Surv-Fi, Part 2: Boomer's Hearing

In the Year 2069 a Surveyor Defends a New Technology before the State Board of Registration

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Editor’s Note: We were introduced to Veldarma "Vel" Kawashima in the first installment of this "surv-fi" tale (see "Boom N’ Puck", Oct 2006). Vel is an independent surveying contractor in Seattle Washington. Nicknamed "Boomer", owing to her skills as an early implementer of the articulated-boom-scanner, Vel has taken contracts all over the world, has just recently put an experimental flying scanner (a.k.a. "Puck") into use; all from her wheelchair. It is the year 2069…

Stand back from the cradle Hector!" Vel warned her colleague. "You could receive a rather nasty static shock as it spins up!"

Hector Fontecilla stood shivering in the still Chilean Patagonia morning awaiting instructions from Vel Kawashima. Ten thousand kilometers north in her warm office in Seattle, Vel would be remotely operating the flying scanner he had just unpacked.

"The cross winds are not too bad Hector. It looks like I can get a little closer to the structure than I had first thought," reported Vel as she got used to guiding the scanner compensating for the half second telemetry latencies expected.

"It is good you had some practice flying this around my patio last night," replied Hector casually. "But now there are some seagulls taking an interest in your little flying friend," he added with a slight tone of anxiety.

"Miss Kawashima!" crackled a third voice over the line. "You could not have chosen a more complex structure for me to draft?" This came from Dukar "Duke" Shridar, Vel’s contract drafter, who was processing the scanned data in near-real-time from his farm in central India.

"Duke, so nice of you to join us," offered Vel sarcastically. "The complexity is precisely why we were awarded this contract." Hector smiled to himself. It was a real coup on his part to be able to connect with this surveying dream-team at such short notice. The new Cascada pipeline bridge suspended above the turbulent Coyhaique Estuary carries a key artery of the burgeoning geothermal energy infrastructure of this remote region of southern Chile, and Hector needed a rapid inspection following a week of brutal wind storms. Within hours of their first phone conversation, Vel would deliver her Puck to the airport for overnight delivery to Puerto Aisen and the anxious Hector.

The scan would be complete in a few hours, with the Puck weaving around the pipe and supports, painting a swath of many millions of laser shots, each registered by SPLDR (a synchronization of light pulses) from the Puck and several sophisticated transceptor pedestals standing on the shoreline. Duke would holographically draft the structure within hours, and then contrast against scans done (over a period of weeks with conventional gear) before the storm season.

"Hector, the wind is picking up and I do not want to try to land the Puck in the cradle when we are done. You will need to catch it before it lands," instructed Vel.

"Two questions!" replied Hector "Do you trust me? And, is it safe to do so?"

A chuckle from Vel, then, "Yes and yes. You can touch it with the grounding rod in the box to dissipate the static charge, and then just grab it in midair when I get it close to you."

Hector could not get over the rather surreal aspects of this entire operation.

Vel removed her holo-visor and set off to the kitchen to brew up some coffee. Her home office looked like a miniature Mission Control. Curved screens surrounding her chair projected various elements of projects she was working on: research, scans, geodesy, other remote sensing, images, video, and more. The visor allowed holographic imaging superimposed over these screens for true 3D drafting (though she usually left that part to more experienced hands, like Duke). One would imagine that such a setup would cost a small fortune, but ironically the popularity of such technologies within the consumer gaming crowd had driven prices so low that few surveying offices were without at least one of these workstation setups. This morning Vel had used the holo-visor as an aid in remotely "flying" the puck.

Later that morning Vel would check in with Duke and Hector, but for now she had a lot on her mind. The "hearing" was tomorrow.

On one level, Vel was looking forward to stating her case, and hopefully clearing the entire matter up while having a bit of a dig at her detractors. On the other hand, it was "The Board" (the Washington State Board of Registration for Engineering and Surveying) and it was her licenses that were on the line.

Last fall, shortly after Vel had showcased a prototype of the puck at the ACSM Fall Conference on behalf of her alma mater, the Landau Institute for Geomatics of Munich, a murmur of panic was to be heard within the surveying community. Remote sensing for surveying (typically in the form of terrestrially-based scanners) had been commonplace for nearly a century. In addition, most total stations had employed limited scanning capabilities and robotics since the turn of the current century. It was not until articulated boom scanners reached the market a few years back that a backlash truly began. What was it about these new options that really spelled "future shock"?

"The end of the world as we know it," went the lyrics from a 20th century pop tune that her grandfather played and quoted all too often. He would inevitably add, "The world as we know it ends each and every day, and we wake up to a completely new one the next. Some parts we like, and some parts we do not like, how we deal with it is what determines whether it is pain or gain…"

A small vocal group of local surveyors had first approached the board in an informal manner, decrying Vel’s "promotion of improper practices." This was not quite a concrete enough "case" in the eyes of the board, which was used to dealing with clearer cut issues of direct damages, negligence, or operating without a license. The group waited for Vel to record her first cadastral survey that utilized the puck to file formally with the board. The "case" in question was work Vel had done on contract to the city for a water tower rehabilitation project­mostly pre-design topography, but with a small right-of-way acquisition. Although the board noted that no one in the group would be considered a directly injured party, but that some were city ratepayers, and that would suffice to show that they had a direct enough interest in said survey to be complainants. Later, some wondered if the board was just as eager to finally tackle an issue of this kind as well.

A similar action had been taken against Vel’s grandfather half a century earlier involving an emerging radio frequency (RF) ranging technology. While nothing came of the action, a subsequently leaked series of memos and e-mails had shown that a manufacturer (that had been a little late on the mark implementing that particular technology) had a hand in bringing on the case. It had all been a bit too much for always outspoken Gramps. He got fed up with the naysayers and left surveying for another career.

Vel seldom asked Grandpa about that particular event in her frequent visits; she heard most of it from Ojii-chan (Grandma). "Oh that old fool, he leave surveying near
ly fifty years ago to sell pickles but he hold that grudge forever. Baka! He keep preaching about surveying and talk you into it, too! Baka!" Probably Ojii-chan had had her fill of surveying tales long ago. But Vel loved to hear about them.

It had been one week before her grandfather’s sudden collapse and death at the age of 109 that Vel had last visited. She had been eager to share her experiences with her new gear, but Grandpa seemed to have other issues on his mind, and was a bit more cryptic than usual in his advice.

"Here you go, young `un," said Grandpa, tossing a small metallic object to Vel. It looked like a little aluminum box without a top.

Puzzled, Vel asked, "What is it, Grandpa?"

Ojii-chan chimed in, "That old fool, he vandalize the airplane last trip. He rip it out of the armrest. Baka!"

While air travel had been in a slump during the transition from fossil fuels to hydrogen, now it was more common and cheaper than ever. Many things had not changed though–the long security lines, the cramped seats, even the questionable food and "B" movies. But that did not deter Grandpa from traveling frequently, even at his age.

"You ever notice that little rectangle out near the front of the armrest on the plane? That little box is what is beneath it," he explained.

Vel figured it out. "It is an ashtray, but hasn’t smoking been banned on planes since…"

"The nineteen-eighties? Well, at least in most countries," he interjected. "Sometimes folks hang on to a past they never intend to return to without even realizing it."

"But Grandpa…" Vel trailed off in mid-sentence. This was going to be something Grandpa would want her to think about for a while.

"Game is back on, young `un. I been waitin’ nearly a century for these Mariners to make it to the big show. Wouldn’t want to miss it if it happens this time…"

Vel thought about that more the afternoon before the "hearing". It was a pleasant afternoon spent at the water tower site with a group of students, other volunteers. And some antique equipment from her grandpa’s collection.

Several groups of volunteers were recreating various elements of past surveys of the old water tower site: a spirit level loop, a closed traverse with chain and transit, and other gear spanning a century of surveying technology. Members of the land surveyors’ association historical society assisted each group. It was a festive occasion with a barbeque in the adjacent park (and more than a few coolers of beer).

Vel eyed a city survey crew a block down the hill lifting lids on maintenance holes and donning breathing equipments. She wheeled down and hailed their crew chief (who she knew from association meetings).

"Hi Vel!" said the city party chief cheerily. "Caught us on the job, eh?"

They chatted for a few minutes about their respective projects. The city crew was doing topo for a drainage project, and the chief was just about to descend into the maintenance holes to make the critical measurements therein. Vel ended up bringing her truck down and lowering the boom down each hole to get the shots for them.

"As long as word of this doesn’t end up in your hearing tomorrow," joked the chief.

"You heard about that?" asked Vel.

"Heard about it?" replied the chief with raised eyebrows. "You’ve been all over the local news, girl!" He retrieved a local newspaper from his truck and handed it to her. Not front page, but still alarming, the headline read "Surveying Science on Trial".

"Yikes!" thought Vel…

Next Installment: "Defending the Future…"

Author Note: All of the technologies mentioned in the preceding are either under development, serious proposal, or exist in perhaps less efficient forms. Are you ready?

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

Editor’s Note: Once again, thank you to Schrock for providing the black and white sketches for this article, and to graphic artist Joel Cheves for adding the color.

A 1.068Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE