Automation of Surveying Creates Disruption and Opportunities


Director of Marketing

Surveying is going through a technological renaissance. The increased adoption of machine guidance systems has renewed the importance of the surveying trade. This technology calls for a highly-trained workforce, and surveyors are the most qualified for this job. But to get in on the action, surveyors need to learn to use this technology and re-brand themselves.

GPS Machine Control Has Replaced Traditional Staking
Unless you’ve been sleeping behind the wheel, you’ve likely heard of GPS machine control. Also referred to as machine guidance or automated machine control, these systems are widely used by heavy construction companies. They speed up work, improve grade accuracy and improve the billing and scheduling accuracy of jobs. For example, by calculating the amount of material moved in a day, they can substantiate bills or keep employees on schedule.

The premise behind the technology is simple: just like using GPS in your car, a GPS machine control system tells excavators where to drive equipment. Additionally, these systems indicate the grade to excavate at. Depending on which version is being used, machine control systems either provide instruction on where to position the blade or automatically do it for drivers.

GPS machine control systems replace surveyors’ old jobs – especially staking. Traditionally, machine operators relied on stakes for both position and grade information. With machine control, this information is relayed in real-time to a unit on the driver’s dashboard.

So if staking is no longer necessary, are surveyors still necessary? Absolutely. Historical roles like boundary resolution and topographic survey work cannot be automated, so surveyors will always be needed for these. But they are also the best people to take on more modern duties, such as managing the GPS machine control system.

A Picture of the Modern Surveyor
To stay relevant on the job site, surveyors need to take ownership of three roles: they need to calibrate the site, prepare data for the machine control system, and provide quality control and assurance of the finished grade.

Before any construction begins on a job site, surveyors are needed to set up the geodetic control. This is a reference system used to determine GPS coordinates. After the geodetic control points have been determined, the base station can be set and the site can be calibrated.

The next step is to create the 3D model that will be used in the machine control system. This is a huge opportunity for surveyors. Preparing data for the machine control system can be difficult and many contractors don’t want the extra liability. So they either outsource or hire exclusively for this task; some even dedicate entire teams to data preparation.

To own this process, surveyors must first learn to work with paper plans and CAD files. 3D data models are made with both types of plans. Often surveyors have to clean up drawings before building the 3D model. So it’s essential that they are familiar with the various file formats, to understand how to use them, and to be able to build the models afterwards. Finally, these files will need to be converted into a machine-ready format and uploaded into the machine control system.

“Someone has to have their fingers on manipulating the design into a format that goes into the computers on the machine guidance systems,” explains Tom Taylor, Chief of Surveys Coordination and New Technologies for Caltrans District 4 Surveys. “The best people to do this are surveyors. It’s a niche that surveyors are in the best position to provide this service for.”

Once the site has been calibrated and the data has been uploaded into the machine control system, construction can begin. But the surveyors role doesn’t end here. They will be needed during construction to monitor the machine control and to deliver quality control and assurance. No one is more qualified to provide quality assurance of grades than the surveyors.

Training and Branding: the Keys to Unlocking Job Opportunities
To take advantage of these job opportunities, surveyors need to learn to use this technology and “re-brand” themselves. As mentioned above, they will need to learn how to work with CAD files, how to develop 3D models for machine control and how to transfer data into the machine control systems.

“Maintain your expertise in the technology,” suggests John Watson, President of the Texas Society of Professional Surveyors. “Surveyors have always been at the forefront of technology and they need to stay that way. Always be learning. Always be training on new equipment.”

They should also become familiar with the major machine control packages on the market from companies such as Caterpillar, Leica, Topcon, Trimble and GeoPac, the software used by many branches of the Department of Transportation (DOT). Surveyors can get training directly from these companies, or one of the many partners that resell these systems.

In addition to getting training, surveyors need to brand themselves as machine control experts. Contractors, land engineers and surveyors are all vying for this title and no one has proved themselves in the role yet. Land surveyors are the most qualified for the job, so they should position themselves accordingly. And to support this claim, they need only point to the existing state laws that require surveyors to be part of the machine control setup process.

Salient Points

  • Surveyors have an opportunity to work in more professional roles that require more thought than swinging a hammer or pounding a stake
  • To win more jobs, surveyors need to take ownership of the following tasks:
    • Site calibration
    • Data preparation
    • Quality assurance and control

Promote your GPS Machine Control Services
If you are a land surveyor and want to promote your own services, join our free directory. A profile includes your company contact information, description of services and a link back to your website. For more information, contact Houston Neal (

Special thanks to: Curtis Sumner, Executive Director of the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping (ACSM), and Jayson Jones, partner at Aubertine and Currier.

Thumbnail image created by Sunburned Surveyor.

  • surveyor

    There is at least one website which has come along to help surveyors stay up to date and relevant, although most that I know are wise way beyond their years and will never be replaced by machines. There is a disjunct between what the public thinks a land surveyor’s job is and what it actually ‘is.’ As the public becomes more aware of the vital importance of land surveyors, talk of replacement should calm down. Land Surveyors United is a living example of just how important it is for land surveyors to band together and educate the public, and themselves. Nice article!

  • Tate Jones

    Excellent article. For the reasons stated in your article the land surveying profession is most certaintly changing. The rate of change is moving faster with the advent of very sophisticated technology. I think that there will always be a market for the traditional roles of property surveying and topographic surveys but the roles are becomming smaller for lots of reason. Much of the land we survey has been surveyed and many real estate transactions are relying on a previous survey and whenevery possible an “update” of the original…When I hear update I always hear cheap. Derek you make good points and there are areas that need surveyors badley and if the surveyors dont step up, the opportunities will be taken by the other professions. Engineers and GIS technicians and others in closely related fields who are more than willing to take on the task of automated modeling and grade production for machines. I will point out the the ability to resolve and correctly survey a very difficult property boundary does not necessairly lend itself to modeling 3d data. However it is all coordinate based technology and no one should be better at it than surveyors. One major point that I would make is that while topographic surveys will always be needed on greenfield sites the advent of automated Lidar collection systems is quickly taking on all the paved and existing sites. With terrestrial lidar scanners, mobile scanners and aerial scanners using helicopter and fixed wing sensors much of the topographic surveying is being collect with robots that can collect data at rates of up to 1,000,000 points per second,and pick very detail very precise information. Going into the new decade lidar data collection, machined controlled GPS system will have a bigger and bigger role but there is currently a great opportunity for surveyors to become involved and fill the need.
    Good article Derek

  • Craig Brewer

    Great article. As with many professions, surveyors must continue to evolve with technology and markets. While modern construction equipment and guidance systems may replace traditional surveying tasks, it also presents new opprotunities. As professional data managers, we can become key team members and the construction project managers best friend.

  • Blogs by Market:
  • Subscribe to the Software Advice Construction Blog

Popular Blog Posts