Surviving in the Survey Business: An Interview with Andy Sullivan

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There’s no question about it. Surviving in the survey profession in today’s world of rapidly evolving technology takes more than just technical knowledge. Business decisions can make or break a company. Survey principals are faced with critical decisions about new products ­ which ones will offer the greatest productivity gains and will yield the quickest return on investment.

Andy Sullivan, LS, operates Sullivan Surveying from an office in Ripley, Mississippi. Licensed in the states of Mississippi and Tennessee, Sullivan has an established clientele of site work and highway contractors who rely on his firm for construction layout. While Sullivan provides a complete scope of survey services, 85 percent of his annual volume is derived from construction related tasks.

In the summer of 2004, Sullivan made a command decision to move his firm into the future. At a Technology Roadshow in Memphis, Sullivan was one of the first surveyors in the nation to have the opportunity to operate Topcon’s Millimeter GPS survey system. Even though the event was six months prior to the actual release of this revolutionary product into distribution channels, Sullivan knew that it would make a significant difference to the future of his firm.

In a recent phone interview, Sullivan gave some important insights about how he got started, the challenges he faced, and how his outlook on the future continues to drive his firm’s growth.

Q: What is your educational background and work experience?
Sullivan: I have a degree in civil engineering technology from Northeast Mississippi Community College. After I graduated in 1991, I went to work for Smith Engineering, a civil engineering firm in Southaven, Mississippi. Following that, I went to work for W.H. Porter in Memphis. So between the two firms, I spent the first four years of my career working with civil engineering firms. I left W.H. Porter for a job with Hoopers Construction Company, overseeing layout on their projects. I worked there till 1999 when I went into business for myself.

Q: So you have always been in the construction end of things?
Sullivan: That’s correct.

Q: Where and when were you first licensed as a land surveyor?
Sullivan: I was first licensed in Mississippi in 1998.

Q: Are you currently licensed in other states?
Sullivan: Yes ­ Tennessee and Mississippi.

Q: What services do you offer as a surveying firm?
Sullivan: As a firm, we offer some boundary surveys. But we do not do much work in that area. We do a good bit of work for the private sector developers. We also do some route design surveys for smaller cities and municipalities. Our main expertise is construction surveying and layout. That is probably, I would say, eighty-five percent of our business.

Q: How many field crews are you running?
Sullivan: I’m running about six crews right now.

Q: What are some current projects this year?
Sullivan: So far, it’s been a busy year. We just began work at the Memphis Airport on the Inbound Roadway and Parking Lot Modifications project. We also did a taxiway reconstruction ­ Taxiway November. It involved removing existing asphalt and replacing it with concrete paving. It was a three-month job and it was very, very time sensitive. It was finished on time.
We’ve worked on several road projects. Highway 305 in Olive Branch, Mississippi, was a turnkey widening and grade-to-drain job. We are also finishing up Highway 4 in Pate County, Mississippi. It is another grade, drain, pave job for MDOT to be finished this year.
We are working on several commercial site projects and subdivisions. Those are our major projects. We have a continuous string of smaller in-and-out jobs going on all the time.

Q: What is driving all the work at the Memphis airport?
Sullivan: I think the expansion of FedEx. They are planning to use the Airbus A380 ­ the newest, largest aircraft in the world. The pavement structures and related facilities all have to be upgraded to accommodate it. FedEx paid to relocate the Air National Guard facilities to make room for their expansion. And Memphis is just a growing airport, I suppose.

Q: What was your most notable project?
Sullivan: That is a good question, I guess. I don’t know what I would call my most notable one. We’ve done a little bit of everything. I would say Taxiway November.

Q: Why would you say that was a prominent project?
Sullivan: It covered an extensive area, a lot of dirt had to be moved, and there were several different aspects to the project. It was notable not because it was long or because it was the most expensive. It was the most work we have undertaken where we had to work hand-in-hand with a contractor. Sometimes we brought in two or three crews at one time to meet the schedule. We used Topcon’s Millimeter GPS a lot on that project.

Q: What was the required tolerance that you were staking to on that project?
Sullivan: On the pavement, it was two-hundredths of a foot, plus or minus.

Q: As a businessman, what is your approach to technology?
Sullivan: Well, we’ve come to the conclusion that if you don’t stay with it you will get left behind. We try to stay on top of the new features that are coming out on different equipment. We look for anything that can increase our productivity and makes our services more desirable. And I guess GPS is the biggest part of that.

Q: How has technology changed your business?
Sullivan: It’s changed it a lot. We do a lot of work with contractors, getting them acclimated to GPS and DTM models.

Q: Do you help them prepare machine control files?
Sullivan: Yes, we do. That is another service we offer.

Q: How long have you been involved in that aspect of surveying?
Sullivan: We’ve been involved in it for about two and one-half years. We do a good bit for some contractors; for others just an occasional file. We try to prepare the job with the surface modeling just as we would lay it out. When we go out into the field, the contractor may utilize his equipment for rough grading ­ just getting dirt in the right place on a rough basis. When it comes down to the fine grading, we still set stakes for them to verify grades. It’s worked pretty well with the contractors that I’ve worked with so far.

Q: Do you see a growing demand for machine control file preparation?
Sullivan: Yes ­ very much demand.

Q: How did you become aware of Millimeter GPS? How did you make the decision to get involved with it?
Sullivan: I guess I first saw it in a trade magazine ­ I’m not sure which one. Before we purchased our unit, we would set the location of our bluetops with our Topcon GPS system and get them close. But we would have to run back through and tighten them up with a level. With Millimeter GPS, it’s just a one-step process. When we go out on a job, we walk over it one time. We set location and grade at the same time. That’s been the biggest benefit.

Q: How often do you use Millimeter GPS in your work?
Sullivan: It’s really kind of project dependent I guess. For some jobs, we don’t need to set it up because we don’t ne
ed the close precision. We definitely use it on a lot of bluetopping jobs. We use it some on the concrete paving at Taxiway November project. Sometimes we use it every day straight for two or three months, then we might not use it for a couple of weeks. It’s really application dependent.

Q: Can you explain the impact that Millimeter GPS has had on your field operations?
Sullivan: It’s revolutionized all of our highway layout. Before ­ let’s say we are working on a six- or seven-mile project and a lot of the control have been disturbed or knocked out. If we were in a remote part of the job, it would take us two or three hours to trim our control back to a certain area before you could really get to the goal of staking what you were wanting to stake. Now with Millimeter GPS, if somebody calls from the other end of the job we load it up, go to the other end of a job, and stake it. It’s a lot more job-friendly. Today contractors like to move operations here to there to accommodate different situations. Being able to pick up and move easily helps us be more responsive to their needs.

Q: What is the biggest challenge for a surveyor providing construction layout services?
Sullivan: Scheduling. When they need you, they need you right then. They don’t need you tomorrow or the next day ­ they need you as soon as you can get there. So scheduling is probably our biggest problem.

Q: Is the increasing use of machine control having an impact on your business as a surveyor?
Sullivan: There are some downfalls in our line of work to the increased use machine control systems. It is trying to take over our profession in one way. But there is also the point where we have to step up and try to integrate it into our scope of services. Overall, it will be a benefit I think. My point is, it’s coming. Whether we want to see it or not, it’s coming. It’s not necessarily helping our cause but then again it works well for some contractors. Some contractors understand the value of what you are giving them ­ what you are putting out there for them in a professional manner. Some contractors appreciate being able to go out and stake their own information. They know where to draw the line between where they are competent and where they need to get somebody with a little more experience.

Q: What is your business philosophy about machine control?
Sullivan: I just try to stay up with the trends of the business ­ and that’s one of the emerging trends. The thing that we’ve got to do is try to stay on top of the game as far as understanding the different software, the different types of equipment people are using. We need to try to integrate it into the growth of our business as much as possible.

Times are changing for survey firms. The widespread availability of advanced technology at the user level is empowering contractors, enabling them to perform many of the functions that they previously relied on surveyors for.

The future course of many survey firms will be decided by their approach to technology. The same technologies that empower end-users also offer surveyors new tools to improve accuracy and increase productivity. Andy Sullivan made the choice to stay current and merge new trends into his firm’s operations. Sullivan Surveying’s long list of projects in progress speaks to the wisdom of his decision.

Robert Davis is a technology writer who lives in Atlanta.

Russell Pannell, Party Chief, comments on Millimeter GPS

Russell Pannell, one of Sullivan’s leading party chiefs, described how Topcon’s Millimeter GPS/LazerZone has changed the workflow for high-precision roadway layout.

"We used to use a total station for laying out curbs," Pannell said. On most of Sullivan’s highway jobs, curbs must be staked to a precision of four-hundredths of a foot. A typical RTK-GPS system can establish positions to a plus or minus three-hundredths of a foot. The variation of three-hundredths will not meet high-precision requirements. "We set up Topcon’s Millimeter GPS / LazerZone with our GPS system and it gets it dead on," Pannell explained. "Now we can stake our curbs with GPS instead of having to get our total station out to get down a little bit tighter."

"On our highway jobs, you have to run off staked bench marks," Pannell continued. "We have to take a level and bring the benchmark out on the job in the open. But after that, the level is put up ­ we don’t really get it out again. We run everything off Millimeter GPS."

"I see significant time savings with Millimeter GPS on the jobs that we stake," he said. Pannell described his recent experiences on the Highway 4 Bypass in Senatobia, Mississippi. "We could bluetop about 2,000 feet a day the old way ­ staking our points and then grading them out with a level. Now with Topcon’s new system, we can grade it at the same time we stake it. We can cover 4,000 to 5,000 feet a day with Millimeter GPS."

Millimeter GPS: How It Works
The impact of Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) technology is commonplace in many areas, from navigation to mapping to surveying to 3D machine control as well as other disciplines. There are limitations, however for certain higher-accuracy applications. One of these limitations is vertical accuracy. With specifications at +/- .10′, GNSS technology alone cannot achieve the .02′ needed for some layout applications, finish grading, and paving. The conventional laser and the optical total station are still worth their salt, so to speak.

Where can technology take us to offer the convenience and productivity of GNSS while achieving higher accuracy? Laser-enhanced GNSS is the answer. Topcon Position Systems has developed a product that combines the reliability and accuracy of laser technology and the omnipresence of GNSS positioning. The product is called "Millimeter GPS" and here’s how it works.

The basic RTK GNSS configuration remains unchanged, i.e., a base receiver on a fixed control point broadcasting corrections to a rover receiver. Now, add the PZL-1 laser transmitter from Topcon. The PZL-1 transmitter can either be set up over a control point or its position can be computed by resection. This hybrid laser transmitter, a core component of the Millimeter GPS system, emits a patented "fan beam" signal 33 feet tall and 985 wide!

Since conventional rotating lasers only emit a "planer beam" signal and the laser receiver must be constantly moved up and down to locate the flat signal, the additional of vertical measurement is huge in terms of usability and productivity.

With Millimeter GPS, as long as you operate in this 33 feet vertical window and have line of sight to the PZL-1 transmitter, dynamic vertical accuracy is approximately .02 feet. If you lose line of sight, the vertical signal immediately reverts back to GNSS so you always have dynamic 3D positioning. If your application requires travel beyond 33 feet high or 985 feet wide, up to 4 PZL-1 receivers can be linked together providing up to 133 feet in vertical signal and 7880 feet longitudinally of uninterrupted dynamic positioning!

How does an end user receive both GNSS and PZL-1 signals at the rover? Topcon’s Millimeter GPS system offers two options ­ the PZS-1 rod sensor and the PZS-MC machine sensor.

The PZS-1 mounts on a rod and interfaces to Topcon’s GNSS receivers. This offers a man rover solution for staking points, checking grade, plus other functions. The PZS-MC mounts on heavy equipment providing high accuracy 3D Machine Control positioning for earthmoving and other automated construction machinery. Both man and machine can perform productively, consistently, and accurately.

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