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Land surveying transforms along with technology

New devices allow for smaller teams, increased accuracy

Surveying equipment from the 19th century to modern day is shown at the office of MMS Consultants. The tape (right) is like those used by owner Jim Lichty when he started in the surveying industry 30 years ago.
Surveying equipment from the 19th century to modern day is shown at the office of MMS Consultants. The tape (right) is like those used by owner Jim Lichty when he started in the surveying industry 30 years ago.
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Land surveying has undergone a lot of changes over the centuries, but perhaps not as rapidly as within the last 20 years.

Most significantly, the introduction of global positioning systems and robotic technology have had a strong influence on the how that surveyors actually do their jobs.

Land surveyors work with land owners, developers, commercial interest groups and government entities on a wide range of projects. They traditionally survey topography and boundaries for construction projects.

Survey work often is required when land is divided, purchased or sold, as well as when planning construction on a site.

“Land surveyors were among the first professionals to be called right after the Cedar Rapids floods of 2008,” said Stephen Scott of Scott Survey Inc. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the city “required property owners in the flood plain to have elevations certified prior to applying for reconstruction permits.”

Even some six years later, surveyors are being called on to provide elevation information needed to meet requirements for reconstructing in floodplains.

Which bring us back to those advancements. New technology has made the surveying practice a much quicker process.

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“Technology is changing land surveying as the equipment becomes more sophisticated and capable. GPS, for example, allows a surveyor to use satellite and the Iowa Real-Time Network for improved accuracy across miles of land,” said Jim Lichty of MMS Consultants in Iowa City.

The land surveying profession was one of the first to make use of GPS because it provides quick, accurate data. Moreover, GPS does not require line-of-sight between survey points, allowing surveyors to measure larger distances and reducing the number of workers needed for one job.

Robotic total stations, used for measuring distance and angles via remote control, also reduce the amount of manual labor required because they can be operated at a distance.

“Two-person crews were once the surveying norm — these days they would be the exception. With this technology, a one-person crew can handle most jobs,” Lichty explained.

Because the field has become so highly technological, employers such as MMS Consultants look for surveyors with proficiency in relevant software and devices.

But going into the field still requires strong math skills, even though surveyors have to do much less by hand these days.

“Just 40 years ago surveyors were still measuring distance on the ground by pulling a tape. Then came electronic distancing and field computers. Now we use global positioning instruments and robotic equipment,” Scott said.

Even as the technology has reduced the number of workers needed per survey job, the profession still is experiencing a deficiency of survey specialists.

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“Industry experts have been saying since the fall that the labor shortage (architecture, engineering and construction companies) are feeling nationwide is one of the greatest challenges of the next decade. That includes land surveyors, architects and engineers,” Lichty said.

Lichty partially cites the strict requirements for becoming a licensed land surveyor for the shortage.

To gain licensure, a surveyor at the minimum needs a two-year degree and six years of work experience. A surveyor’s degree can be in a variety of fields, from mathematics to engineering.

But Ken DeKeyser, vice president of Hall and Hall Engineers in Hiawatha, hopes the new technology will draw young people into the field.

“If you like technology and the outdoors and history, these are all reasons to be a land surveyor,” he said.

The National Society of Professional Surveyors runs a math competition for high school students each spring called Trig-Star. It’s meant to build awareness for surveying by introducing students to practical applications of trigonometry.

The winner of the Iowa state competition receives $250 and may go on to compete for up to $2,000 at the national level.

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