Florida Surveyor Rewriting Job Description

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There is a growing concern among many today that the days of the survey function, as it applies to construction work, are numbered. Much of the work that was once the sole domain of the surveyor–hard staking, documenting as-builts, determining or verifying elevations, etc.–has either been eliminated altogether or can now be done by trained construction personnel using GPS or heavy machinery with GPS-based machine control. Those tasks are indeed being co-opted; however, forward-thinkers like Dustin Martin of AngleRight Surveying are proving that the survey function need not disappear from the jobsite as much as it needs to be redefined. Working in concert with key site personnel on a number of Florida projects, the company is helping rewrite the future of their business, providing different–but highly-valued– services for their clients.

Change of Plans
The surveying bug bit Dustin Martin right out of college, abruptly changing both his career path and his life. Upon graduation, the native Ohioan found himself and a friend in Charleston, SC seeing what life had to offer when he took a job as a rod man on a survey crew.

"I had never surveyed before, but found that I really liked it a lot," he said. "So much so, that, after a while, I went back to Ohio State and to earn a Bachelor’s degree in Geomatics Engineering with a focus on Cadastral Survey. While there, I worked for a company that did a lot of construction surveying–mainly site work for tall commercial building construction. Doing that, really gave me a feel for control surveying and how everything fits together."

At a school-sponsored job fair, Martin says he was recruited by a Florida engineering/survey company and invited to move to Fort Myers to run their private survey operation. "I relocated to Florida, and did that for about five years," he said. "Then, in 2010, we parted ways–I started AngleRight and haven’t looked back since."

Impressive Beginnings
Armed with a lot of self-confidence and some solid contacts he had established with that survey firm, Martin began doing survey work for area construction firms, landing some very big projects in the process.

"I was fortunate to get acquainted with the team from Lengemann, our Topcon dealer, and some of the bigger players in the area—companies like Ajax Paving Industries and LeeMar Construction," he said. "That allowed me to hit the ground running and get a decent workload early on. In fact, I was so busy that, not long after starting, I took on a colleague, Jacob Amann who handles most of the 3D modeling work we do for clients. He was referred to me by Lengemann’s Roger Croft and it’s been a great fit for both of us."

Martin said he and Amman have handled some impressive projects since startup, including the expansion of a six mile stretch of I-75 in Lee County, Florida. Together, the team manages seven or eight projects around the state, working as far north as Bradenton and as far east as Clewiston.

Doing Things Differently
Martin says one of the keys to his firm’s success has been its ability to remain lean. Doing so, they’ve all but eliminated the overhead which can weigh down companies, particularly as they are in the start-up phase.

"As far as our business model goes, we stay light and fast," he said. "I don’t have an office; I work out of a Chevy suburban and Jacob works out of a Toyota 4runner. Hydrographic surveyors talk about vessels of opportunity–I like to see these as our vehicles of opportunity. Jacob and I work on virtual servers and meet once, maybe twice a week. We occasionally work together on jobs and, when necessary, we will bring in contract labor to help pound in stakes."

Equipment-wise, Martin and Amann rely heavily on Topcon robotic total stations, and have grown the GPS/ GNSS side of the business using a pair of Topcon GRS-1 rovers, as well as a HiPer Lite+ and a legacy base. "For us it’s all about accuracy, efficiency and an ability to respond to the customer’s needs and these tools allow us to do that every day."

He contrasts their versatility with other similar firms in the area who are stymied when called upon by their contractor for something out of the ordinary. Those surveyors, he said, have little recourse but to call into the office for a solution, costing the contractor valuable time.

"We, on the other hand, can always get results right there on site. We are tethered to wireless internet connections–our trucks serve as internet hot spots. So, as long as we have a data signal, we can access our servers and do anything we need to do. That’s given us a huge competitive edge."

Opportunities Abound
Martin has heard the notion that surveying’s days are numbered and feels that nothing could be further from the truth. He is, in fact, quite excited about the opportunities he sees opening up for those in his profession.

"I believe there will always be a need for construction surveyors like us, because somebody has to initially set up the site," he said. "But, more importantly, there are so many other services we can and do provide. For our clients who use advanced technology like machine control, we do 3-D surface modeling– that’s an invaluable service to offer. And we take that a step further, by assisting our clients from start to finish: setting all their control, initializing their sites, and improving and tweaking the site model as plan inconstancies pop-up. Then, we create the files in a format where we can just give them a thumb drive or, in some cases, jump up on the dozer or the grader and set them up–we integrate the whole site. It’s helped separate us from the rest of the pack."

Martin says he relies upon Amann’s expertise in the area of modeling, but because he sees it as a real opportunity for growth, knows he will need to get more personnel proficient in that area as well.

"I see this as a huge part of our business down the line and Jacob is only one person, so I know in the future we will need to add support staff. Right now though, I generally handle the setting up of alignments, profiles and the critical data and then Jacob models all of the corridors and pieces it all together. Then we’ll go through and cut cross sections, lay them on top of each other and make sure they match. The beauty of creating models is that the technology knows no geographic boundary. We can do a model of a site in California without ever setting foot on it. It’s all just exchanging files so, as long as the client has email we can service a variety clients."

Making Millimeter Magic
In addition to the modeling, Martin said that they’ve really benefitted from providing support to area firms who are demanding millimeter-grade accuracy. Firms like Ajax and Lee Mar, who are both tackling such precision-driven projects on a regular basis, call on AngleRight to make the process seamless.

"Firms using millimeter GPS still require control points–Topcon’s Millimeter GPS system requires points at 500 foot intervals–that they can base their millimeter system on and grade their job with. We’ll go through and verify our project benchmarks, horizontally position the points with multiple RTK averages so we can refine the horizontal coordinates and then we’ll run three-wire through all the poin
ts with a level to establish vertical on all the points."

All this ensures that the levels of millimeter-grade accuracy (now often mandated in Florida on jobs such as airport expansions or re-pavings) are there and, just as importantly, that the inspectors–the people signing off on the job–are satisfied.

"As things stand right now in Florida, inspectors will not accept the true accuracy of millimeter GPS; they still require someone to come in and set stakes so they can stringline it and make their checks. We make it so that they never find a discrepancy."

Surveying the Future
Martin says that, in addition to the equipment-specific support he’s gotten from Lengemann, he has also benefited from the services they provide, most notably L-Net, the GPS/GNSS network they offer users like AngleRight on a subscription basis. Based on TopNET, Topcon’s Reference Station Software, L-Net has helped Martin realize a range of benefits, including fixed solutions — with sub-centimeter accuracies–in extremely rural areas where alternative real-time network services are having difficulty acquiring or maintaining fixed positions.

"L-Net allows us to ensure the highest levels of accuracy," he said. "Between it and Florida DOT’s CORS network, we have all the bases covered. In fact, L-Net and FDOT share many of the same base stations, but L-Net’s coverage is denser and they use a virtual reference station to shorten the base line for even better results."

When asked directly about the future of AngleRight, Martin says that, as more and more construction companies get GPS/GNSS savvy, he sees a continued increase in the demand for their surface modeling services. He would also like to continue expanding into areas they are only now starting to explore.

"Wetlands mitigation is an area that I see as very promising for us," he said. "As regulations change with regard to development and preservation of wetland, I can see a world of survey opportunity. I was recently talking with a local engineer who cleared out a sizeable volume of exotics at a local creek and wants us to go back in and topo what remains and what still needs to be taken out. The bottom line is: I think surveyors who strive to meet their clients’ changing needs will do well; their roles might be far different from what they’re accustomed to, but I think this is not a time to be feared but to be excited about. I know we are."

Larry Trojak is a communications writer for his own firm, Trojak Communications, in the town of Ham Lake, Minnesota. He is a frequent contributor to construction and survey magazines.

A 1.533Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE