More Than a Simulation

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When work such as land surveying requires precision and gets impacted by changing technology, it makes sense to be introduced to high-tech equipment on an actual project rather than on a simulation exercise or in a classroom setting. That runs counter to the risk aversion that sometimes accompanies the use of new technology, but to Rich Lang and surveying students at Bates Technical College in Tacoma, Washington, an academic setting provides the appropriate pace to ensure precise measurements while giving students involvement in a real project and adding "muscle" to their resumes.

Soon after the college’s Land Surveying Program was started in fall of 2007, the students developed an as-built survey for Tacoma Power Utilities (TPU), which had installed underground wiring at 27-acre Wright Park in Tacoma as part of an improvement project that started in 2006. Railroad and land magnate Charles B. Wright had donated most of the park land to the city in 1886; after more than a century, some improvements were in order.

The city passed an $84.3 million bond measure in 2005 for improvements to several facilities including Wright Park. In mid-2007, the city council authorized an agreement with TPU to upgrade the electrical infrastructure at the park for lighting; remodel restrooms; and de-vegetate, dredge, re-excavate, expand, and install equipment and mechanical systems for a fountain and special lighting.

While improvements to Wright Park were well underway, Bates was making its own improvements to surveying instruction. Wright Park would give new surveying students an opportunity to learn surveying­and how to use new technology and instruments­to survey and create records for Wright Park.

The Right Kind of Instruction
"Surveying was previously tied into the civil engineering program at Bates," explains Lang, a professionally licensed surveyor who had started in the field in the Pacific Northwest in 1970. He had owned his own surveying firm and later worked as a county surveyor. In summer 2007, Bates started the Land Surveying Program and hired Lang to lead it. By the spring of 2008, eight students were progressing through the program. Seven were receiving training surveying theory and techniques for a mid-career transition, and one 17-year-old student was getting the training in addition to taking high school-level classes at Bates. Lang reports that among prospective enrollees in the program was a 61-year-old retiree who had always been interested in surveying and was seeking to start a second career.

Since his arrival, Lang has focused on a couple of areas in particular to improve the quality of surveying instruction at Bates: practical experience and the use of the latest equipment. The first area was addressed by what Lang says is the first of many instances in which he will seek out actual surveys that owners will use. Wright Park, located just a few blocks from campus, was a much better setting than campus for a mock land survey.

"In the past, I’m sure that less than half of students’ school or class time was devoted to surveying," says Lang. "It was used for civil applications, which is not a bad thing, but it’s a little beyond, at times, what a normal surveyor would do. I know that previously, they traversed around the campus, on the streets around here. That environment is good for people working in the city, but it’s also cumbersome because there’s a lot of foot traffic and vehicle traffic."

Upon his arrival, it became clear to Lang that he needed to focus on a second, extremely crucial area: a major upgrading of the program’s equipment. One major deficiency in the equipment that Bates had was a lack of robotic equipment, says Lang. "I needed to get upgraded equipment here because the stuff we had was ancient; being a technical college, we definitely needed robotics," he says.

During his surveying days, Lang had developed a longstanding relationship with a dealer of construction and engineering equipment, the PPI Group, with headquarters in Portland, Oregon, and other locations in Kent and Spokane, Wash. Among the equipment that the PPI Group carries is surveying equipment from Topcon Positioning Systems. Lang put out a bid for new equipment and the PPI Group provided the low bid with the aid of grant money through the Topcon Educational Partnership Program.

Lang says he had been aware of the PPI Group’s involvement in the partnership program, as well the support and training that the dealer provides customers using Autodesk CAD software. "They’re really into educating not just the survey industry but also the construction industry," Lang notes. Through the program, Bates has purchased and received training on a GPT 3005W wireless total station and a GPT 9005A robotic total station, as well as a HiPer Lite + Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) real-time kinematic (RTK) receiver system for topographical surveying.

After Lang and the class received the equipment and were trained on its use, the opportunity to use the equipment in a "real-life" application came soon enough.

Surveying for Real
TPU began installing the new utilities in fall 2007, while Lang’s class was doing mock surveys at Wright Park. Sean Carroll, engineering field coordinator for TPU, noticed the students and asked Lang what they were doing. Following Lang’s explanation, Carroll asked him if he would like to have the class do an as-built survey of the utility easements describing the location of the power lines in an acceptable format for recording. "I said, Yeah, that would be fantastic; that’s what I’m all about," says Lang. "I wanted to get the students to do actual jobs-it would be fantastic for the students to get that on their résumés."

Lang saw the opportunity to let the students treat the project just like ones they will be involved in when they enter the workforce. "I had one of the members of the power company come in, talk to the students, give them the drawings, give them what they wanted, just like a client coming into a small business," says Lang. The students approached the surveying project methodically, first researching records of the park from the 1800s. The preliminary research included the history of the park, deed of conveyances, road right-of-way vacations, available GPS control, verification of centerline control monuments and record of surveys.

Preliminary field work involved locating features on site, such as the location of the utility lines, curb, and gutter by using a random traverse brought in from GPS control outside of the park’s boundaries. A Topcon HiPer Lite + receiver was used for the control points and, for conventional surveying, the students used the Topcon total stations­GPT 3005W and GPT 9005A robotic units­the latter of which allows a surveyor to work alone because a reflector is not necessary. The class also used an FC-2000 handheld field controller as well as CarlsonSuvCE2 and Carlson Survey 2008 software for data recording.

After collecting the data, the students merged the fieldwork and paperwork, analyzed the data and made calculations, and determined the locations of the boundaries in order to generate the legal description for the utility easements. In the final stage, a CAD drawing was reviewed and edited and a final as-built drawing was printed for TPU. The students concluded the project by presented the final drawing and descriptions to TPU along with a mock bill.

In addition to the as-built survey, the class topographicall
y surveyed the park’s twin ponds in conjunction with TPU for Metro Parks using the HiPer Lite+. They also located a supply line to the pond for the electricity needed. Following completion of the survey work, they also did some mock surveying of the park, threedimensionally modeling a mock road for the civil engineering students. The latter represented an effort to integrate the efforts of the two programs, even though the Land Surveying Program had been launched as a separate course of study.

How GNSS Equipment Fits In
While he recognizes the technological capabilities of new surveying tools such as GNSS, Lang stresses that the new program’s mission is to teach surveying methods at a mathematical level so as to provide a theoretical basis for the skills involved. "I’m making sure that they have the opportunity to learn it like I did before calculators, what math is involved, so they’re getting a good basis, a good foundation for surveying," he says. Lang adds that he does not spend time explaining the inner workings of GNSS equipment to the students, but he does see value in utilizing the technology on projects like Wright Park. There, the class set up a base station and tied the traverses into the GNSS control points.

Lang points out that GNSS provides productivity and accuracy benefits. "It’s a technology that’s here to stay," says Lang. "GNSS gives the advantage of time saving and gives you the advantage of accuracy as well." A major time saving, he adds, is setting control points on a site. "Plus, using conventional equipment, you might have atmospheric error and observational error. It eliminates a lot of that."

"In the old way, you had a lot of transposition errors from the field to the computer and then the reverse as well; whatever you designed in the office had to be transposed into the field and had to be staked out. There’s a lot of time saving there." GNSS receivers are not as reliable on jobsites with a canopy, (i.e., overhanging trees or tall buildings) though.

"Linear surveying methods still offer certain advantages," adds Robert Overdorf of the PPI Group, although the reliability of GNSS is improving with compatibility with the Russian GLONASS satellite system as well as the US GPS system. "If there’s not a lot of interference, there are not a lot of sparse trees, you can take GNSS out to a point. Everyone likes to set control with the total station: They come out and occupy those points and then they can basically use GNSS to put themselves to within the same level of accuracy as with the total station. The best part about GNSS is when you get out on a large project and you’re going to lose a lot of line of sight with the total station.

"Basically, when using GNSS, you have to mission-plan your day, meaning there’s software you look at and it’ll tell you where the satellites are on the horizon." The additions of GLONASS satellites­which are at a different latitude from GPS satellites­has greatly increased the ability to work in environments where overhead obstructions would otherwise cause loss of signal, Overdorf adds.

Lang and Overdorf agree that GNSS technology is having a major impact on the surveying profession. As the use of 3D digital terrain models for excavation becomes more common, they point out that surveyors have the opportunity to use GNSS to perform topographic surveys and build the models. In GNSS site-modeling applications, two-dimensional survey data are converted into a 3D schematic that gives the contractor a precise layout of the jobsite and a record of the location of features such as utilities. In excavating machine control applications, equipment operators can view an image of the 3D model from inside the cab and adjust the dozer or grader blade, or excavator bucket for slight variations in slope and cross slope for cuts or fills.

GNSS is a tool that is here to stay for 2D land surveying and students such as those at Bates would do well to familiarize themselves with the technology. "It’s going to be a tremendous value for them," Lang says of his students. "Somebody who has a knowledge of GNSS and who maybe is not proficient at it, but who has knowledge of it–it’s going to be valuable to an employer. Some surveyors never get to that construction aspect but work as timberline surveyors. It’s still valuable to have a basic knowledge of GNSS."

Don Talend of Write Results, West Dundee, IL, is a publicity and communications consultant specializing in construction.

NW Surveying Education Responds to Market Challenges

Bates Technical College is not the only surveying program in the Pacific Northwest that is incorporating the latest technology into its studies. Martin Paquette, land surveying instructor at Renton (WA) Technical College, says that his program recently purchased several pieces of the latest equipment, including Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) receivers, which can receive signals from multiple satellite constellations. The educational philosophy in regard to technology is the same as at Bates, however: teaching students how to use technology is not as important as providing a theoretical and mathematical basis for the art and science of surveying.

"The one thing we provide with the GNSS training is the science that goes with it because it does wind up being a bit of a `black-box’ technology where you have a piece of equipment, you push buttons and get answers," says Paquette, whose 18-year-old program requires two years of studies with an optional third year for an associate’s degree in applied science. "It’s a marriage between black-box technologies and unlocking the black box and learning to handle the technology so you know how you got the answer you got. In other words, you have to make certain measurements twice to make sure you’re getting legitimate answers. Particularly with GNSS equipment, you have to have a good understanding of geodesy (the study of measurement of the shape and area of land tracts, the exact position of geographical points, and the curvature, shape, and dimensions of the earth)."

Affordability of such high-tech equipment is a challenge for colleges such as Renton which, like several other schools in the Pacific Northwest, has acquired Topcon total stations and GNSS receivers from the PPI Group, a construction and engineering equipment dealer with three locations in the Pacific Northwest. The PPI Group has provided discounted surveying equipment and training to 11 colleges in Washington and Oregon through Topcon Educational Partnership Program grants, according to Dominick Auletto, Topcon’s vice president of business development who heads up the program. These schools include Washington State, Oregon State, South Puget Sound Community College and the Oregon Institute of Technology.

Paquette, who had 29 students enrolled in Renton’s program as of spring 2008, sees high demand for land surveying students in the years ahead. "Across the board, we have an aging workforce in surveying, construction and across the whole gamut of technical fields," Paquette says. "For years, there have been reports that graduates who studied for mathematical and technical professions are scarce-we see that keenly in this field. In the past few years, a company winds up being lucky if they can get somebody from a program like ours." He adds that even when the program maxed out at about 50 students in past years, students were invariably placed in positions prior to graduation. Even amid a slowing economy in 2008, Paquette reports that more than half of students graduating in June had been placed ahead of time.

The economy in Washington’s Puget Sound region has been growing for a long time, a trend that Paquette hopes will continue. "The job market and the industry are driven quite a bit by la
nd development, so as long as there is land development going on, employment is very good," he says. "It looks like it’s going to stay that way, even with the temporary downturn, because the industries in this area are strong. There are a lot of public works projects coming on line." As at Bates, most students are seeking mid-career retraining, says Paquette. "We’re keenly interested in getting high school graduates, but it’s been a tough sell," he adds. "The surveying industry as a whole is challenged to get those people. There’s an assumption that construction and technical fields are not cool. As you get a little older, of course, that coolness thing falls off the radar thing as you start to see the dollar signs more clearly." 

A 1.309Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE