John P. Brady, P.L.S., RPC
Chief Pilot – Drones | Land Surveyor at PDC Inc. Engineers
I started out as a civil engineering major and was not enthused with my classes. I took a surveying class and then moved to Anchorage, Alaska, for my wife to pursue her nursing degree. This is when I decided to give geomatics a try. I was immediately engaged and interested in all of my classes and everything geomatics had to offer. I loved it all and tried hard to gain real-world experience in as many different nuances and sub-disciplines within geomatics that I could. By the time I graduated with my bachelor’s degree, I had worked for a small survey shop, the State of Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, an aerial mapping firm, and a large engineering design firm. Even as I settled into working mostly design surveying, remote sensing was always a top interest of mine.
When drones started to become more of a big deal back in the mid 2010s, I began looking into it and quickly discovered that it would be quite useful to surveying and other professions, as well. When the Federal Aviation Administration’s Part 107 Certificate became available in August 2016, I jumped at the chance to get certified. I have now renewed my certificate twice and what has happened over the last five years for drones, within and outside of surveying, has been amazing. I have been flying them since 2015 and been working to continuously figure out new ways to use them within the architecture, engineering, and construction industry. Thus far into 2020, I have spent 30 percent of my professional time on drone-related work and activities.
Just because the technology changes, doesn’t mean we necessarily change our primary role as surveyors. Clients still want existing conditions measured, grades staked, parcels subdivided, corners set, boundaries determined, etc. We use drones, scanners, sonar, GPS, total stations, levels, and basic survey equipment throughout our field season in Alaska. The technology ultimately allows a surveyor to get more data in less time, and as we all know, time is money. The biggest change I have seen with technology is the evolution of survey crews and office personnel. It now takes less people to acquire the same data, or in some cases more of it. In Alaska, two-person crews are sometimes a must because of safety, but even here one-person crews are not uncommon for certain jobs. Not only does it take fewer people, but one person can now shorten the time on a task exponentially due to the technology available.
Continuing education never stops. I hope I continue to do well no matter my age or professional status. I learn through various means, classes, webinars, YouTube, certificates, society meetings, and on the job. The survey licensure track was my first focus and drones quickly became the second. With those two focuses, I have since gotten certified as an ASPRS Mapping Scientist-UAS, and I am currently working on my CFedS certificate. My main motivator for learning is to become more efficient and adept at what I do and to learn to do new things. I strive to be highly functional with the tools at my disposal. The more thoroughly I understand a piece of equipment or software the more efficient I am with it.
I recently revamped the RESPEC (formerly PDC Engineers) survey drafting standards. It is still a work in progress, but I had to do a lot of learning to make that happen. My father used to tell me to truly understand something you needed to be able to teach it to someone else. I would also add that when you know something well enough because you built it, you have also reached a high level of understanding. This brings me to what I believe to be the most valuable resource I have had access to, and that has been solid mentorship in many forms. In the subject of drones, I consider myself a seasoned vet, but not quite a pioneer. With drafting and surveying, the resources are much more vast, and I have soaked in as much knowledge that I could from those I have worked with. My first job out of school was working for an engineering firm, and I worked under an excellent drafter. I tried to be a sponge when working with him, and it has served me well to this day. Just recently, I got to work with a Survey Party Chief that has spent over 30 years in the field, and I was able to learn quite a few things from him. In each position I have held, and through the various interactions I have had, I have had valuable mentorship opportunities. A civil engineer at our office gave me a great piece of advice this past spring as I was feeling overwhelmed with the amount of managing I was starting to do. He told me that some days you may feel like you accomplished nothing, but if the team accomplished something and moved forward then the day was a win. My point is that there is always an opportunity for learning if you keep yourself open to it throughout each day. Sometimes it will be about new technology, sometimes it will be a new technique to something you have done for years, and sometimes it just may be a word of sage advice from someone you didn’t expect. In my opinion, knowledge can be learned, and wisdom is something I feel is obtained through experience and others imparting their knowledge and experience. Both are important to continued learning and growing as a professional.
The average age of surveyors is so high, so job security is a great reason right now. In some states, such as my home state of Alaska, it is illegal to map (including with drones) unless you are a licensed land surveyor from the state of Alaska. You get more responsibility with a license, the pay is usually higher, and it is a good career move. I just really wanted that license as soon as I learned it was important to surveying in Alaska. Having the license in my pocket has opened a lot of doors that would not have been available without it. I would recommend that path to anyone in surveying, though I recognize it is not a path for everyone. There is a lot of responsibility that comes with holding such a license.
How are professional surveyors critical to protecting the safety of the public?
Our first priority isn’t to our clients or ourselves, but to the public. That mindset is essential for a professional land surveyor, but I will admit that sometimes it is hard to think about while slogging through some of the more mundane tasks of the job. Some great examples are for utility and transportation ROWs since those serve the public at large. If we screw up, then it affects everyone. For example, the engineer may not have the right data to properly design a bridge or a subdivision could be ruined for many people because of improper surveying methods. We are critical to the determination of boundaries and existing conditions for a multitude of projects. It is our duty to be as thorough and detail oriented as possible to protect the public, whether that is just a couple of people at a point in time or the public at large. There really is quite a fine balance, and a professional surveyor needs to have the intuition to determine the amount of liability to the public different jobs can have.
So many surveyors are retiring and with that goes all of their knowledge and wisdom, but it also presents a multitude of possibilities for the rest of us. Hopefully, we can glean that knowledge and wisdom from these seasoned surveyors that are retiring, pair it with the continuously changing technology, and keep our profession running strong, even with fewer people in it.
Most states now require a four-year degree to become a licensed surveyor, and that is a big barrier for a lot of people. There has been a debate for a long time regarding which way we should go as a profession. Should we be like the trades and allow past work to determine qualifications for licensure? Should we go the route of the engineers and require the degree? Right now I understand that most states require the degree, but that could change in the future based on economic demands. We have to adapt to the times we are living in. How we as surveyors adapt will determine how our profession continues on. I find myself on the degree or no degree sides of the coin depending on the day. I don’t know if there is a right answer and, personally, I haven’t decided to throw my hat in one ring or the other. I do know that we need to focus on ourselves and not be negatively influenced by other professions in how we approach our problems and obstacles.
Another challenge that I see many surveyors facing is a constant effort to compare surveying to other professions, specifically engineers. I believe how we handle that in the future is a big deal. My personal opinion is that we are a unique and valuable profession. We are not engineers and shouldn’t be comparing ourselves to them. We, as a profession, have the power to influence other professions in how they view us. I can’t think of a single profession that surveying should be compared to, as it would be comparing apples to oranges. The opportunities for us will align with federal and state statutes as the law is the only difference between the public choosing us rather than, for example, someone who acquired a drone and now offers “surveys.” The public will always choose the cheaper option, though there are always exceptions, and it is up to us licensed surveyors to continue to show the value in having those statutes to aid and protect the public.
One future possibility I am excited about is surveying space, moons, and planets! As time goes on, the name of geomatics may need to change because honestly “surveyor” is just a term for “location expert.”