasses and added to the virtual building and site information.


Obviously, augmented reality holds a lot of promise for land surveying, and it is not too far off. Like the newest robotic instruments and GPS systems, it will take time for the technology cost to come down so midsized and smaller firms can afford it, but the largest companies will be early adopters as they were with 3D scanning and CAD/GPS machine control for construction.


There are some other emerging technologies that will change and empower the land surveying profession. After augmented reality, the most valuable may be the commercial use of drones. Currently, surveyors make extensive use of aerial photography and photogrammetry. These are expensive though, since you have to hire a plane and a pilot. Very soon, I think, those companies will switch over to drone use, cutting both costs and delivery times. New radar and scanning technologies will likely increase the value of aerial photography, as well.


Another useful technology yet in its relative infancy is GIS — Geographic Information Systems. All sorts of field make use of GIS, tracking everything from land data to demographics. When fully integrated into an accessible, cloud based data hub, GIS will be a huge asset for both augmented reality in surveying as well as planning and property development.


Farther in the future, 3D printing on a large scale, such as was recently suggested for building a lunar base, will have an impact on land surveying. However, this impact might not be positive for either surveyors or the construction workers who fabricate office building and parking garages. With the structural and architectural information uploaded and raw materials at hand, large scale 3D printers could raise complex structures in a fraction of the time required by manpower.


Finally, automation might be the nail in the coffin for the land surveyor. As robots get smaller, more mobile, more versatile and ultimately more intelligent, when combined with augmented reality and GIS systems, they could easily and effectively take over for human surveys much as they have with more confined manufacturing work. Swarms of microbots could easily survey large sites and buildings with laser scanning, while more specialized larger robots could plant stakes faster and more precisely than any human.


It is impossible to say what will happen in the future, even a few short years out. No one can predict random, or seemingly random, events that shape the future, and fewer can effectively model for human quirks in their futurism. Always, there is the potential for an unforeseen technological or scientific leap that changes everything, such as the rise of electronics in the mid 20th century. But when imagining futures, both our own and those of the characters in our stories, it is important to remember the nuts and bolts of the world. Imagine what your profession will look like in the future about which you are writing.


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