Video: The Art and Evolution of Surveying

U.S. Navy veteran, geomatics specialist, biker and artist Bill Murphy talks technology and trends in this Tech Insider interview.

Over two decades with the U.S. Navy as an intelligence specialist, Bill Murphy honed his skills in collecting, processing, analyzing and distributing information. It was the ideal training ground for his civilian career as a Leica Geosystems geomatics specialist.

We recently sat down with Bill to glean his thoughts on the evolution of technology, the biggest technology misconceptions, the top skills needed by today’s geospatial professionals, and future possibilities. He also shares his insights on art and inspiration.

Watch the full interview, or browse the discussion highlights below.

You’ve been with Leica Geosystems as a geomatics specialist for almost 25 years now. Before that, you worked for the U.S. Navy as an intelligence specialist. What was that like, and what led you to surveying?

I was underway on ships for so long. And then the last five years of my Navy career, I was in a reserve capacity. And during that time, I decided to try surveying.

When I was handling raw intelligence data for the United States Navy, I had to look at something, evaluate it, decide whether it’s good or whether it’s bad, and then disseminate that to the right folks. So there’s a direct correlation there with surveying when it comes to gathering that info and making sure it’s good at the end of the day.

Is there a surveying project you’ve been involved with that really stands out to you?

That would probably be the Dulles Airport Expansion Project. I was published in American Surveyor Magazine in 2006—made front cover for that particular project.

It was my first installation of a Leica Geosystems tunnel management system—it was called TMS back in the day. We were using the old 1000 series and 1100 series instrument to help guide the TBM driving under the ground at Dulles Airport, which eventually was meant to eliminate the big moon buggies that used to take you out to the tarmac. The objective was to construct a tunnel system underground to eliminate those.

That was a very fascinating project to be involved with, and it was very successful. And it was also the installation of one of the very first GeoMoS systems in the country, which warns construction personnel if anything has been compromised. If any of the existing structures start to move where there could be people based upon underground construction, it will alert all the necessary folks to make sure that they can get people out of there.

The best part about that project was getting down into the tunnels themselves and watching the instrumentation automatically turn and mark the profile on the underground and on the earth where that tunnel boring machine was going to start its dig. That was cool.

What amazes you the most as you look at that evolution of technology?

It amazes me the effect the technology has had on the speed of surveying. It’s gone from a certain pace to breakneck speed.

But that can be a double-edged sword because along with that comes technology’s ability to do a lot of the thinking for you. So, you’ve got to step back and not lose sight of the fact that good old-fashioned theory and brain work is still needed behind the scenes all the time.

Do you have a favorite technology that you work with?

My favorite technology is robotic surveying technology. It is fascinating to me.

I’m an artist. I do mosaic work, chainsaw art, mixed media, some sculpture. [Artwork pictured above.] And I look at the surveyor as an artist as well. The robot gives the surveyor the ability to really concentrate on what he’s doing. Topography is his art, and the ground is his canvas, and that prism pole is his paint, and he reads what he sees and paints a picture of what’s on the ground. That’s how I look at it.

What do you like the most about what you do?

I love seeing my customers happy. I love training and the look of accomplishment when my customers can look me square in the eye and say, “Bill, I got it.” That’s what I love the most, really. It’s a very satisfying feeling to know that you have really helped someone achieve something or overcome a problem.

Why do you believe in Leica as a brand?

As a brand, first and foremost, our reputation is second to none when it comes to quality and durability, endurance, accuracy, and precision. Leica injects real-world meaningful technology into the geospatial world, especially specific technologies with regards to imaging, tilt, auto-height, and the impacts these have had on the survey workflow.

We also have such a great team behind us all the time that helps take care of customers when needed.

Is there anything that you’ve encountered that has surprised you, either in the way that professionals have adopted the technology or the way that the technology has enabled something that maybe you didn’t anticipate?

What surprises me is the speed of what can be accomplished by one person. The number of tasks they can accomplish and the speed that they can accomplish them in due to the technology is amazing.

What are some of the biggest technology misconceptions you’ve encountered?

One of the biggest misconceptions is that the technology eliminates their responsibility to check their work. They get complacent with how much this technology does for them, and they just assume that everything they’ve done at the end of the day is 100% spot on, when no matter how technologically advanced the equipment and the capabilities are, you can’t lose sight of the responsibility to check your work.

As someone who is often in a technology support role, you probably get some calls where the issue is human error. What are the most common mistakes people make?

A lot of calls I get are for routine calibration and adjusting equipment. They’ll complete a project and then the precision at the end of the day wasn’t what they expected. After I ask a few questions and get a few answers out of them, a lot of times it turns out to be a simple matter of taking their instrumentation out and adjusting it.

And, of course, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do that, so I train them on it. After they’ve done it a couple times with me looking over their shoulder to make sure they’re doing it correctly, they’ll look at me and say, “Hey, man, I got it, let me go.” And then I’ll get a call the next day, “Bill, it was great. Man, we knocked it out of the park.” It was exactly what they needed.

So, checking, adjusting, and calibration are definitely the lion’s share of calls with regards to support and the folks out in the field.

You’ve worked with a number of high schools and education initiatives. What are the top skills that today’s geospatial professional needs to be successful?

You need to continuously fine-tune your education to keep up with the technology. But also, being curious by nature is a skill. Solving the unknown, being investigative. and persuasive—those are all key skills that are required to do this. And that’s above and beyond the normal math, trigonometry, geometry, and all that kind of stuff. But knowing that there’s more than one way to solve a problem is a skill you have to hone on a regular basis.

What future possibilities do you find most intriguing?

Voice recognition and command integration into the technology is something that I would like to see, kind of like a Siri embedded into a total station, only instead of Siri, maybe call it Sheba. So it would be, “Sheba, turn that angle, shoot that prism.” I can see some type of voice command recognition technology being integrated into it at some point.

Do you have any book recommendations for our audience?

I’m currently reading Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. It’s a very profound book about overcoming struggle and suffering that I think everyone should read.

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