Guest Editorial: Don’t Be a Button Pusher

“Hey! My best friend’s uncle’s neighbor’s brother-in-law was a surveyor!” Any surveyor who has spent any time in the field has heard a line very similar to this, or “I was a summer intern doing grade setting on a mall project”, or “can you show me where my property corner is?” on a property seven miles away and in the next county. My personal favorite these days is when they see me setting up the Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) with our Riegl MiniVUX-1 and Sony A6000 camera, a set up that cost almost as much as a house, “Hey I have a drone and I do some mapping with it on the side”. Of course, their set up is a little consumer grade drone from an “Okay Buys” electronic store that they pull out of the box, take a few photos, and run through the standard “mapping” software app that comes along with their new toy. They show up to the jobsite with two left boots, forget their SD cards, try to get close to the subject matter they are flying, and, WHAM, they hit the side of the wall and come crashing down to the ground. Believe me, I have heard this exact story. These are the ones that give the surveyors using the appropriate set-ups the headaches to have to try and fix, or worse yet, a bad reputation to overcome.

So, what is the difference between the average Joe with a consumer grade drone and a Professional Land Surveyor with their high-tech gadgets? It is the experience. Surveyors have spent countless hours learning the theories of strong control networks, ground control layout, side lap, end lap, and how to turn the photos into a usable product. We test, re-test, research, develop, and build new best practices. We take our new dataset, run it through our professional grade software, and create a usable product for the end consumers. The average Joe delivers a “cool” photo to the client and lets them figure out how to use it, or better yet, figure out where it is in the world. This type of “wild west” drone work is what gives Professionals a bad reputation and causes clients to shy away from trying to use the great new technology out there that could increase productivity and give a far better “picture” of what the project looks like.

Having a good LiDAR point cloud or ortho-Image, calibrated to surveyed control, and mapped to the professional standards set by countless professional groups, is what distinguishes a surveyor’s product from that of the average Joe. It is the true understanding of how the data is collected, how the software processes it, and what you look for in the data that may be erroneous information, and that all comes with experience. Having unlicensed people creating survey products is what I like to call “Button Pushers.” They know what buttons to push to make the drone and the software do what they do. The machines do as they are told and spit out a “product.” They get “results,” but do they really understand how they got there? Could they explain their process, or the software’s process, in a report to go along with their deliverables? A typical “Button Pusher” cannot. I always tell the folks I work with to “understand what you are doing, and not just be a button pusher.”

Okay I will get off my soapbox now…

Jed Gibson is a Remote Sensing Project Manager at R.E.Y. Engineers based in Folsom, CA. He is a Licensed Land Surveyor in California, Nevada, and Washington. He has been surveying since 2014 and has an extensive background in remote sensing, land surveying, and large-scale topographic mapping projects, including the Oroville Dam, the tallest dam in the United States.