Articles & Case Studies

Insights from a Land Surveyor: Part I The Power of Having the Right Tool for the Right Job

We’re excited to share this two-part guest post by a veteran southern-California land surveyor on his experience using current technologies to manage site photos that inform topographic surveys. Enjoy!

Like many other land surveyors I know, I grew up in the profession. My dad was a surveyor who ran his own small business, so I was helping him out and learning the ropes beneath the hot West Texas sun as far back as I can remember.

Of course, technology has changed quite a bit since my early days working with my dad. In many ways, technological progress has made our jobs as land surveyors easier. The advancements made in GPS technology have considerably reduced field time, allowing us to collect points much faster. A topo survey which used to take a 3-man crew a couple of days can now be performed by one person with an RTK GPS receiver in less than 8 hours.

The advancements in the current field equipment technology mean we can capture more data faster and with less field time. However, this also means that there’s more data to manage and more field points to QC—leaving more room for error. With just a minor typo or forgotten detail, even some of our go-to software tools are rendered futile and days of work lost.


Avoiding Human Error in Field Work

As land surveyors, we’re charged with being the measurement experts and creating accurate mapping products, which means that even small errors can lead to huge problems down the line, for ourselves or our clients. That’s why we encourage all of our employees to take as many site photos as possible whenever they visit a project. As the saying goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

These days, we may have hundreds of site photos even for a small project. Managing these photos can be burdensome and time consuming, which is why it’s so important for us to use the best site photography application available—one that makes labelling, organizing, storing, and locating job photos a snap.


Site Photos: A Project Manager’s Eyes on the Ground

Chances are your business is as careful about dotting your i’s and crossing your t’s as my team is—which means your staff on site are likely taking copious amounts of project photos during every visit. After all, when it comes to project management, the more information the better.

One of our field crews typically collects this information and then sends it to a drafter or designer in the office, who has usually never seen the site in person. This makes site photos especially useful for those of us out of the field as we strive to understand site conditions and develop plans accordingly.

The project photos are particularly valuable to me when I’m processing the field work to ensure that it meets our high control standards. They also prove extremely helpful when monitoring construction, as site photos document current conditions that might be missing from other data sources.


Making Limited Photographic Tools Work for Topographic Surveys

Depending on the size and complexity of a site, our field crews may collect hundreds or even thousands of field points for a topographic survey. Each of these points is coded by the field surveyor when they collect it to represent an existing feature in the field (i.e., a point collected at a “fire hydrant” may be manually coded as “FH” by the party chief in the field).

Figure 2. Field Point Coordinate Report

Once the field points are processed through a translator in the office, they’re imported into a CAD drawing, after which they appear as dots with a point number on a black background. During this process, symbols corresponding to the field code and lines joining the same codes automatically appear in the drawing.

Figure 3. Field Points Processed into CAD Drawing

The final step in the process is to QC the symbols and lines in the CAD drawing to make sure that they correctly represent the existing conditions of the site. When I review topographic surveys, I typically have Google Earth, Google Street View, or Bing Maps open on my computer. These tools weren’t specifically designed for mapping purposes, but they give me a general overview of the site and aid me in checking the field data while preparing a topographic survey. For a more detailed look, I scroll the project photos the crew took while on site.

Figure 4. Sample Topo Finished Product


The Limitations of Existing Tools

While the available mapping software programs are effective tools in their own ways, they have clear drawbacks.

If, for example, a project site is located in a rural area, I may be unable to access a “street view” or I might receive outdated imagery if I do access it. This may mean that I have to send my crew back out to collect more data and take more photos, or even visit the site myself in order to answer any questions the designer has with the survey.

And this can mean multiple hours, or even days, worth of extra work—and wasted company resources.

This is just one of the many challenges I face trying to use existing mapping programs with site photos for my topographic survey needs. In part 2 of this discussion, I share a project case study that illustrates other challenges with the current site photo processes many land surveying firms have in place—and I introduce a potential solution that might just make our jobs a little easier!

Read Part II Here!


  1. LS 8379

    Very informative, great stuff!

  2. Jonathan Smith

    Great Blog. Thanks for sharing it here with us.

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