Egypt, Rome, beyond

Jun 17, 2019

Surveying technology has been around for thousands of years. What’s new today will be old tomorrow, but the basics will remain the same.

The earliest evidence of land surveying dates back to the Egyptians in 2700 B.C., during the building of the Great Pyramids at Giza. They would use basic geometry to redraw property boundary lines when the Nile River would overflow. The Romans used the same techniques to continue the practice of surveying properties and construction. The first evidence of using tools and equipment specifically made for land surveying comes from Roman carvings.

Today’s land surveyors still use equipment and instruments based on the same principles, however with technology constantly evolving, the term “land surveyor” has truly become a moving target to define. And firms everywhere are tasked with integrating these new technologies into their core services. When I started as a surveyor, we did everything with a total station and level. At the time, GPS was the latest and greatest tool, and way too expensive for most companies. Today, GPS has become commonplace, and other technology advancements have taken its place as the latest and greatest new tool.

One of the newer technological applications in a land surveyor’s arsenal is the Unmanned Aerial System, commonly called “drones.” Having a small, light, nimble, and inexpensive platform on which you can attach cameras or mobile 3D scanners has dramatically changed the work we do, giving us access to infrastructure inspections, building façade inspections, safety planning, and much more. One of the assignments we see is material stock pile volume and calculations. Typically, we would use a total station, or High Definition Laser Scanner 3D scanner if available, to get the necessary elevation information to do the volume calculations. But what if the pile is too large for the typical methods, where you can’t get all faces accurately? Or what if the pile is a material you can’t walk on, like salt? For these types of situations, using a UAS to fly around and over the material pile, gathering data on all faces, no matter the size or shape, is invaluable. The software accurately calculates the volume of the pile with all the information collected.

We are also utilizing 3D scanners to digitally recreate crime scenes, vehicular accidents, or arson scenes. We can apply physics and other calculations to recreate the incident using the 3D measurable world collected from the 3D scanners and replay from a witness, victim, or any other perspective, as a part of an investigation. When a tragic accident occurs, the investigative teams want to be able to quickly gather as much accurate data as possible. However, the investigation is most efficient when the data contains all the information available at the scene. By using 3D scanners to collect information from the surrounding environment, in addition to the direct evidence, the scanner provides context to the scene. This additional information can be invaluable to the investigators and can then be used as evidence during court proceedings.

UAS and incident reconstruction were both brought to our firm as new technologies and service offerings for our clients, which have both grown and evolved over time, like all technology does. When I helped bring 3D scanning to our firm in 2006, the equipment was cumbersome and took a very long time to be effective. Today, 3D scanners are smaller, faster, and much more capable. The same is true of drones. In 2010 when I started advocating for the use of UAS in survey mapping and inspections, the technology was relatively new to the survey world. The capabilities were limited and regulations had not been truly established like they are now. Today, the use of UAS has become a standard piece of essential equipment.

Despite the technology and application advancements, the basics of how we as land surveyors perform our tasks are all based on the principles laid out by our ancient forefathers. It’s exciting to think and dream of what land surveyors will be able to do in the future!

Jason Haynes, LSIT, is an associate surveyor at Pennoni and also a licensed drone pilot. He has 19 years of experience providing surveying services to private development and governmental clients. He can be reached at

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