The future of surveying

The future of the surveying profession hinges on a question: “What is its relevance to  society or to a consumer?” Without relevance, one has no future. By Peter Newmarch*

Peter Newmarch, president, South African Geomatics Institute

Surveyors, also known as geomatics practitioners, have had relevance for centuries. Many people, however, now ask about the future of geomatics given the rapid rate of technological advancement and automation.

Little really changes – at the core remains the position of a thing, right, restriction or responsibility. How we survey it has of course dramatically changed, as well as the speed. Coupled with such new tools is the value add that can be extracted from that data. Advances in technology have simply added more work possibilities/opportunities for the surveyor.

It has recently been determined that – in order to solve poverty, land issues and many others – meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is required to ensure a better world for all. Geomatics is a key requirement to almost all 17 SDGs, which have highlighted the importance of positional information to society’s problems and, in turn, the future of surveying. As the world transitions to thinking in new ways, as governments address SDGs with a tangible means of benchmarking progress – geomatics comes to the fore in it all.

We have moved into a visual world where designs need proper placement and management. It is estimated that 70% of all economic activity happens on land (in its broadest sense). The management and visualisation of such activity is becoming vital for the proper functioning and administration of society. Land management, land administration and data management are moving into the fore. Be it a bridge, road, pipe, house, farm or dam – all need management – either from the public or private sector.

We now have advanced tools such as lidar, radar, drones, ground-penetrating radar, near-infrared and infrared satellite imagery, GPS, and robotic total stations. No doubt such terms will evolve with new technologies we have not yet thought of or invented. But they are just tools and can only yield the desired results when used by a qualified professional. Otherwise, the adage of “junk in, junk out” remains.

That is what surveyors are trained for – to correctly apply fundamental theory and practice of position to the project at hand. Automation or artificial intelligence cannot do the higher-level job functions of a surveyor and this will remain the case for many years to come.

Digital twin

New technologies have allowed for faster workflows and vastly more data collection possibilities, which has now yielded the concept of a digital twin – where the physical world can be modelled almost exactly in the digital world. As models become more complex, the ability to translate these back to the physical world will be vital for projects. A relatively simple case in point is the recording of an underground pipe. Some 20 years down the line, the pipe is no longer in the same position due to tectonic plate movement. Data needs maintenance and management to remain relevant. In the world of autonomous cars (and their mapping sensors), non-maintenance and nonmanagement of the digital twin will be fatal to human life!

With the advances in autonomous vehicles and data collection sensors – real-time swarm mapping possibilities are likely just a few years away, which will require advanced skills from the surveyors.

Good and bad data

Data overload from a vast array of sensors by all manner of persons acquiring data will lead to what we call data pollution. What is good data and what is bad data? Only a professionally trained person will have the skills to determine whether the data represents the physical world correctly and vice versa.

Once again, data management skills will be critical. Companies don’t want to be basing their decisions on non-certified data – even if it ‘looks good’ or the accompanying report says it is good. I have seen many a report saying the mapping is accurate to 3 cm while, in reality, it was actually incorrect and a complete waste of money.

Office investment will increase, as access to a vast array of data sets (public and private) becomes available. Software investment and utilisation will increase, along with specific tool sets. This will be a niche market area for use by surveyors, as they would be the only ones to understand certain intricate information.

Automation or artificial intelligence cannot do the higher-level job functions of a surveyor and this will remain the case for many years to come

Change is inevitable

All professionals, across the built environment, bemoan the rapid changes happening in their professions. It is not unique to South Africa – it’s a worldwide issue, as is the shortage of skilled professionals. This has motivated the discussion in some forums of the possibility of a ‘global professional’.

The theory is that professionals should have country-entry status similar to ‘diplomatic’ persons, free of visa requirements and work permits, allowing them to freely offer their skills on the world stage as development demand ebbs and flows in specific regions.

So, returning to the ‘future of surveying’: this is extremely positive, with the surveyor playing more of a management role, with mass collected geospatial data, extracting value-added services and taking this further with analytics into a host of related issues – more so on an international stage, if the ‘global professional’ comes to the fore to address different rates of development around the world.

Geospatial outlook

From a cadastral perspective, land or land administration will be the core future focus; from an engineering perspective, it will be data management and analytics. The tools and workflows will evolve, but the future is indeed an exciting and expanded one for surveying.

The surveyor will take a commanding data role in almost every sector of society – be it engineering, health, human settlements, finance, agriculture, aviation or mining (among many others). And as consumers get used to the digital twin world, they will increasingly demand it for everything, leading to data overload and big data issues. Once again, this presents a further need for surveyors to filter and manage the data.

Data is clearly becoming a commodity of value and needs professional management – some would even say auditing and certification. And perhaps ‘geospatial auditors and certification professionals’ may be the future name of surveyors – it would be the same job, just wrapped up in a modern term.

*Peter Newmarch is the president of the South African Geomatics Institute (SAGI).

IMIESA November/December 2020 pg25

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