Advances in technology mean that the term “land surveyor” no longer properly describes the capabilities of today’s professional, argues Brian Coutts, Senior Lecturer in the School of Surveying, University of Otago


Redefining the land surveyor

Measurers of land have been around for millennia. Records exist from the Sumerians around 2130 BC that indicate people were already measuring and recording land, while the Old Testament declares “Cursed be he that removeth his neighbour’s landmark. And all the people shall say Amen” (Deuteronomy 27:17) – the implication being that there must have been people who placed boundary marks in the first place.

The word “surveyor” is derived from the French words “sur” (over) and “veior” (to see), and “survey” was first used as a verb in 1550 to mean “to determine the form, extent, and situation of the parts of a tract of ground, or any portion of the earth’s surface, by linear and angular measurements”.This signifies the beginning of the practice, and later the profession, of land surveying.

The 100 years from around 1550 saw the arrival of new technology that ensured the development of the modern profession. New forms of mathematics were adopted from the Arabian scholars through the Moorish invasion of Spain including algebra, geometry, trigonometry and logarithms.

Science brought the telescope, later to have crosshairs added, and accurately engineered, graduated circles leading to the theodolite. Edmund Gunter also developed the “chain” linear measuring device that still bears his name.

With the exception of making measurements from aerial photographs, not a lot changed in the following 300 years.

Electronic measurement

Optical theodolites, hand-cranked calculators and steel and cloth tapes were the basic tools of the land surveyor of 1970. Then, in rapid succession, came electronic measurement devices, handheld electronic calculators and desktop computers, and the theodolite was transformed into the total station.

Positioning from satellites followed, and the computer manipulation of measurement data onto maps prompted the development of geographic information systems (GIS). More recently, the laser scanner appeared and is now miniaturised into the total station.

Remote sensing has enabled new techniques of gathering and interpreting data, and photogrammetry has seen a resurgence due to the arrival of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones as they are more commonly known

The tools available in 2017 could barely have been imagined in 1970. What does this mean for land surveying?

Data revolution

The equipment available to today’s professional land surveyor is capable of infinitely more applications than the theodolite and chain, and the ability to process the data gathered has been revolutionised, in terms of both quantity and speed. As a result, the applications to which the land surveyor’s skill set can be applied has expanded well beyond the traditional fields of mapmaking, measuring engineering works and defining land boundaries.

The prefix “land” has thus outlived its relevance to refer to this branch of surveying. The term “geomatics” was coined in an attempt to create a new image for surveying, but wherever it has been used it has not been popular with surveyors, has not resonated with the public and does not appear to have fostered the expected impression, failing to produce the desired results in Canada, where it originated, Australia or the UK.

One major criticism of “geomatics” has been dropping the reference to “surveying”. However, there are now so many occupations that legitimately claim the use of the word “surveyor”, that some prefix is necessary to distinguish these land surveyors from the rest.

What is at the core of surveying is the ability to represent the spatial relationships of one feature to any other with a known level of accuracy.The understanding of what measurements mean, what they represent, their relative value if they come from different sources – that is, their accuracy – and the ability to present them to a client in a useful way is the essence of land surveying today.

But it does not just apply to land – it can have many and varied uses, from positioning actors on green screen in the movies to providing a developer with a building information model to assist in building management.

However, all of this is still surveying. Not land surveying, maybe, but spatially oriented surveying. It is the profession of the geospatial surveyor.

This article is extracted from the November-December Land Journal

Comments (1)

  1. From my experience of 36 years running a professional survey firm as a business

    Keep it simple "clients want a survey from a surveyor"

    Be smart avoid confusing the customer !

    James Loy James Loy, 8 November at 16:42PM

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