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What Does a Surveyor Do?

Surveyor

Surveyors use instruments and mathematical calculations to determine exact 2D or 3D points, angles, and distances on land, in the sky, underground, and on or below the water. Pinpointing an object’s precise location is important for mapmaking, settling legal disputes, dating archaeological digs, recording criminal evidence, laying communications and utility lines, and building structures. 

Land Surveyors

The land surveyor is charged with measuring property boundaries, especially according to preexisting natural or manmade markers. He or she then examines all previous property deeds, checking for mistakes and calculating as closely as possible the actual boundaries of the property. Going back to ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire, surveyors plotted out the pyramids and divided land for tax purposes. The Arabic Empire led the world in both mathematics and instrumentation, inventing the astrolabe, various levels, and the rotating alidade. In colonial America, land surveyors played a pivotal role in mapping out vast wilderness areas. Records as early as 1641 detail property boundaries in Salem, Mass. Benjamin Banneker assisted on the survey of Washington, D.C., and Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln were all land surveyors. (Surveyors often refer to Mount Rushmore as “Three surveyors and that other guy.”) In the late 1700s, the Spanish drew up land grants in East Florida, each of which required a plat and a description. When Spain ceded Florida and the Gulf Coast to the United States in 1821, surveyors had to investigate the landowners’ existing maps for accuracy. Differences in Mexican and U.S. mapping policies led to conflict in California during the 1850s, when official government survey plats took precedence over maps that landowners had drawn and submitted for approval.

Construction Surveyors

Before the building goes up, someone has to figure out what construction issues the site may present. A construction surveyor does much more than stake out the foundation. He or she takes account of existing site features, whether manmade or natural, and any underground issues that could emerge later – pipe locations, runs, and diameters, for example. During and after the project, the construction surveyor must verify that the work is built according to plan.

Forensic Surveyors

A forensic surveyor pinpoints evidence to support a legal or scientific investigation. He or she may be called upon to assess crime scenes, traffic accidents, storm damage, or environmental threats, and to testify in court as an expert witness. By accurately assessing the location of various objects, trajectories, and land or road features, the forensic surveyor is able to reconstruct what happened. That information is passed along to attorneys, law enforcement, insurance companies, and other stakeholders. Given the nature of these assignments, the forensic surveyor must maintain the highest ethical standards.

Hydrographic Surveyors

Safe sea travel depends on accurate coastal, surface, and seafloor maps. Hydrographic surveyors update nautical charts, examine beaches and coastlines for erosion, and determine whether the bottom is rock, sand, coral, or mud. Using LIDAR or side-scan sonar, the hydrographic surveyor marks dangers to navigation, measures water depth, and tracks crumbling coastal zones.

Environmental Surveyors

Being able to pinpoint a wildlife habitat or an endangered species’ nest is crucial to determining whether a site is better suited for preservation or development. The environmental surveyor may map the extent of a hazardous materials spill or a wetland. His or her actions could mean the difference between a project going forward or a species going extinct.

Ethical Considerations

Because so many important matters rely on accurate data, the surveyor must remain a neutral party in any investigation, project, or dispute. Members of the National Society of Professional Surveyors adhere to the “Surveyor’s Creed and Canons,” which outline the ethics that professional surveyors uphold. They pledge to use their knowledge “for the advancement and betterment of human welfare,” placing service and honor before profit and personal advantage. They also strive to maintain client confidentiality, avoid bias or personal interest when presenting analyses and opinions, and only accept assignments within their particular area of expertise.

Links

To learn more about the surveying profession, check out these links:

  • National Society of Professional Surveyors – National professional group providing education, certification, advocacy, newsletters, podcasts, and a network of state affiliates. www.nsps.us.com
  • The Hydrographic Society of America – All-volunteer organization created in 1984 in response to unqualified hydrographic surveying, “open to any individual or organization with an interest in surveying in hydrospace.” www.thosa.org
  • Hydro International – Website and magazine for all things hydrography, featuring product surveys, a buyer’s guide, job listings, books, webinars, and more. www.hydro-international.com
  • Point of Beginning – Website and news magazine for land surveyors and geomatics experts in all areas of the profession, featuring the online community RPLS.com, as well as webinars, podcasts, and e-newsletters. www.pobonline.com
  • The American Surveyor – Website and magazine for surveyors. www.amerisurv.com
  • Professional Surveyor – Website and magazine covering all aspects of land and hydrographic surveying, targeting professionals in the surveying, mapping, engineering, GIS, and related geomatics fields. www.profsurv.com
  • What Is Hydrographic Surveying? (NOAA Office of Coast Survey) – Introduction to seafloor mapping with links to OCS’s data and educational materials. www.nauticalcharts.noaa.gov/hsd/learn_survey.html
  • Surveying, An Ancient and Honorable Profession – Historical overview of surveying, hosted by Michael C. DiPaolo of SurveysInc.com. www.surveysinc.com/history/
  • National Academy of Forensic Engineers – www.nafe.org
  • SurveyorConnect – Online social network allowing land surveyors a simple yet modern place to gather and discuss various topics online. www.surveyorconnect.com
  • Land Surveyors United – Online social network for land surveyors and students worldwide to share experiences, expertise, and resources. landsurveyorsunited.com