Attitudes of Independence

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Northern Georgia is a geographic area of rich, natural beauty and rugged terrain. For land surveyors operating in the small communities and rural areas of this locale, economic survival can be a major concern. The owners of two survey firms located here have taken a pioneering, independent approach to confronting these business challenges by relying on themselves and taking advantage of technologically advanced survey instrumentation. Here are their stories.

From Forester to Surveyor
John Shober, Licensed Land Surveyor, owns and operates his firm in the town of Trenton, Georgia. John, now 49 years old, started his career in forestry after earning a degree from the University of the South. After spending several years in this field, environmental concerns led him away from the profession and steered him toward a second career as a surveyor.

In general, Shober’s operation is like every other small town survey firm. Most of his jobs are surveys of rural tracts of land located within 75 miles of his office. Sometimes he has projects such as development plats or commercial as-built surveys in nearby urbanized areas. But there is one significant fact that makes Shober’s firm different–he has a field crew of one!

Several years ago John was in the process of building and expanding his firm. Faced with some tragic personal circumstances and a soft local economy, he was forced to downsize. He decided to go it alone rather abandon his business and seek employment elsewhere. At the same time he made a major business decision that he felt would insure his long-term survival. John purchased a Topcon GTS815R robotic total station and a Topcon FC-1000 data collector. Looking back, he feels it’s the best move he ever made.

One particular project demonstrated to John that he’d made a good decision. He was hired to perform multiple survey and mapping tasks at Lookout Mountain Flight Park near Chattanooga, Tennessee. The site is primarily a base and landing field for hang gliders. A condominium development and campground for RV’s are also located on the site. The owner’s program involved dividing the property into three separate parcels to separate the land use functions. Additionally, the owner wanted to sell the attached condos as individual townhouses. He contracted with John to perform a boundary survey of the entire property, survey and prepare plats for the three parcels, and produce a detailed as-built drawing of the townhouse development.

John was extremely pleased with the performance of his equipment on the project. "My total station allowed me to perform the work quickly and accurately on my own," he said. "By myself, I was able to set up the instrument in the middle of the open landing field and pick off most of the myriad of points I needed to produce the drawings of each individual condominium. Normally this job would have required a three-person crew."

John was also pleased with the level of control and accuracy he achieved. "The beauty of the robotics is that it allows you to take as many shots as you want, as fast as you want to take them, and precisely where you want to take them. I didn’t have to communicate with an instrument man, a rodman or a man pulling a chain– I was all three of them rolled into one. I was in control all the time."

Working alone, John has also enjoyed improved efficiency. "The majority of the field work on this project was completed in two afternoons," he remarked. "Unless your instrument man can really anticipate every move that you are making, working with two people would simply take a lot longer. I also saved time by not having to reduce the figures from a field book when I arrived back at my office. I downloaded everything from the field controller into my desktop computer. Most of the time spent on this project has been in the drafting. I’d estimate that it would have taken me at least 50% longer doing this project the old way with a field crew."

And then there is the matter of money. "In doing this as a solo surveyor," said John, "I saved the salaries of a full field crew, which adds significantly to my bottom line at the end of the year."

From Colorado to Georgia
Licensed surveyor Steve Provenson owns a business named Eagle Surveying, Inc. located in Cartersville, Georgia. His wife Terry works along with him to manage the firm. Much like Shober’s operation, Eagle Surveying’s typical projects are rural land surveys. Occasionally the firm is hired to prepare boundary and commercial topographic surveys in urban areas.

Steve received his degree in surveying at the Denver Institute of Technology in Colorado. After graduation, he couldn’t find employment in the Denver area because of the deep snow cover. He explains his decision to leave Colorado to start his career: "I had family in Georgia where the climate is milder and the opportunity for survey work is year round, so I moved back here."

Provenson started his business using some older leased instruments. In time he updated his equipment. "I currently am using a Topcon 802A robot with a Ranger data collector running Carlson software," he stated. "Although the level of effort is about the same, the newer technology is vastly improved."

Steve constantly evaluates how surveying solo with the robotic total station compares to surveying with a traditional three-man field crew and equipment. "A typical example of this would be a small commercial development that has already been mass graded, has some building foundation pads already in place, and no obstructions," he said. "With the total station one man can come in and accomplish the field work that previously would’ve required a three-man crew. For the most part everything is now controlled from the rod. We don’t pull chains or tapes anymore, we don’t read stadia anymore. Everything today is done with IR or lasers. It’s considerably faster."

He continued, "This increased technology, depending upon the job, makes me considerably more productive. There are projects where having the new technology is a great advantage. At other times the level of effort is about equal to the older ways."

What Are the Drawbacks?
According to Steve, working alone and leaving an instrument unattended raises some concerns. A good strategy will prevent a potential theft. Most of Steve’s jobs are smaller, where his working distance from the total station is 400 feet or less. He avoids setups along roads, but if it is absolutely necessary he brings an assistant and parks his truck close to the instrument.

As with any job, personal safety is important. Steve informs his wife of his planned location each day, and carries a cell phone in case of an emergency. He brings along an assistant if the situation warrants it. His biggest worry is breaking an ankle or a leg from tripping or stepping in an obscured stump hole. Of course a little common sense goes a long way: "Know your limits–don’t foolishly endanger yourself for a job."

Of course, being a solo operator isn’t a cakewalk. "Our forefathers had to brave many more hardships than we have to deal with today," says Steve. "If I can’t handle a fraction of that, then I need to find another line of work. This kind of work is not for everyone. It takes someone who is fiercely independent and willing to work a little harder to accomplish the task." Another key is self-discipline. "Al though I reap the financia
l benefits of working by myself, it takes a lot of dedication. As a solo surveyor it is incumbent on you to go in, do the job as accurately as you can, as quick as you can, get out and go on to the next job."

Maintain Flexibility
Despite all the benefits an independent surveyor may gain from "going solo," there is still some sentiment for traditions that get left behind. Steve Provenson explained, "The level of effort required on a really big job for the solo operator is such that simple pleasures like a lunch break become a thing of the past. You don’t get that time to sit down and talk things over with your crew. Once you are set up and underway you really don’t feel like breaking everything down, hiking out of the woods, grabbing something to eat and then hiking back in, setting up again and continuing on from where you left off. It’s easier just to keep plugging on until the job is done."

Flexibility is also vital to any small business. Since the time this article was submitted, John Shober has made a business decision to employ a field crew and return to a more traditional approach to surveying. He exchanged his robotic systems for a Topcon GTS211D total station. Why? "It seemed like the whole robotics system offered a lot of promise and potential for me and that’s why I got it. But what I discovered over time is that for the kind of surveying I do, rural surveying–wooded, rough grade, just traversing–I couldn’t use it for that. I did use it very successfully in jobs where the instrument needed to be set up at one place for a lot of shots and it was very effective there."

Robert Davis is a technology writer who lives in Alabama.

A 780Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE