We've released our second episode of Tec Trek! This week, TJ and Yatri chat with Tim Burch, second-generation land surveyor and GPS expert, about the history and mathematics of land surveying, from Johnny Appleseed to Mount Everest to UberEats.
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TJ: And welcome to Tec Trek. Thanks so much for joining us for our second episode. I'm TJ. I'm the product and technology applications manager here at Spytec. And I'd like to introduce you to...
Yatri: Hey, I'm Yatri, and I'm the product research and development manager here at Spytec GPS.
TJ: Welcome back. Welcome back. Good to have you. So today's question is a very different question from the last. It's a completely different field, but it's still incredibly interesting. And I love this one, Yatri, because this is one that I knew nothing about. And that's always a very exciting thing to me. It's like finding out these things that affect us every day, but I know nothing about. So today's question is, how does surveying help us understand the world around us? And how is that process affected by the development of GPS? So that's what we're looking at today.
Yatri: It's a fascinating subject.
TJ: So it is. Literally, I know nothing. My knowledge of surveying prior to thinking about it this way was, there is a stake in the ground, and there is a gentleman with a flag far away, and they're looking at each other through the stake. That's literally...that was the extent of my knowledge. Very useless. So since I have no knowledge about this, Yatri, what is your baseline knowledge about surveying?
Yatri: So the idea is that you can use fixed reference points to actually properly gauge distance through some process of triangulation. That's a pretty old idea, and it's very effective. When you think about it, the ancient Egyptians who sorta this did using knotted cords. But overall, it's mainly used to make large, large measurements there.
TJ: Okay, all right. So we know that as a team, we know the definition.
TJ: So we need to bring in an expert. So what we're gonna do, we're gonna bring in Tim Burch. Tim is currently the president-elect of the National Society of Professional Surveyors, Board of Directors, director of Survey for SPACECO, Inc, and a co-contributing editor for "GPS World Magazine." In the past, Tim served as vice president, secretary, and as a director representing Illinois. In his free time, Tim produces the NSPS podcast, "Surveyors Says!" which I absolutely adore the name of that. So give that a listen if you'd like. And assistant oversight of NSPS social media accounts. Welcome, Tim. Great to have you.
Tim: Well, thank you. I appreciate being on today.
TJ: Absolutely, absolutely. So first thing I want us all to kind of talk about, and again, this will just be a roundtable discussion. Feel free to jump in whenever. Let's introduce surveying to our listeners. So, as Yatri said, it's the process of taking large measurements. It's been done since you know ancient Egypt using knotted cords, the Romans used something called a groma, which was a vertical staff with horizontal pieces mounted at right angles, and each cross piece had a line hanging down from it. How would somebody use something like that, Tim?
Tim: Well, it's amazing. I mean, obviously, we look back at the Roman age, and all of the things they were able to build and develop. Bottom line is that they figured out early on mathematics, on some level with trigonomet...what we now know is trigonometry, and were able to basically, like Yatri said, to triangulate and develop relationships to these what eventually were equations. And yes, it wasn't sophisticated enough to go beyond 90-degree angles realistically, but that's really what they were after, and that's how they built most of their things. So I give you kudos for looking that far back. That's awesome.
TJ: Simply because of my nature. I'm a history buff as well. And it's funny, like you're saying, like 90-degree angles. That's what they needed for what they did. Well, I was reading about...so Roman military camps, castrums. They had several different versions of this some of them very temporary, some of them pretty built to last. There's some that still exist that you can see in like Germany and things like that. But every time they built one, it would start out, the surveyor would come out. He would put the groma in the center of the area of land that they had decided where the camp was going to be, and boom. They would lay down roads at a 90-degree angle, and every single camp was built to the exact same measurements, which is fascinating to me.
Yatri: That kind of consistency is very, very unprecedented in many ways. I mean, for something as common as a military camp, still to be able to do that pretty quickly.
TJ: Oh, yeah, they were like a day, like it would be ready to go in a day.
Yatri: It shows that they incorporated this kind of tool into their basic operating structure, like very, very early on. You know, it's something that, I mean, you can imagine a lot of society is doing this for important monuments, important buildings. But to do this for a standard military procedure every time, it just shows how they were thinking a little bit, you know?
TJ: Well, it's brilliant too. I mean, I have no idea. But like in my head, it relates a little bit back to what Tim was saying about identifying mathematics and concepts like that as things that allow you to have a level of consistency and structure. And the fact that they built to what they knew.
TJ: Right? It's like, okay, we know 90-degree angles. We can do that. We know that works. So we're just gonna do that.
Tim: Right, right. And a lot of those military camps, I mean, those were the original settlements that even after the military aspect went away, that was the center of a new municipality, basically, and built from that. And that's why you see a lot of a lot of the origins of the towns, everything's laid out at 90-degree angles. The only thing that throws a wrench in the mix is if you come across the nearby river or whatever.
TJ: Yeah, yeah.
Tim: That's one reason a majority of your towns are basically on a grid. It's so much easier to deal with. And that was how they laid it out initially way back when.
TJ: Yeah. It's also like...the thing that always interests me about this kind of stuff is we...I can do, when I'm thinking about history like that, I lose sense of scale. So they were making the same basic camp for like, not 10 years, not 20. It's like 3,000 years, like that's what it looks like.
Tim: Right, right. Yeah, and surveying itself, one of my cliches, I joke about that within history, surveying is the second oldest profession. And we'll let the anthropologists and other pundits decide what the oldest one is. But you think about societies and civilizations, what, even today, what is the one most important thing that a person can have besides their physical family? It's their property. It's what they own. And that's what's important, whether it's a farmstead, whether it's their city lot, whether whatever. That has been the most important thing. And throughout history, the surveyor was always held in such high regard alongside the doctor and the lawyers through civilization. Not so much now. But that was an important person within the municipality or your region. I mean, it's really been an important thing throughout society.
Yatri: It makes perfect sense when you think about it because we have this idea of planned cities being kind of novel. But really, planned cities have existed for a very, very long time. We can go back looking at in this valley's civilization, looking through all of like the fertile crescent, and we see cities that throughout are planned to a grid. And like surveying is the fundamental backbone of most civil engineering. I mean, really, we're talking about civil engineering, municipal engineering in that way, right.
Tim: Yes, absolutely. And that's where...
Yatri: If you're laying out sewers, or drainage ducks, or roads, or anything like that, it's all based on this.
Tim: Right. And that's where the marriage of land surveying and civil engineering really lies, in that it's not so much even just the land surveyor is the knowing of the boundaries. The real definition of a surveyor is expert measurer, and that can be horizontal and vertical. So when it comes to topography, that's why the surveyor is doing these measurements. Collecting this data for the civil engineer, for other engineers to analyze, to design, to design that road, to design that sewer, design that detention pond, what have you. That's where the nice marriage of the two professions come into play. So, yeah, you're exactly right that it's just lead into more and more engineering through time, and it's become more sophisticated.
TJ: So that leads me to sort of my first question. This is a non-planned question. It's just something that kind of came up. What comes first? And say something... So I'm from Houston, Texas, which is the land of massive like subdivision developments, right? Like gargantuan. So in a situation like that, let's say I'm gonna build a subdivision with 5,000 homes, whatever. What comes first, design or survey? Or is it initial survey, design survey again to make sure we can do that?
Tim: Well, and you know what? That is a great question. Actually, I mean, you got to think even a step before that, especially with the United States. The surveyor was the first one on the ground laying out all of the parcels. You know, westward expansion, what have you. So to the origin, it's really the surveyor. Then, when it comes into a big development like that, it once again it's the surveyor. It's establishing an overall boundary of what you're going to develop, doing a topography of the ground to be able to then give to the civil engineer for analyzation for the land to then pass on to the engineer and the land planner for, okay, how can we make this development match the natural contouring of the ground that's out there? Or is it dead flat or what have you?
TJ: Are we gonna have to create some contours?
Tim: Right. Exactly. So all of that information is collected by the surveyor, goes into the civil engineer for design. Once that design is done, it's then handed right back to the surveyor for laying out of the roads, laying out of utilities, laying out of the pads for buildings and houses, and various things, ponds. And then the final surveys are done once something is built for transferring from the current development owner to a new owner. So you know, we've got a saying in our surveying world of first in, last out. And that's really what it is.
TJ: No, and that makes perfect sense.
Tim: We typically are when it comes to land development.
TJ: Well, it's kind of this brilliant relationship, right, of like you're providing, in essence...and again, this is very metaphor. But you're providing the raw information, the raw material that's needed to create something. Then you have to go back and check to make sure that they used your raw material in the correct way.
Tim: Yes. Exactly, exactly.
TJ: It's such an interesting relationship to the design of something where it's like here are your parameters, this is what you can do. Now go, and I'll be back to make sure you did it right.
Tim: Right. Exactly, exactly. And then that's part of what our duty is then, is that once we determined that everything was built right, built correct, then we basically create the legal documents that allow conveyance of property from one person to another, from one developer to a family that's built their brand new dream home. It's all part of it.
Yatri: That's how you market property, that's how you can draw boundary lines on anything, you know. I want to take a quick step back because you used the term parcel. I don't know if everybody will know what that means, but it has a more or less precise definition in surveying, right?
Tim: Yes, well, parcel is usually tied to whatever, you can say property. A lot of times somebody that has a piece of property, it might have several parcels in it. Basically, the parcel is the legal definition of whatever that piece of property is, whether it was like we said earlier from the first surveyors that went out in the 1800s or to a final lot in a subdivision. That is a parcel of ground within the subdivision is that people's property. So it's kind of interchangeable but depends on how people use it. Like I said, sometimes people talk about their property, it can contain many parcels.
TJ: Okay, okay, so it's almost a usage measurement, right?
Tim: Yes. Exactly, exactly.
TJ: Okay. Got you, got you, got you. That makes sense.
Yatri: You might have one piece of property, but you could build three homes on it.
TJ: Yeah, and then it's three parcels of land. Yeah, exactly. That's interesting.
Tim: Yes. Exactly.
TJ So I want to touch on something else from the...Tim brought up the idea that like surveyors are held, especially in history, like in such high regard. So some famous surveyors in American history, George Washington was a surveyor. He was the surveyor-general in Virginia. Daniel Boone was a surveyor as well. Thomas Jefferson was a surveyor, and he also really promoted surveying because he, of course, the Louisiana Purchase, sent off Lewis and Clark. Henry David Thoreau was a surveyor. Benjamin Banneker was a self-taught surveyor, and he was one of the team that surveyed the site where Washington D.C. was built, which is fascinating. Abraham Lincoln was a surveyor. And then, of course, William Clark, Meriwether Lewis, probably the two most famous, I would say, surveyors. Now, that kind of surveying that Lewis and Clark were doing, that was like establishing what was there almost.
Tim: Somewhat, somewhat, yes.
TJ: I mean, I guess we knew what was there. It was just sort of finding out the topography, how are we going to traverse it, that kind of thing.
Tim: The marking land features to a large degree, right?
Tim: Yes, exactly. Exactly. Another, actually a duo, one was a surveyor, one was an astronomer, was Mason and Dixon that did the Mason-Dixon line between Pennsylvania and Maryland. Yeah, Jeremiah Dixon was the actual surveyor from England, and Charlie Mason was, he was an astronomer. And that's part of what they were doing, having to do surveying at the time. And this kind of leads to the introduction of GPS was they were establishing their locations, by the location...by shooting observations on the moon, and able to determine latitude and longitude by the positions of the moon at a specific time. And that's all part of what...how surveying has evolved.
TJ: And that's a lovely segue into sort of our first, I guess, big question, which is how, in the last say 10 years, 20 years? I mean GPS, it's technology that's only been around for give or take three decades. How has it affected surveying, in your opinion, Tim?
Tim: It's transformed it. I'll be honest with you, I'm unfortunately old enough that when I started, I'm... Full disclosure, I'm a second-generation surveyor. Worked with my dad at a company when I was in high school and the surveying bug bit me. But...
TJ: It's fantastic.
Tim: When I started, it was still... I mean, GPS was in absolute infancy. This was the early '80s, absolute infancy. It was mostly Department of Defense use. It was starting to sneak out into civilian use. And what people don't realize is when GPS was developed in the late '60s, early '70s, and then really got really working in the early '80s, surveying was the first ones to really adapt to the technology. Yes, it was expensive, yes, it was time-consuming. But being able to create a position rather than doing a sun shot or a moon shot like Dixon did, being able to sit there with this machine and collect this information from satellites to give latitude and longitude very, very, accurately was fascinating. So there were big companies that were using it early on. As technology kept going, I mean, that was about the same time personal computers came in, more programming came in. It's just been an avalanche of data and technology since then. So I really feel like I'm understating it when I say that GPS has revolutionized surveying.
TJ: It's like a new field. The computer revolution was happening at the same time. But I had forgotten that it's almost like, I mean, not literally, but almost overnight you went from, as you're saying, doing a moon shot or a sun shot and writing it down in a notebook, to using a GPS and typing it on your laptop. That's crazy.
Tim: Exactly. Because I can remember as a kid when my dad, there was a few nights my dad went out surveying, and he was at...they were actually surveying for TV towers, and they had to be aligned, and they had to go out and shoot the moon and Polaris. And my mom would look out like, yeah, right, you're really surveying at night? Yeah, exactly. I believe you. But to establish an accurate latitude and longitude in that time frame, that's the way you did it. GPS revolutionized that, that it's above out there hanging in the atmosphere, and it's give... It's just totally expanded our ability to establish very, very accurate locations.
Yatri: Because I think a lot of people would think something like GPS really somewhat mitigates the need for surveying. But that's a bit of a cart before the horse situation, right?
Tim: Yeah, it really is. You know, and that's the funny thing, that GPS, we are so fortunate that the Department of Defense was playing around with this technology and we were able to utilize it from the get-go. That yes, it's establishing those accurate locations, but realistically, I mean, it enhanced surveying because it was able...we were able to cover a lot more ground measuring parcels now, especially large parcels, especially Texas and the Great West. That it just revolutionized it in that respect, that it wasn't this all this manual, either taping or electronic distance meter shooting, that we were covering miles instead of hundred feet at a time. So but to your point, yes, it's unfortunately where technology has taken it is that, you know... And as I hold up my cell phone, everybody's got GPS now. Everybody can locate stuff. And that's that's a little bit of a fear that, yes, you can establish positions. But what does that position mean in relationship to everything that's been surveyed? So there's still the analogy I always give is I can go into a store and buy a very, very sharp knife, but I can't perform brain surgery.
TJ: Exactly. Exactly, yeah.
Tim: So you know, just because you can get a precise location of something doesn't mean that it represents something that is being surveyed. So there's still a lot of education and background in the surveying part of it.
TJ: And I think that's also a really interesting sort of differentiation, sort of association, of like exploration and survey. Like, yes, I know in theory what is there, but I am not a surveyor, so I don't know what is there? Does that make sense? Like I know that across the street for me are the Hollywood Hills. I know that. But I don't know what they look like. I don't know the elevation. If I'm trying to build something, I don't know what I'm gonna have to do to be able to get something built in that area.
Tim: Exactly. And that's the big difference between surveying and cartography. Cartography is the making of maps by whatever information is available. And a good example of that is and was the 1800s when you had cartographers making maps of the Great West based upon however they were going around, where this river went, and where this mountain was. But it wasn't until it was surveyed and establishing whatever that information was at the time. You know that's the part about surveying that I try to gauge and try to really impress upon people, is we are taking a snapshot in time of the existing conditions.
TJ: That's fascinating.
Tim: Whether it's the curb in front of your house, whatever. We're collecting data and this has been done historically forever. But now we're able to do it in multitudes and we can get into that. But that's...we're establishing a snapshot in time of what that condition is, where that road is, where that property corner is, where that house is. And we are certifying to that data.
TJ: That measurement. So now is that used, we were talking civil engineering earlier, is that used to sort of establish, okay, if we build roads in this manner, I can expect that that road is going to be stable and usable and not need to be redone for x amount of time? Or am I gonna see erosion of the roadside? Am I gonna see erosion of the shoulder or whatever over x amount of years? I'm assuming that's established through re-surveying the roads.
Tim: Right? Exactly. Exactly. And there's a lot of monitoring that goes on. In fact, just to give you a quick example of a problem we have here in Chicago, the north shore of Chicago. The Great Lakes are really high right now, and they're just beating the crap out of the shorelines. And people's...these expensive houses up on the hills, these shorelines are eroding. So we are in nefarious places. We are establishing basically control points to go back and continue to monitor from one week to the next, to the month, to whatever, and what stuff is basically falling into Lake Michigan. So that's what I mean by a snapshot in time. We're collecting this point on that day at this time, this horizontal location, this elevation. We might go back next week, and it could be six inches towards the lake and six inches down. You just don't know. And that's why we always put the caveat. That's the one thing that we always try to say about the survey data is, yes, we have an x and y and an elevation, but also throw in another component there of time, what the time it is.
Yatri: Yeah, people often forget that like... I mean, we like to think the earth is a very, very stable thing. But really, it's constantly changing all the time. And not just like beach erosion and, like rivers changing course or drying up, or having extended floods. But like landmasses physically moving all over the place. I mean, this happens constantly and if you don't keep up on that... It's kind of like looking at Google Maps photo, like Street View photo from 10 years ago. Is that really useful? Not really. Even three years ago. Not so useful.
TJ: No. Yeah, well, I was gonna say... Yeah, what's fascinating too about this is like... And there's coffee table books about this, all of the buzz words. It's like pictures of Los Angeles, 1880s to now. Like that's kind of the same thing, but at like the root level, right? Like that's like the deep dive into like, okay, here's actually what's going on. Especially when, if it's in the middle of nowhere? I have a question for you. How often is, say, undeveloped land, like somewhere where there's we're not going to be building anything. How often is that re-surveyed?
Tim: It depends on the use. I'll be honest with you, we have farm fields that we will have surveyed for potential development that's fallen through, say, 5, 10 years ago. It's amazing how much that dirt, by being furrowed and tilled and planted and being turned over, how much that ground goes up and down. And you know, we might only be talking a couple of inches.
TJ: But that's huge.
Tim: But over the course of a hundred acres, if we're talking an inch or two, we're talking thousands of cubic yards of material, depending on somebody's design. You know, we're constantly having these conversations with the excavators, and they're coming back and saying, well our topo is a little bit different than your topo by three-quarters of an inch. Well, over a hundred acres, that's a bunch of truckloads of dirt.
TJ: That's a couple of weeks.
Tim: Yes. Honestly, it does change. And that's something, I don't wanna get too far ahead of your questions, but that's something that GPS has, GPS and GNSS has, basically exposed to how we measure things. Up until a few years ago, everything that was measured in the United, at least the United States, was basically on one big static system, coordinate system. What GPS and GNSS has allowed us to realize is that if people think back to Pangaea and how we were shoved up against Africa, to Yatri's point, everything is moving. Even these high-accuracy static monuments that are set all over the country, over the course of even just a short amount of time, everything's moving. Our particular part of Illinois and this plate is moving northwest at basically a centimeter a year. And it was only until GPS was derived that we had a stable measuring system that established that. Because if I go back out there and I measure it every year, well, it's still a monument. Still a monument in the ground, it's still at the same place. It hasn't moved. It hasn't. Well, but the whole thing...
TJ: The whole thing has moved.
Yatri: Yeah, the distances between your reference points are moving. And so it's sort of a relative measurement, and GPS lets you have a little bit more of an absolute measurement, right?
TJ: Oh, that gets wonderfully complicated too because you've got different plates moving in different directions. So dependent on, oh yeah, that gets wonderfully complicated. That's fantastic. That's like a puzzle where all your pieces are being pushed away from each other.
Yatri: Tom Scott just did a video. Tom Scott just did a video on Cornwall, which is the part of the UK that the UK takes an average measurement of sea level and uses as a standard for the entire country. And that particular part of the land actually swells with ocean tides because the water coming in actually impacts the soil so much, it swelled by several inches twice a day. And if it's stormy, it can rise by 6, 8 inches potentially at a time.
TJ: That's crazy.
Yatri: So it's really interesting because they actually...the way they create the reference measurement is they go off the shoreline. They have a building, in the building is a well, so that it's not...and they put essentially a plumb down the well, so that's not affected by the actual waves. But that's how they take the measurements there and they average them. And that's how they get sea level, which is really interesting. I never would have thought how they do something like that.
TJ: That's crazy to me, too, that it's like a noticeable amount, right? Like oh, yeah, no, no. Yeah, that's what our land does here. Our land swells. That's terrifying.
Tim: If you're like standing in one of these spots, and there's a couple of them around the world that are this dramatic, but if you're standing there, you probably still don't notice a couple of inches difference, you know.
TJ: It's funny talking about like huge survey projects here in California. Recently, I was doing some research. So I guess it was three years ago up on the PCH, just into Big Sur. So very few people lived there. We had a huge landslide and it wiped out like two miles of the PCH. And what they decided to do, they're like, okay, that is... They went, surveyed it. They're like that is so much material, let's just rebuild the road over and again and redo what this coastline looked like because it's going to happen again. And so there's no point in just continually trying to maintain this. Me and my wife drove through it last year. It's crazy because you're going along the old PCH, and then all of a sudden, you've got this massive vertical incline and then you're up on the new part, and it's up on the top of the landslide. It's crazy. It's crazy.
Tim: I can't imagine what it was like trying to make that happen. Actually, you know that's...
TJ: And that place is ridiculously remote. I mean, that's the road. That's it. There's another road that goes overland through it, but it's a tiny little like one-laner that's terrifying to drive on.
Yatri: So okay, so that actually brings me to another question then, Tim. Can you tell us a little bit about like what the day-to-day is? Or like what kinds of things you need to know and to be prepared to do something like that? I mean, especially early on in the age of exploration and looking through, like, 1900, right? I mean, a lot of these guys are going out really, really remotely in the middle of nowhere, right? You know, but even today I mean something like that, I'm sure it's not easy.
Tim: No, it's not. And that's what fascinated me early on about surveying itself, is that, yes, you really need to have a strong background in math, which I just...I love math as a kid. But it's also a history component, a little bit of legal. And well, if you're still actually a field surveyor, I feel like I'm stuck in the office too much, being outside. So being a little bit of both. But, yes, there's so much history. And it's not so much, even just the Lewis and Clarks and things like that. It's the history of how did a piece of ground...how did it evolve? You know, take, for instance, the PCH, that over time this thing was decided. It probably turned from a horse trail to let's throw down some aggregate, let's throw down some asphalt, what have you. And eventually had to be a fully engineered road.
It's a lot of records and surveying that goes along with those types of situations in those areas that we really have to rely on. And I guess that's the nice thing about having GPS in our back pockets now is that no matter what moves, no matter what slides, no matter what disappears, you still know where things were at because you've got the records of those things. You can go right back out into the middle of where that cliff was and go, well, the road was here. This is where it was. So you're not really...you know, if you lose all of your survey monuments, your survey control through a various area, you can replace that, and that's the beauty of...
TJ: Actually, that's really interesting. So prior to GPS, if something like that was to happen, you're back to square one.
Tim: You're looking over your shoulder and going, how far back do I have to go back to solid ground somewhere? And in some places, especially when it floods and places that are really displaced, it is. It's rebuilding the wheel. Whereas now, having all of this information in our hands basically with coordinates, it's a lot easier to use. It's made it a lot more functional.
TJ: That's fascinating. This is one, maybe, I don't know. I didn't do any pre-research about this. This is just...I'm fascinated by railroads. I'm assuming surveyors were like the advanced team when we're building the railroad westward. They're having to...
Tim: One would think that. And seriously, one would think that that a lot of the railroads going west predated the surveyors that pushed with the westward expansion. So there's a lot of places where the rail, and if hopefully, the rail is still there, at least the right of way for the rail is still there. That was the dividing line between parcels that the surveyors came in after the fact.
Yatri: And that's the landmark they used to divide the line.
Tim: They use some of that, yes.
TJ: If I'm remembering correctly, that was how we encourage westward expansion. Like population-wise, it was like, hey, if you go that way, we'll give you like... So they're divvying up the land left and right of the track and just, oh, that's fascinating.
Tim: Yeah, the surveyors under the surveyor general's direction, they could not survey fast enough for western expansion because you had so many rail companies. It's amazing. You go back and look at the rail...the number of rail companies that existed in 1840, 1850, they were everywhere. And they just...they branched out everywhere. And you're right. That was part of the marketing of westward expansion. We can get you there by train, come out and buy come out and we'll sell you these 640 acres for a dollar or whatever. That's the way they did it.
TJ: So I'm assuming like this is again not to derail us too much. Oh, derail. I'll show myself out. So, like, I'm assuming the government was like, hey, if you build your railroad to this sort of area, we'll give you the land left and right, and then you can sort of distribute as you see fit.
Tim: Yeah, a lot of that was going on. They were working together on conveying this land to the people that wanted to move west and start a new life.
TJ: Fascinating. You think that they would have used the surveyors ahead of the railroad to build the track more efficiently. But I guess that was less important than just getting it done.
Tim: Yeah. No, they were just worried about getting to California and digging through the gold.
TJ: Yeah, they're making the cash. So they had to move, move, move. That's fascinating. Just a quick question. You don't have to go into too much detail. What do you think the most difficult sort of civil engineering project tied surveying job in, say, the last 50 years had to have been?
Tim: I'll be honest with you that I think I am fascinated by... Seattle did a big dig, Boston big dig. Now with Elon Musk and his Hyperloop stuff tunneling is amazing to me because it is... There is a huge surveying component for alignment, but then it's also the civil engineering that goes into the designs of the tunnels. I think we're going to see a lot more of that between cities. Because it amazes me when I go to...Chicago's got a pretty good subway system. Haven't been to New York yet, but a few of the places, Washington, D. C. I think that aspect of being able to survey underground, which kind of throws it in the face of GPS because there's no, obviously no sky observations available.
TJ: What would you use? Are you using like ground sonar?
Tim: Actually, it's just it's physical survey points. Yes, for a lot of it. Yes.
TJ: Wow. That's awesome.
Yatri: It's still very old school. I love it.
TJ: Yeah, no, it's great. And it's great too, because that's like back to almost the sort of like crux of surveying and exploration, right? Oh, yeah, it's like, all right, we're going to dig a hole then I guess we'll go.
Yatri: It's like, what do we do with that technology?
TJ: We haven't built it. That's fascinating. That's awesome. Now, you talked a little bit about this, but was there any pushback in surveying against things like using computers, using GPS? Was there ever a group of surveyors who were like, nope, we're doing this by hand and we're gonna keep doing it by hand.
Tim: Yes, there was. This isn't going to be a knock on the baby boomers, but a lot of it. My father was one that he didn't want GPS, didn't trust it. Black box technology, just didn't like it, didn't trust it. And through his career, he never used it for the project he needed to work on. Yes, there was some pushback. And it even takes a step further before GPS that in the late '60s, the technology of an electronic distance meter, basically a piece of equipment that shoots a laser to somebody, what's got basically a 360-degree prison where that light beam goes in the prison, comes back out and then this time it takes to travel, it computes the distance to basically real, real tight tolerances. That there were those that didn't like that, that that was voodoo, that that was black box technology, that they would rather take the time with this 100-foot tape and tape through this cornfield or tape down this road, whatever quarter mile, half-mile, whatever. Instead of just setting up an instrument on one point, setting up a prism on another, and shooting that half-mile in a matter of minutes, that...it's still weird. It's I liken it back to there were people that didn't like telephones and TVs.
TJ: Oh, yeah. I think it's any industry.
Yatri: If you don't know, especially if you don't know or understand how it works. I almost wonder if like...I almost wonder if they have like drones at the time, just being able to see it yourself and get an idea of it. If that's a little bit better, that's using something... Like you said, a black box technology like GPS, or if you don't really understand how it works, it's just magic.
TJ: It's going to be a silly comparison, but like my parents don't order food online, they only will call. Like even if the restaurant's like, please order online. My dad's like ahh. They're not gonna get my order. But it's the same idea. Like it's...
Tim: It is. It is a fear of technology. And some of it, and unfortunately now, especially with cell phones and beyond, it's a little bit Big Brother that, yeah, it's... Bottom line is the technology is there, we need to embrace it, and it's only made our lives better. Period.
TJ: It's fascinating to me, like you're talking a lot about the distance you can cover at one go. I mean, I'm imagining just... And this is also interesting. We talked a lot about time. Like surveying involves time so much more than I thought it did, I guess. I had no sort of preconceived notion about that. But in terms of surveyor's time, I'm imagining if you've got to cover, say, survey 10,000 acres, how long would that have taken you pre-GPS versus how long would that take you now?
Tim: Pre-GPS would have been literally months, if not beyond a year. I mean, depending on how complex the parcel itself is. I did live in Texas, in Dallas for a short time, so I did survey a few of those. And it during that time, it does. It takes forever. You know, the time to actually go to the physical corner and dig it up and figure out where it's at, to then shoot it. I mean, that's all apples to apples. But to go from one point to another point to another point to basically go around the perimeter of a parcel, it's cut it down by, in some cases, 90%, that you're not having to physically go from one point to the next. It's, okay, I take my location at this point. I drive however I need to drive to the next point, and take my location there.
TJ: And boom, there it is.
Tim: And then, yeah. Then I do the mathematics between it to establish that distance between them rather than physically. Because there's sometimes you can't physically see from one point to the other that this allows us to leapfrog over that and do things so much more efficiently. That's fascinating.
TJ: That's fascinating. Okay, I have another question. This is another unplanned question. What about like surveying like incredibly rugged remote areas?
Yatri: Oh, that's a good one. That's a really good one.
TJ: One of the things that, and I don't know why this fascinates me, I've never been on a mountain, but estimating height of mountains in the Himalayas and things like that.
Yatri: How much does it first grow year over year?
TJ: Yeah, and like, how did we... I mean, because we had a fairly I say, "accurate". We have like a fairly accurate measurement of like Everest and K2 before we ever went up there.
Tim: Right, right. And the way they determined heights back then, before all of this technology, goes back to what Yatri said, it's triangulation. It's observing that peak from several points and basically doing the math to say it's so far away, and it's so far up, to establish that elevation. And I will give them credit. It's amazing how close they were for the technology and the times. I interviewed a young surveyor back first part of the year. There's a group of mountains up in New Hampshire that I forget, but it's the 4,000-foot club of these mountains, and you get a special patch if you walk, or if you traverse all of them to the top. Well, there was one that they weren't quite sure that was truly 4,000, that they had done some aerial photography and just wasn't quite sure what it was. Well, these young surveyors went up there with GPS and established that it's, I think, 3,997. So in this case, they accidentally took it out of the club.
TJ: Took it out of the club. That's fascinating.
Tim: But it was, yeah, Mount Tecumseh, if you look that one up, it was an interesting story that these young surveyors took on themselves. That it is, one, it's amazing how close it was for the technology, but two, it is now making it easier to go and, say, for instance, Everest was just re-measured again through an initiative with Trimble. They went up, and I think they've left receivers up on top now to constantly monitor.
TJ: Constantly check it.
Tim: And see what it is. But you're right. In rugged areas, GPS has revolutionized how we go about getting that information, tying that stuff down. Because you can do it as long as you got a view of the sky to be able to pull that stuff in, it's instantaneous. Versus before, it was either guesstimating through triangulation or it was...
TJ: Climbing a mountain.
Tim: Climbing a mountain, yeah. People don't realize, even with the sophisticated equipment we have today with the satellites, the angle measurements, and the distance measurements, there are still error in those instruments. There is still human error in your eye. GPS, for the most part, takes so much out of that. All that error out, it's incredible.
TJ: Eliminates the chance for error.
Tim: Exactly, exactly.
TJ: So back when I guess this was late 1800s when we're trying to estimate, maybe early 1900s, trying to estimate the height of these...like how far away do you have to be to try to triangulate the height of something that's 28,000 feet? You can be pretty far. I'm guessing, right, like you're looking at this from like many miles.
Tim: Many miles, exactly. Many miles...
TJ: That's insane to me, that's crazy.
Tim: But that's how they did it.
TJ: That's fascinating. That is just fascinating. Okay, so now these are sort of questions about, like the personality of people who do survey. What kind of people get into surveying? You talked a little bit about it, interest in math, interest in history. And what is the studying like, what is the coursework like before you get into being a surveyor?
Tim: Sure. Well, again, completely transparent. I got into it through experience. That was allowed way back when because that's what the technology had to come to. Today, in most states, there's a four-year degree requirement for a lot of...to get licensed. Doesn't necessarily have to be a technician, but to be licensed. But there's a lot of maths. There is some sciences that needs to be dealt with. We get a little bit into...a little bit of geography, a little bit of botany, depending on where you're at and the types of environments you're in. Because obviously, if you're in the Pacific Northwest, it's going to be different than Houston, Texas, of what you're going to be up against.
But I got to say that the people that are really doing a lot of surveying now aren't necessarily the people that I want to see surveying in the future. There's so much data collection going on through so many different emerging technology. So we talk about GPS, we talked about drones, we talk about hydrographic surveys with, even now everything's remote control, autonomous with boats. There's so much data collection that needs to be done through surveying methods that it's not just going out and flagging up somebody's corners to sell a house. There's so much data collection that needs to be done for... And like Yatri said earlier about our planned cities for for those who aren't aware of the term digital twin, there's so many of these big cities that are creating these digital models or these basically recreations of your town, that if that way analyzation can be done of infrastructure, and if something happens to it, you have a digital model of what that town is like. And currently...
Yatri: I imagine that's super useful when trying to combat natural disasters and things like that as well, right?
Tim: Yes, yes, it is. You know, that's one of my mantras in being as involved with the national societies I am as... This is not your father's surveying now. It really isn't, because it takes so much more knowledge and effort to survey so many things that need to be data collected, databased where we really get...you have to get married back in with the GIS community. Because early on, GIS was, from laughing from the surveying's perspective stood for "get it surveyed." But because the technology has brought everything together, and the data collection is so, so critical now, GIS is really morphing into surveying as well.
So a good, strong mind. As for math, what we're finding is, and please don't laugh at this, but our future surveyors are kids that are gamers, somebody that is playing games, that sees everything in 3D, that has things coming at them that can look at, whether it's Fortnite or whatever that they're Warcraft. They're seeing stuff on a screen in 3D. They can make that transition, seeing that real-world data in 3D much easier than somebody that's just coming off without that experience.
TJ: And also making decisions based on that 3D, thinking of it in terms of what can I do based on topography, based on yada, yada, yada. That's fascinating.
Tim: Exactly, because that's one of my speeches I give to kids of all ages is, when Mom's yelling at you get up from the basement, quit playing the games for six hours. I say, as long as it's not two in the morning and you're shirking your homework, you just tell, Mom, I'm working on my career.
TJ: That's brilliant. That's brilliant. All right, Tim, we're gonna move into what we call our lightning round. These are fast-paced questions with fast-paced answers. What is your favorite piece of surveyor trivia?
Tim: I think the fact that three of our past presidents were surveyors and that that's where the root of it really stands, was you became a surveyor then you became president. I mean, anything is possible.
Yatri: What is the technological development that you find most interesting personally, whether surveying or otherwise?
Tim: Surveying, it would be GPS. And actually the further development of the real-time network to where basically, we've got a high accuracy GPS unit, we hop out of the truck, we link it through a modem, and we are looking at coordinates that are to the eighth of an inch instantaneously. The fact that we can do that now versus I'm pulling out a pocket tape is just fascinating to me.
TJ: All right, what's your favorite map?
Tim: I gotta tell you, I really like anything with the Roman Empire and a lot of the stuff that they put together. It's amazing what they were able to put together based upon their knowledge and the technology of the time.
Yatri: Last one, one way people make or could make use of surveying in their daily lives.
Tim: Believe it or not, as you have a cell phone in your pocket, you are surveying every day. You are collecting data. You're collecting spatial information that somebody is using somewhere, and whether you're going to Starbucks and getting your latte or ordering your next Uber Eats, you're collecting data. And it's amazing the amount of data, the spatial data that's being done out there, and people don't even know it. So I always tell the kids, if you're carrying a cell phone, you are a surveyor.
TJ: You're already doing the job. That's fascinating. Yatri, what's your favorite map?
Yatri: I'm a big fantasy guy, so I have to choose something fictional. I would pick probably the world map from Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time.
TJ: I'll buy that. That's pretty...it's spicy. I like that.
Yatri: It's really interesting trying to come up with a fictional map using a fake survey. What about you, TJ? What's your favorite?
TJ: I don't know. I'm kind of with Tim. I love the old Roman maps, especially when you start, like when they started looking west. You know, they don't know what's there. So it's like... Or there's obviously the great, like, maps of the 1100s, 1200s. Like monsters, that kind of thing. Where it's just like, yeah, I don't know. I don't know what's there.
TJ: Well, okay, guys, thank you so much for listening to Tec Trek. I'm TJ.
Yatri: I'm Yatri.
TJ: And I want to say thank you again to our guest, Tim Burch. Tim, it has been an absolute pleasure having you teaching us about a subject that I think is incredibly fascinating and is more fascinating than people realize, like the history of surveying to me is so fascinating and so exciting. To hear more episodes, please subscribe to the Tec Trek on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcast. And to find out more, visit us at spytec.com.