Surveyor Seeks Conference–Looking for Long Term Commitment

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For years I’ve felt that the surveying industry could benefit from another major conference. Other facets of the engineering, design and construction industries have large annual events that set the standard: Autodesk University (AU), the ESRI GIS Users Conference, and ConExpo for construction. However, these events at best merely give a nod to surveying. We need another flagship event replete with lots of training and networking opportunities, a place where we can learn about the innovation we need to increase our knowledge, skills, efficiencies and profits.

We now have a likely candidate.

This fall, after a several year hiatus, the folks at Trimble are getting back into the conference arena to bring back the big, splashy, deep, consolidated-but-focused event they used to put on. Called Trimble Dimensions 2005, the conference is scheduled for October 23rd through the 26th in Las Vegas. I think this could be a good thing; let me explain:

Surveyor on a Search
For the past several years, I have been attending and speaking at perhaps way too many conferences of many kinds: surveying, mapping, GIS, construction, CAD, civil engineering, and those just focused on pure technology. I’ve been a surveyor seeking a satisfying surveying brain massage–and I’ve only gotten a taste of what we really need. One should not have to attend so many disparate conferences to get all of the information we need to stay abreast in our field.

Yes, there have been surveying shows. The association conferences, which have run for years, have been good in quality–broadening their focus into areas like GIS and remote sensing–but have dropped in overall attendance. And with limited resources, associations often have to struggle to offer everything we need to stay up with the rapidly changing surveying scene.

While I used to dismiss the big industry shows, after attending such seminal events as AU and the ESRI conference, I have seen the light of practicality. While it would be great to have a large `vendorneutral’ conference, the reality is that heavy corporate sponsorship is needed. And, truly, a single vendor conference can have enough content–and the right content–to be useful to both those who do and do not use their gear. My shop includes equipment of many different colors and there are things we like and don’t like about all of them. If anyone has heard me speak at conferences I both praise and criticize any and all equipment manufacturers and software providers. I’ve now come to believe that the commercial shows can provide the best value in training and the best place to mix with innovators within your own industry while also having a good time.

Take a look at other commercial conferences. Surveying does not yet have its own equivalent to AU, a generally unrivaled engineering design conference (they don’t just cover CAD anymore). The nearly 5,000 AU attendees have found tech heaven, and can pack a year’s worth of training and networking into a few days. It is also a blast: by the end, one is exhausted both intellectually and physically. And a good burn it is.

The first time I attended an ERSI GIS user conference, I was in awe of the 10,000+ attendance and more programs than a TV guide. I later discovered what all these folks were excited about. The conference transcended the influence of proprietary technological solutions to become a truly educational event. No one can rival ConExpo, held every three years for the construction industry and drawing over 100,000, an impressive achievement for any industry sector, albeit a much larger sector than any of the other civil-related industries by the widest of margins. But there are lessons to be learned from the huge-events like ConExpo: bigger can be better; bigger can relate to more variety; and more variety can equate to better value for the attendee.

In the past, many of us wrestling with limited training budgets tended to stop reading conference announcements, and I tend to toss those $1,500-for-two-day seminar announcements out immediately. Having eaten more of those questionable seminar box lunches than I would like to remember, and having been burned royally by some of the seminar carpetbaggers, my view of past events tended to be a bit jaded.

Education or Sales?
So what about the Trimble Dimensions’ program? Conference organizers sought a lot of input from industry leaders, users and non-users of their products, and at least one surveyor that tends to complain a lot about lots of things including conferences. As one Trimbleite put it: "stop complaining and gives us some ideas." So, I agreed to participate in their advisory board (focus group) and was glad to discover a number of other outspoken folks there as well. Topical issues impacting surveying were evident from the feedback. The recommendations of the advisory board have been well heeded and I am pleased that the result is more an educational program than a sales event. Ideas for the majority of program sessions came directly from the board’s feedback; I’ll try to summarize, and highlight a few that might be particularly topical and interesting.

Overall, a conference program needs to be wide enough to enable depth for individual sessions. If the one thing this year that will enable your shop to take on bigger contracts is something as narrowly focused as grade checking using robotic stations or real-time, then you ought to be able to find a session that will teach your crew precisely that-and maybe pick up skills for other lines of business that you hadn’t thought about yet.

Dimensions’ focus is not just on Trimble’s hallmark GPS line, but also in other areas where surveyors need to make a bigger footprint, namely the construction side, and in emerging technologies like 3D laser scanning. The 150+ sessions are roughly divided into two sets of focused tracks, one for construction and one for surveying. In addition, there are professional development classes throughout the conference for, among other things, the continuing education requirements of state licensing.

Specially for Surveyors
The surveying track has four sections: an in-depth treatise on laser scanning; matching surveying technology solutions with lines of business and the benefits thereof; GPS infrastructure (like the new wave of real-time networks); and the changing landscape of surveying as an industry. It is good to give plenty of airtime to the emerging enabling technologies; I am always amazed that while many of these innovations are developed in the U.S. we tend to lag behind our European and Asian counterparts in their adoption.

GPS and related technologies are given due attention; I am sure I am not alone in the belief that the new generation GPS will continue to reshape our industry like no other recent technology. One of the keynote speakers, Dr. Scott Pace, Associate Administrator for Program Evaluation and Analysis, NASA HQ, will fill us in on NASA’s use of GPS, its vision of the future for GPS, and what’s on the horizon with respect to GPS modernization and other programs such as Galileo. There are also plenty of case studies from actual surveyors with a nice focus on cost benefits analysis for specific technologies.

Current `hot-button’ surveying topics get a lot of attention: there are eleven opportunities to learn about site calibration, and flavors thereof, in both the surveying and construction tracks. There are ten sessions dedicated to mobile communications; radio, cellular, other wireless; and one session that ought to get an innovation prize for showing us how to use our data collector as a mobile office.

As administrator of a cooperati
ve realtime network that uses Trimble software as part of our infrastructure, I’m happy to see a complete set of classes on real-time networks. I wish these had been available when we started our network years ago as the key points of network development are covered: the business model, setting up base stations, the all important (and perhaps the most challenging) network communications, and even a live demonstration setting up a test network.

Some of the many case studies from around the U.S. and other parts of the world sound as cool as those `Engineering Marvel’ type programs we see on cable: a `continuous topo’ method using All Terrain Vehicles (ATVs); crustal deformation studies from South America; development of the cadastre in Egypt using GPS; using laser scanning in the decommissioning of a nuclear facility in Slovakia; a nifty rail track survey from the folks at Swiss Trolley; real-time networks and applications from Malaysia and China; and others from Europe and Canada.

Keeping up with Construction
The construction track is also divided into four groups: construction design and data prep; grade control; real-time positioning; and a look at the future of construction technologies. Construction technology is ramping up at a dizzying rate, and I fear that complacent surveyors may cede some of these new lines of business to others who are willing to keep up with the changes–like what happened with some facets of GIS.

The construction track will have its own keynote speaker: Mark Pflederer, VP, Caterpillar’s Technology & Solutions Division, CTO. Pflederer will address how the coupling of machine design, ruggedized and reliable positioning solutions, and the how utilization of digital design data in the construction process leads to improved productivity and less rework for earthmoving contractors.

Grade control and its essential prerequisite, terrain modeling, are presented at least a dozen times each, which reflects the depth of this subject. The implementation of such technologies in the U.S. is a bit behind other industrialized countries, and the feedback from some large construction firms cited lack of training and experience. Machine control and grade checking are already tremendous money makers for firms that have adopted these technologies, and definitely could be for surveying firms that become experts in these fields.

The advisory board made a compelling request to include not only the essential crew and technician classes, but also those that would make it worthwhile for folks to convince their managers to attend. All too often we technicians return from a conference all pumped up only to get the blank stares from our overseers when trying to pitch some innovative idea we learned about. There are business model and returnon-investment type sessions for each technology or solution presented, and sessions have been flagged as `suitable for managers.’ From experience I have found that exposing your manager to cool case studies is a good way to ensure your proposals get approved.

What Else?
Now let’s talk cost. If you’re like me, gaining clearance for a conference in Las Vegas used to be nearly impossible. But over the years Las Vegas has become the cost-effective Mecca for conferences: even ACSM saw the logic of holding recent conferences there. So it’s partly due to its location that Dimensions organizers have managed to keep registration costs at a reasonable level. During the advisory board sessions, it became clear that one of the conference organizers’ goals for Trimble Dimensions is to develop an international conference that gains the prestige of an AU or ESRI event. To meet this end, the program had to transcend the typical vendor dog-and-pony show and bring industry experts to speak, rather than just presenting the Trimble crew, partners, and resellers.

A big annual conference can attract lateral events, or create them. In conjunction with the annual ERSI conference is what is billed as the Survey-GIS Summit. It has developed into a thoughtful dialogue and highly purposed forum on the subject. Many associations tack their conferences to the beginning or end of a commercial conference; this makes sense when considering the cost and inconvenience of traveling these days. It would be nice to attract events like the CGSIC (Civilian GPS Service Interface Committee) or FIG to bookend a national conference like this.

One non-advisory board colleague commented after reviewing the conference program, "This is gonna be cool." It could be. And it can be. By default, a vendor-centric conference isn’t going to be perfect, but I for one am tired of waiting. And in reality it really is quid pro quo: if we support industry conferences the industry folks can give us conferences worth supporting. Editors note: For more conference info visit

Gavin Schrock is a surveyor in Washington State where he is the administrator of the regional cooperative real-time network, the Puget Reference Station Network ( He has been in surveying and mapping for more than 25 years and tends to be a bit cynical at times. He is a regular contributor to this publication.

A 2.297Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE