Revolutionary technology has transformed the land surveying industry – for better or worse. To understand why, and what you as a surveyor can do to make the ‘worse’ parts dissipate, I’ve created this blog under LandMentor, the name of a new system developed to elevate the land surveying industry.
But first, to understand the problems with the land surveying industry today, solving them, and its future possibilities, you need to understand the past…
A Point of Beginning:
In 1968, at 15 years old, I was hired as a draftsman for Detroit’s highest volume Land Planning firm – Don C. Geake & Associates. Don was a charismatic man with the reputation of winning approvals. The Detroit riots spurred massive suburban growth from the ruins of the city.
Calvin P. Hall was Don’s associate, and between them, for the next six years, they were my mentors.
First day on the job:
My first task was to trace a topography. I had to ask “so, what’s a topography”?
Within a week, I began designing new subdivisions, and for the next 6 years I designed about 500 projects.
Land Surveying accuracy?
Nah. Didn’t need it nor wanted to understand it.
My job was to jam more lots into the site than possible, yet, make it appear much less dense. To accomplish this trickery, we would trace the borders larger than the actual site, a ¼” here, an ½” there, and bingo- that 100 acre site just gained a few more acres.
While, we traced topography to show the contours on the plan, we most often ignored them. After all, that’s the engineer’s problem, not the planner’s.
Developers loved us – we gained density and got those extra homes approved. Those same developers would later come in with their next job complaining how the ‘engineers’ or ‘surveyors’ lost 20 lots. Well, those 20 lots never existed.
I began noticing a problem. The ‘fake’ plans we designed could not have been built in the ‘real’ world. Towards the end of my 6 years with Geake, I began making sure my plans were somewhat to scale – that is accurate to a ‘land planner’.
Becoming a Developer:
The deep recession in 1973 caused the planning business to falter and in 1974 I took an opportunity to finish construction of a family owned development, Robert Arms Apartments in Newburgh, New York.
There were tremendous problems caused by corruption of the contractor my family hired, and the city which approved construction without the proper plans and awarded occupancy permit without any functioning sanitary sewer system. This created incredible engineering and surveying challenges, on a developed and occupied property – I was thrown into land development purgatory.
The surveyors I hired thought that I’d be able to solve many of the issues myself, given my background. They handed me a pile of books on surveying and engineering which I found fascinating. One, the size of a land surveyors field book, was ‘Simplified Site Engineering for Architects and Builders’. This simple to understand book introduced the mathematics for land surveying - and I found a new passion. It was this easy to understand book that was to set the format years later for software manuals and books I would author.
Beginning a career in surveying and civil engineering:
After solving the issues and getting the development finished (legally), I wanted to pursue a career in land surveying and engineering.
Texas was where the jobs were.
I drove to Houston, went into a phone booth, and in the Yellow pages I found: Paul A. Lederer Land Surveying & Engineering in bold lettering. Paul answered the phone, and I gave a brief history of my work experience. I said; ‘I will be the hardest worker you ever had, I will work for minimum wage, but you will teach me surveying and engineering’. I was hired over the phone. Paul’s Texas land surveying registration was 275, he was old school and an excellent mentor. He, and his Civil Engineer Chalmers Miller, taught me what they knew with their vast experience.
The beginning of becoming a Software Developer:
It was at this time I began writing software for various scientific calculators of the day, buying the very latest Hewlett Packard or Texas Instruments programmable calculators.
After four years, Paul did not understand ‘minimum wage’ does not last forever, and I left Paul to run Floyd Cole Land Surveying, a firm in serious trouble because of low quality land surveying.
I told Coles that I’d work for a month as the office tech, not the manager, so I could be a comrade with the employees and understand who were the good people and who were the problem makers – like ‘Undercover Boss’. After a month it was announced that I was the office manager and I fired all but two of the people, and the Coles were shocked. I was able to rebuild the business and get the work quality back where it should have been. I wanted to have a change in my career path, and use my new experience to get back into planning, but this time do it right.
The Beginning of Precision Land Planning:
I drove to Dallas, and repeating the past, went into a phone booth, and in the Yellow pages I found: Herman Blum Engineering. Bob Needham (head of civil engineering) answered the phone, and hired me on that call as head of land planning!
My first land plan at Blum was a 30 acre site that allowed some curvature of the streets. At the end of a Friday, I overhead the land surveyors say: ‘If he thinks we are staking these curves, he’s crazy, so we need to straighten out all of these streets’.
Understand in these days (the late 1970’s), there were no graphic CRT’s and our $2 million computer room was all punch card based. They did not know I had the ability to create the final geometry. I stayed awake the next two days in that computer room and Monday morning handed the surveyors the several inches thick calculation sheets. With punch cards, there was not going to be any changes. I told them: ‘this is what you are going to stake out’. After the site plan approval, the development was built as I designed it. From that point on I had to calculate all that I designed and needed to significantly up my game technologically.
I had exposed that I was not just a planner, but was fluent in the geometry and art of surveying. It was not long before my tasks entailed reducing the surveyors field data and working out the boundary puzzles.
Neiman Marcus – not just diamonds and furs:
Neiman Marcus’ main store was in Dallas, a few blocks from where I worked. Few people today might know this, but as the oilmen took their wives to shop, Neiman Marcus had an area of the latest field technology. One day I went to see the new technologies on display during lunch as the salesman was placing the world’s first HP-41C for public sale in their display case.
He explained there were two for public sale, which were both sold, but let me play with it. The phone rang and after he answered it said the person no longer wanted it, and $400 on my credit card allowed me to be the world’s first owner of a HP-41C. It was to become a standard for surveyors and engineers for the next decade.
That evening I programmed a few routines, but the software vanished from memory. I had a number to call, and the next day a person flew out from Ft. Collins, Colorado to pick up the device. A week later I got it back. It seems it was sensitive to static electricity in the air and HP added some sort of extra barrier to solve the problem.
Producing Software for Surveyors:
The software I wrote was able to be printed in Bar Code, which I gave to many local land surveyors I worked with.
I longed for more computational power. Selling my Motorcycle, tapping my savings, and a $500 loan from a friend, I was able to buy an HP-85 desktop computer and began coding.
The system I developed outperformed the $2 million computer room.
I invented a drafting function directly from the coordinate geometry that could plot to scale on the thermal printer built into the HP-85, moving inches at a time. Overnight it would plot strips of paper that could be taped together and traced to create a subdivision plan - without a plotter which were expensive at the time.
My first ‘land surveying’ product for sale:
A few local surveyors suggested I put the package on the market, and introduced me to Jay Black, a local survey supply dealer. Back then software was pricey. We decided $2,000.00 was reasonable and Jay went on to sell about 22 ‘tapes’ making us both an extra $22,000 over the next few months.
Figure 1 Programming the HP-85 CivilSoft in my Dallas Apartment
In 1980 that was great money (almost $70,000 in today’s dollars). While this all seems wonderful – I never got a single support call. I felt this was not good indication of use and took my ‘HP-85 CivilSoft’ off the market.
A Two Decade Collaboration with Hewlett Packard:
After about a year after leaving the software business assuming no support calls meant failure, I got a call from a VP at Hewlett Packard. He explained that they sold their surveying division to Wild Instruments and were not exactly happy with the deal. They could not compete directly, but decided to collaborate with the best software developer in the surveying arena. They investigated about 50 advertised software suppliers, and from Jay Black got my user list. It seems mine came out on top for user satisfaction – that’s why no support calls!
The next day I signed a confidentiality agreement for the very first HP-87 out of the factory, at the time the worlds most powerful desktop, and began writing code. It was the beginning of a 20 year relationship with HP.
On the week the HP-87 was released I ran full page ads in Civil Engineering and Land Surveying magazines for our $895.00 ‘Land Innovation, Inc. HP-87 CivilSoft’. This was a problem, as that same time, another company was also advertising CivilSoft! I called them and talked to Tracey Leonaker and explained we were both starting out and that he could use CivilSoft and that I would rebrand to Site Computation & Design. Tracey became a lifelong friend and truly one of the civil/survey software industries most respected leaders.
With the ability to use Hewlett Packard’s dealer network, we began selling in high volumes. We built an earth-berm, passive solar, lakefront home/office powered by a 10kW Bergey Wind Generator in Maple Grove, Minnesota to develop software full time.
Ups and downs of being a land surveying software developer:
Technology was quickly changing. CPM was the standard operating system for business, the IBM PC just came out, but Hewlett Packard was better suited for surveying and graphics than the others.
The largest software vendors like us, PacSoft, Hasp, Holguin, and many more were on HP for good reason: The mathematical accuracy was better, fairly easy to develop software, great support from the company, and plotting to the screen and the plotter used the same language. HP was the only hardware vendor with surveying experience. The drawing being the geometry.
Those that used HP as the platform were programming for the daily tasks of the land surveyor or civil engineer, or like us, both. Because Hewlett Packard Graphics Language (HPGL) was a standard for both screen and pen plotting, we could develop the graphics part of our software for both screen and external drafting with ease.
Figure 2 Our Maple Grove office showing HP80 and 200 series.
Field Data Collectors:
Land Surveying software had to communicate with the many different data collectors offered – each with their own formats, nuances, and problems.
Each had its own updates, constantly changing output formats, and for the most part not telling anyone, so we were in constant pressure to support the many systems on the marketplace.
This was at a time when surveyors still collected mostly in raw format; angles and distances, and processed the coordinate in the office, correcting field errors by Transit, Compass, or Crandall rule using our software.
It was not until much later on, that the land surveying industry changed to accept the data collector as the processor in the field of coordinate information to be transferred to the office.
Early days Contour Generation:
The first programs that would offer contours would take random field data and then overlay a mathematical grid which would create a rough contour map, nowhere near the elegance or detailed precision of a contour map created manually. Yet, a button press was a whole lot faster than a day at the drafting table – sacrificing ease for quality.
Our strength was in the land surveying, civil design, and for planning.
Our earliest customers who desired automation for contouring, we told to buy PacSoft until they began directly competing with us. PacSoft developed a ‘sets based’ system that, in theory, would be easier to make changes, but in reality, design changes that alter configuration (more likely) made our technology much better.
About the same time PacSoft became a competitor instead of a collaborator, HASP, in Colorado was about to change the game…
A Major Shift in Contour Generation:
One of Hewlett Packard’s other software vendors, HASP, introduced the first true DTM (Digital Terrain Modeling) system. HASP software used the actual survey points with all the detail like top and bottom of curb to replicate a hand drawn contour map. This was a game changer not just because the contours were drawn correct (sort of), but because it created the mathematical model to compare two surfaces for a more precise earth volume.
This was a scary moment for competitors like us, because we had to compete, and even though HASP was at the very upper end of the price point, they were making great sales volume. Competitive in the software business means not following but leading – so we needed to not be the same but better. This was beyond my ability to code for sure, and could have put us out of business had their software been at a much more attainable price.
Raising the Standard in DTM creation:
Being in a desperate situation, I was introduced to the head of mathematics and computer science at Hamlin University, Wojciech Komornicki (WK), and retained him to write a competitive code.
The assignment I gave WK was to develop competitive functionality, and we were about to release a version with similar capability, a bit slower, but at no extra charge without being an add-on. Just before release, WK had been working months after being paid and delivered new code at no extra charge. Not only did he come up with a better performing solution, its mathematics looked at a trend in the surface requiring less need or breaklines. Eventually when we ported to UNIX, virtual memory allocation eliminated any array limits, still well into the 1980’s.
Precision Spatial Capability:
In the mid-1980’s I had a sales rep in California who asked if we could develop code that could automatically compile area just by pointing into a closed site. That night, I dreamt about how to code it, woke up and walked over to the computer and developed it - and it worked great. The ability to mathematically create spatial data using surveying calculations (instead of polylines) would become a major advantage that continues to this day.
UNIX, DOS, and AutoCAD:
In this fast moving industry where hardware doubled in speed annually, software needed to constantly be ahead of the curve. Our relationship with HP was such that we could get access to prototype hardware far in advance of public release, often 6 months, in some cases a year.
It was a major advantage over our competitors. AutoCAD was in its infancy, but architects began demanding data in DXF (drawing Exchange Format) – an easy to translate form of communication.
CPM, not DOS, was the standard for most business computers. DOS (Disk Operating System) was to take over, and eventually evolving into the what you know today as Windows. DOS was extremely slow, being more disc interactive than HP, that allowed us to use internal memory. HP used a form of BASIC, but BASIC was quickly becoming obsolete.
HP format disc was not compatible with DOS, requiring a cumbersome and extra cost third party software to transfer data to a PC using CAD.
Again, in a short time period of gaining momentum, we were faced with a choice – close down or reinvent.
I approached WK and he suggested that he could take what we developed, improve on it, and within 6 months, we could start marketing our systems on Hewlett Packard’s UNIX platform.
HP-UNIX, while far superior than DOS in every way, was an extremely expensive hardware proposition and potentially complex to use and maintain.
A Six Month promise became Three Years:
Because of the high cost of hardware, and only 6 months for budgeting and to market, we announced to all of our users not to purchase any more software until the new generation was introduced. Well, that took three years, not six months, and again, we faced ruin.
We hired Keith Willenson to develop the high level land surveying, graphics tablet support, and translations to data collectors as well as other systems. While WK was a brilliant mathematician, Keith (like Steve Jobs) understood that the best technology was one that was the simplest, cleanest, intuitive, and easiest to use.
Introducing SiteComp UNIX:
At the Ohio Land Surveyors Convention in the late 1980s I held a user group for about 30 Site Comp basic users. At that group, I brought a Sony UNIX Laptop, the only UNIX laptop available (a $10,000 laptop). I asked if anyone wanted to see the new code, but with happy users that spent a small fortune on HP hardware already, no takers.
I said, well, give me 5 minutes anyway.
When they saw the speed and new easy user interface, we took orders for most that attended the class.
Simple to use UNIX:
To eliminate the cost of UNIX maintenance, we developed functions that would maintain the operating system automatically. To eliminate having to learn UNIX commands, we instead created buttons. To be compatible with DOS (MS-DOS) UNIX could write that format directly.
Even by today’s standards, placing a SiteComp HP-UNIX of the late 1980’s next to the latest PC running any CAD based software, there is not much difference in speed. It was that fast. Along with the drawing derived from the geometry, and precision spatial data, integrated functions with no add-on’s, we gained a significant market advantage.
Within months we went from about ½ million in debt to a few million in the bank – the gamble paid off.
HP-UNIX was to be the advantage for nearly the next decade, but the PC market was changing, and would eventually begin to compete.
About the same time we ported to UNIX, our competitors were using AutoCAD (or similar products) to eliminate the need to write their own graphics as well as being compatible with others on the CAD platform. This required a compromise because the drawing and the geometry would require two completely separate data structures that would have to constantly be in concert – a problem with all CAD based solutions today.
Thus, a change to work ‘on top’ of CAD would also limit the software vendor to what they could develop, as they would always be limited to what the CAD environment allowed them to do.
By the late 1980’s most of our competition left dedicated HP hardware and went to the CAD based systems – vigorously competing on a platform they had no control of growth, and which served land surveying as well as every other industry (another compromise).
When AutoDesk purchased DCA, one of the leading CAD based software, to sell what would eventually become Civil3D, they worked against every one of those firms that heavily invested in and operated on top of their platform! It did not take long for most of our competition to fail.
GIS and GPS:
Two new technologies began to take hold before the turn of the century – Geographic Information Systems and GPS – Global Positioning Systems that would have a major impact for better and worse for the land surveyor and the land surveying industry.
At the beginning of GIS, we developed the easiest to learn and use precision mapping system tied to a flexible data base eliminating long learning curves and special skills needed for GIS. That’s the good news… the bad? A free-form data base had a problem if we were to service a large city – it was slower as the data structures grew. For that reason we were a player – but not for towns above a population of 5,000. For those markets the absolute best technology for GIS by far was UltiMAP. Developed for precision mapping and GIS, ULTIMAP addressed land surveying precision in both the geometry and spatial representation. UltiMAP ultimately failed because of terrible management and marketing, while ESRI gained momentum because it formed relationships with University Professors. It was also quick because it only addressed polygons (non-curved linework, or ‘polylines’), the screen refresh was better than those that drew a mathematical curve.
Round One: GIS Wins - Surveyors Lose.
Because ESRI data structure could not draw curves, and because the general public does not understand land surveying nor the critical importance of the value of accuracy, city after city, purchased ESRI. The city officials were convinced by the GIS salesperson that the maps could be traced in quickly, and then when the city could later GPS the section corners, and the map could be ‘rubber-sheeted’, a term for stretching the map to the accurate corners.
Somehow this illogical explanation made sense to the city staff and council who had to make some pretty large scale financial decisions.
Some Land Surveyor’s like Gary Stephenson of Dakota County, Minnesota, took the time to create an accurate base map where possible for the county. Many Wisconsin cities also saw the importance of accuracy, but those maps were built in a non-GIS software to be translated to the GIS system.
This was the first technology that would become a huge problem for the land surveyor and the industry, not because it’s technically flawed, but because the general public that can download (often for free) map data from the city or county, will be confident that the data is just as goods as if hiring a land surveyor. It gets worse…
…Not just the general public, but all architects, planners, builders, developers, and a scary fact - most engineers think this also!
From UNIX to Windows
After the turn of the century, in 2000 we retained WK again to rewrite SiteComp UNIX to become SiteComp for Windows. Several years earlier I formed a research firm on how technology could be used to create higher forms of land development (Rick Harrison Site Design or RHSD). This company explosive growth was because the methods we discovered could reduce infrastructure while maintaining density and gaining real estate value.
The US Military Adopts SiteComp Windows:
Shortly after introducing SiteComp Windows, there was a major RFP by the military for a precision mapping system, a land surveying based software that would have GIS capability. The RFP also demanding precision spatial data, for the worlds 64 Air Guard bases.
At the time, SiteComp was the only technology that could fulfil the RFP, and the resulting massive sale raised the value of the company. I sold the majority shares to pursue more innovations on the design methods being created by RHSD.
Round Two: Google Earth Wins – Surveyors Lose
Google Earth allowed the world to access what is essentially aerial photos stitched together – some recent, others horribly out of date.
Just like GIS data that can be easily accessed, Google Earth (and its competitors) is even easier. Again, the same population and group of professionals (almost everyone) thinks this wonderful technology eliminates the need for the land surveyor and the industry it serves.
Round Three: LiDAR sorta wins – Everyone else loses.
LiDAR, you know that $10,000 investment you likely made as a surveyor only to find out the data it creates does not replace an on the ground survey? LiDAR is another major problem for the Land Surveyor.
Why? Because the 100 or so points collected in the field to define the site’s complex details, the center of the ditch, that edge of the building, top and bottom of curb, edge of pavement and so on - all of the data you probably collect anyway to place on a survey plat to create an exact DTM. Well, now your drone (or a service) can produces a few thousand times the points with no particular detail.
Most LiDAR contours look spastic because of the data overload and software without a human being deciding what’s what.
Everything (Engineering and 3D applications) that deciphers that few million points instead of the hundred or so field points is slowed down – sometimes to a halt.
Why did LiDAR take off if it’s so bad?
Have you ever seen an aerial mapping firm before LiDAR create a contour map with its technology? Those beautiful smooth contour lines were all traced manually by experts trained in stereographic systems. This was a time consuming and costly solution, but elegant and accurate.
With LiDAR, it replaces hundreds of manhours with a button press. Overall it will take much longer because eventually that data is used for engineering, slowing down every process, or requiring someone to edit the data to be usable.
This problem has no easy fix.
Again, those that don’t understand it think it’s one less need for the land surveyor. Worse yet, it’s also a technology that anyone can buy at the local electronics store.
Round 4: Universities Win – Surveyors Lose
I fell in love with land surveying: the art of working out the puzzle of land ownership on conflicting boundaries, the mathematics, challenge, field work, and the technologies involved.
I was an apprentice –one that I placed myself in, but could easily be replicated today, if the licensing boards take away the college degree requirement and allow apprenticeships.
This means that the old guard must foster the next generation, and that generation do so with the next.
In my day, to become a registered land surveyor, there was no requirement to go heavily into debt to be taught, often, from a professor from another nation, with a specific targeted agenda provided by software and hardware vendors – on how to become a land surveyor.
An apprenticeship requires no debt, and if the apprentice does not perform, they can get fired.
Anyway, this introduction just provides a background, but we need to learn from the past to fix the future.
We are not here to sell you a service or product – you will know where to contact us from the many links of this if you are interested.
We are here to introduce possibilities, thoughts, methods, and hopefully help you fix the problems facing todays consulting industry – especially those involving land surveyors. I will try to contribute at least a few times each month a method, a concept, or a thought that we hope you’ll pass onto others.
Wow guys! This is an amazing introduction and I for one feel grateful to have LandMentor on the platform. I am sure the community will feel the same way. Looking forward to your future posts and all you have to share with us...!