Tuesday, 28 January 2020

We've All Done It - haven't we??

I'm pretty sure it is safe to say we have all hard our fair share of 'problems on site', and since the last millennium I've had a few but I'm big enough (and old enough) to share a few with you without fear of (too much) embarrassment and retribution. **This is not a how to do guide, or best practise guide.  In fact quite the opposite is true!**

Surveying Problems (mostly mine but there are a few I was only indirectly involved with)

1) Arriving on site without the instrument, the cardinal sin for a Surveyor.  This was on the one occasion my Assistant had told me that the batteries were on charge so could I grab the kit before I left the office....did you spot mistake number one?  Asking me to remember something when I was plotting the fastest route from my office desk to the car!!  Well as I'm sure you have guessed the instrument remained in the office while we set off early the next day to North London.  Imagine the dismay when we arrived on site and opened the boot!  As luck would have it we didn't waste the trip as there were a few jobs to be done which didn't involve the instrument - but the phone call back to the office was not pretty!! And I'm fairly sure the return visit which had not been priced for did not go down well!

2) Next day (oh yes it gets worse!) tasked with returning to North London via a small site in South London.  Kit all loaded, checked, and checked again.  We headed off to the first site, nice and smooth finished quickly and efficiently.  Packed up 'most' of the kit and went on to North London to complete yesterdays work....slight problem, this was in the days when the data was recorded on an external logger and not on board.  It seems my Assistant (not me this time!) had left the logger on a wall in South London with all of the mornings work!!  Calling the office was not an option (I fear a P45 would have been the result!), so we duly set about hand booking all of the observations over the next few hours (did I mention it was a high precision monitoring job?).  Job done, so back to the first site as the eternal optimist, and this was pre phone or fleet tracking so no one would know what happened.  Luck was back with us, the logger was still sitting on the wall where it had been left!!  Over the course of the next hour we took a very slow drive back to the office as the my Assistant hand typed all of the data from the note book into the logger..... got to the office downloaded and everything was right in the world again.  It could have been soo  much worse, and until now the then boss never found out!  (If you are reading sorry - it was only once and I'm sure it made me a better Surveyor in the long run).

3) Make sure you close the boot of the car!!  Car packed and ready to go, the Senior Surveyor backs out of the parking spot and slowly pulls away.  We reach a road junction and he decides to drop the clutch and speed away....the resulting forward motion shifted the equipment against the boot door which in fact hadn't latched shut.  Open springs the boot and off goes the instrument down the road!!  It's a testament to the instrument and the box, no damage done to box or instrument when we checked it and it's calibration before starting work the next day.  They don't make them like they used to!

4) Surveying 101, always attach the tribrach to the tripod before turning away.  In the days of vertical plummets it was fairly standard to separate the tribrach from the instrument while setting up.  You centre and level the tribrach before putting the instrument on top to start work.  So tripod set, tribrach levelled and centred.  You turn around to get the instrument and lose your balance slightly.  The only thing close by to grab for balance is the tripod, normally not a problem just a pain having to set up again.  On this occasion I had management level and centre without actually screwing the tribrach back on, so said tribrach slides off the tripod, clips the legs and...…..oh did I mention I was working on an oil jetty half a mile out at sea...….falls off the jetty into the sea!!  The boss was not amused when I start my recount of this incident with....funny story but.....

5) Health & Safety - you are joking.  Before the days of fixed 360 prisms, we had circular prisms sitting in a plastic housing (often wedged with paper to stop them spinning).  Carrying out the survey you are constantly checking the prism is pointing the right direction and hasn't twisted in the mount to look downwards.  On this particular day I was in a dry suit surveying a structure on a tidal river (yes the dry suit was the health & safety), this involved a large amount of clambering and climbing on a wooden structure which, being in a tidal estuary, was prone to slippery patches.  I had circumnavigated this structure (and others) during the day without any problems.  Last few points and we were done home and dry, carefully placed my foot onto a cross beam and as I shifted my weight I slipped, reaching out I grabbed a support, clattering the detail pole against the structure in the process.  Quietly smug that I'd styled out the slip I carried on across to the next point, set the base of the pole, checked the level, and them the......oh shit where was the prisim…...during my antics the clattering of the pole had knocked the prism out of it's plastic holder into the flowing river below...RIP.

6) Seen one field, seen them all.  A lovely survey on a warm sunny day.  Knocked off the work in a morning, headed back to the office, processed the data, and handed it over for checking.  Next day the boss commended me on an excellent survey, but asked why I had surveyed the field on the opposite side of the road to the site - much to his amusement!!

7) It is important for the Surveyor to keep his assistant in their place, so when the opportunity for a wind up occurs it is too good to miss.  Arrive at the office as usual, the Assistant loads the equipment for the day, while the Surveyor gets the job file (makes his coffee) and a quick briefing if needed.  On this day I made a quick pre site comfort stop before going out to the car.  My Assistant told me he was ready to go, and went out to the car, so I nipped to the little boys room, and on my way out noticed my batteries were still on charge in the office...….so safely stashed in my pocket off we went.  Reached site and had a quick look around, before I knocked in the first nail and ask the Assistant to set up the instrument and get ready to start while I installed a few more stations.  Usually only a quick job, but on this occasion milked it a little longer than needed before returning to the station to find an Assistant (only his second day) looking very worried with half my boot out on the floor.  A little sheepishly he admitted he'd forgotten the batteries, and would need to phone someone to get them brought out.  Well why leave it their I told him the only person at the office was the boss, so he could call him and ask him (colour disappearing from his face fast)....or use the batteries still stashed safely in my pocket.   A tough life lesson but he never did it again.

8) Another fine mess - again messing about on the river happily working our way down the river mapping sections with two poles and a  prism while the Surveyor stayed dry on land with the instrument and fourth assistant.  Seemed to be going far to smoothly, and it turns out it was our progress had been rapid and efficient.  It turns out the progress was in somewhat assisted by the tide which was really starting to show it's effects as we reached the end of the survey area.  Job done though time to paddle home....or not as the case was.  Regardless of how hard we paddled we were still going the wrong way, and not one person and thought to bring a rope!!!  After half and hour or nothing we decided Plan B was the only solution, and I don't know if you have every tried it but pulling an inflatable against the tide using the thick reeds and your bare hands is neither fun or rewarding.  On the plus side we never made the same mistake again...we got someone else to do the boat work!!

9) Setting your alarm when working a spilt night/day week is a must, and these days with Alexa (others types do exist) an easy task!  Well it turns out the only thing better than Alexa is a phone call from your boss at 10am the next morning asking if I had planned to work today is very effective - it did mean I missed all of the morning traffic, and thankful it seems this was a very regular thing for people just into the night/day system.  Mistake made, embarrassment done, time to move on.

10) Spray paint is a necessary evil.  It might look unsightly but for a Surveyor it is a god send, and you only realise how much when you forget one day, hammer a peg into the ground for your next station, walk back to the instrument to finish up.  Then you lift the instrument and turn to walk to that peg you'd just put in, that timber coloured peg flash with the light brown dirt on the ground.....I never did find the station and had to reset on the previous station and put in a new peg!  Lesson learnt always mark your stations somehow.

11) As every good Surveyor knows it is important to get a good feel for the site, how you are going to approach certain elements, where the difficulties might be, how to positions your stations and close your traverses.  On the way to site it is in the back of your mind, but as you get closer to start looking out for possible benchmarks (yes pre GPS), parking places, the site.  Then once at the site you are looking at everything.  One important lesson I was taught (whilst in the passenger seat) is whilst the site is important hitting the bollard as you drive into the car park is a definite no no....on the plus side it was one less thing to survey.

12) We've all been there, right?  Tracing a drainage system through an oily rail depot, lifting ever cover you see to follow the route of that all important surface of foul run.  Gone through the first ten covers of the run no problems managed with the resonance (or hitting a hammer on the previous cover) and buckets of water.  We then ground to a halt, every possible route we could hear the hammer echoing and see water flowing...time to crack open the tracing dye.  Non toxic but bright green, what could possibly go wrong.  Add a small amount to the water and pour away, sounds simple.  Ten buckets later and still nothing!!!  We were literally pulling our hair out....nothing else for it, had to be lunch.  Cleaned up, grabbed our lunch and wander up the embankment to sit in the sun overlooking to beautiful bright green river....oh yes we had found the final exit point for all of that green dye slowly turning a Welsh river green!!

I'm sure over time I will come back to this little number, and add others as I remember them (or they happen!)

Tuesday, 7 January 2020

Authors of Our Own Downfall


You know we're sitting on four million pounds of fuel, one nuclear weapon and a thing that has 270,000 moving parts built by the lowest bidder. Makes you feel good, doesn't it? - Armaggedon 1998

OK not quite the same scenario, but the meaning can equally be applied to Land Surveyors, it is a race to the bottom in terms of price to win the work regardless of what we are told or advised.

You buy that fancy new piece of kit which the salesman has told you will save a day and a half on a two day job.  So based on standard surveys and 1000 points a day a survey that would have taken 4-5 days, instead takes 1-2 days.  Big difference in price, and the quandry.  Price at 1-2 days win the work but don't get the real benefit of the kit, price at 4-5 days to get the cost benefit of the new kit but risk losing the work.  Either way the office time remains constant.  It is a problem faced by all survey firms at one time or another, and whilst we'd all like to say we held firm on price and pocketed the time saving it never  happens because there is alwaus someone willing to slash their prices to win the work...the race to the bottom.  If all survey firms toe the same party line and reap the benefits of a fast survey time then everything is fine but in an increasingly competive industry you'll never get everyone on the same page.  So to coin a phrase - 'the choice is yours'.

This keep it cheap or lose the work mentality is now leading to great industry wide problems.  The demand for Surveyors is increasing, but firms cannot pay their Surveyors more because the price squeeze from a competitive market means the cuts have to be made somewhere.  The resulting cost saving often comes at the expense of staff training or pay rises.   Eventually we will be doing jobs at cost, with no room for error just in an effort to win the work and stay afloat.....

Now fast forward ten years, you have a little more grey hair and a lot more wrinkles after battling to stay in the industry, whilst maintaining a solid work/life balance, and ensuring the standards you've set yourself haven't dropped.  How has the industry changed?  There are a few more 'independent' survey firms out there along with a usual number of high profile names, and a wide selection in the medium size companies each within their own little bubble.  The big difference is the age of the Surveyors, the industry is evolving, technology is changing, but the people in that industry are just ten years older, the pool of new talent coming in is slowly evaporating as people look to more lucrative careers in other areas within the sector, or in a totally different sector, or a completely different country .  Our talent pool has been supplemented with skilled overseas (mainly European) workers who are more than able to take on the work and succeed.

Wham (no not the group) Brexit happens, does this mean the European talent pool will soon be harder to access, and that slowly evaporating home grown talent pool has got even smaller?  What will it all mean - answers on a postcard to 10 Downing Street!?

For those of us in the industry on the wrong side of 40 it probably won't be an issue, but you might see your fees go up as the demand for Surveyors far out strips the available supply...happy days.  The knock on effect of this supply/demand issue is higher fees, therefore higher salaries, thus that evaporating talent pool will start to fill up again as Land Surveying looks to be better financial proposition.....and the cycle starts all over again!!!

Ride out the strom, good times are coming faster than you might think.

Monday, 21 January 2019

Surveying at Speed


With the progression of time the powers that be are seemingly obsessed with collecting as much data as possible in the shortest amount of time.

We'll brush over the transfer from Chain Surveys and Plane Tables onto Theodolites and Tacheometry, through handbooking of data onto on board data logging as these are gradually progressions of technology to achieve the same end goal....and geometrically accurate topographical survey.  You can argue the accuracies change, and presentation varies but the basis information remains intact.

In the mid 1980's Wham, Madonna and Simple Minds where all taking it in turns topping the charts, CD's were introduced, Coca Cola introduced New Coke, and GPS (Global Positioning System) was being made commercially available.  It wasn't until the late nineties and early noughties that Surveyors started accepting GPS as an every day essential as opposed to a very heavy luxury.  Even then the GPS wasn't used for much more than establishing site control, then monitoring and finally for surveying site detail in certain circumstances.  Then SmartNet reared it's head, and merged the growing mobile phone networks into the GPS to provide a reliable system for terrestrial land survey.

Take a look below, with the advent of GPS (Global Positioning System) and, in this instance, Leica's SmartNet.  90% of the survey shown was completed in one (long) site day by one Surveyor.  Using the SmartNET system our Surveyor was able to measure 3,500 individual points in one day to an accuracy of +/-15mm which is more than good enough for most survey requirements.  So was 3,500 points a lot, well yes when view historically at the time.  In 2000 a good days work would have been 450-500 points depending on the nature of the work (open field is quicker than a woodland, but a road is more point intensive).  By 2005/2006 this tally was closer to the 750-800 points, and then moving into 2010 anything less than 1000 points was seen as falling short....see targets everywhere but I'd rather have 500 accurate points, and a 1000 points with a higher degree of error!  By 2010 SmartNet was coming into commercial markets, and you can see the massive jump in points collected from 1000 up to 3,500-4,000.

The image below shows roughly what 4,000 points looks like, covering all the detail between the two roundabouts, and the roads to the north and south.  These we almost perfect conditions for surveying with the weather, and the network strength in our favour.



With GPS and SmartNet establishing themselves nicely the next step had started to evolve....3D laser scanning.  For the first time in Surveying evolution we were about to enter a realm of surveying too much information (if that is even possible).  Perhaps 'too much' is the wrong was to describe this.  If a total station is a sniper rifle picking up the bare minimum to reflect the ground on a 2D or 3D plan, then a laser scanner is more like a paint bomb covering everything and anything.  Recording everything within line of sight of the scanner, waiting for the Surveyor to get back to the office to trim out the superfluous data and produce the same 2D or 3D plan.  The benefits are there, if there are any queries the site has been captured in perpetuity and can be revisited to respond to any queries.  The Surveyor can spend less time on site, and can do the work from a safe (or at least safer) location without the need to get too close to the main road or cliff edge.  On the downside (for some) it means a lot more time in the office interpreting the data and developing it into a format which can be utilised by the end user.

Of course sometimes the new technologies and old methods do merge into one.  In the case below using the laser scanner (in this case a Leica C10) saved days on the site work, but this was offset by the additional office time required isolating the relevant information.  This 'sorting' of information was formally done on site using the Surveyors experience, they can survey only the relevant information.  The scanner take on a more global approach and picks up everything and in essence moves the elevation onto a computer for the Surveyor to work with.  Again a big selling point was the surplus data collection which could be called upon if additional information were needed at a later date...hasn't happened yet.  However three days in the office was far better than an additional three days on site in the rain!  SO in this case speed helped the Surveyor with no either or option when tendering for the works.
But why stop there, there are more developments coming through the system with drone and uav surveys, some work on the same principle as the laser scanner others create the information in a method similar to photogrammtry.  The end result in a full editable 3D model of the site - of all least that which can be seen from the air and is not buried in long grass or under the only parked car on the site.  The theory is good, and the practise is good but there are some issues.

So is surveying at speed a good thing for the industry.  In general I would say yes, it is impossible not to deny that collecting more data in less time is not a good thing.  Will the every increasing need to more data in less time make the Surveyor a dying bred...probably but for now at least the demand remains for the 'person with the pole' to fight/wade/crawl/climb/walk around sites getting to that hard to reach spots, and find that manhole in the grass that hadn't seen the light of day for many years which would have gone unnoticed from the air...but change is coming and we all have to be ready to evolve.