The surveyor and augmented reality – ready for the future

SEP 01, 2021

The surveying profession has experienced a plethora of advancing technology over the past two decades and it does not look like there will be a slowdown any time soon. From robotic total stations to laser scanning to the use of multiple GNSS constellations, the profession is constantly adapting these emerging technologies into a useful tool for daily applications. For most practicing surveyors, it is a challenge to keep up with not just the hardware of these advancements, but also with software, which is being developed in parallel. Have you tried to open and draw a simple figure in any of the industry standard CAD programs lately?

Photo: ipopba/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Photo: ipopba/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

The complexity of these programs, while advancing the capability of many technical professions, forces even the casual user to maintain a regular habit of software education and training. While it may seem primitive to say that a practitioner is a “practicing” surveyor, on-the-job training never stops. Just when the profession thinks there are no more significant advancements, something comes out of left field that truly blindsides us. (See the adoption of UAVS by the surveying profession compared to the public sector…) What do I think will be one of the next “big things” to revolutionize surveying? The technology is already here, and we need to seriously get on board with adoption before we miss another opportunity to highlight the expertise of the profession.


First, we need to know that virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are different, even though many people use these terms interchangeably. The differences are as follows:

Virtual Reality (VR)

  • VR is a virtual world generated by computers and programming.
  • VR is a closed environment that is fully immersive.
  • VR requires a device (specialized glasses and/or a headset).
  • Users in the VR experience are limited by the programming and their computer’s abilities.
  • The VR experience may be based upon real-world conditions but is a fictional setting.
  • Users of VR can travel and experience conditions in real and fictitious places.
  • VR can allow users to have experiences that are not physically possible in the real world.
  • VR is 75% virtual + 25% real (industry “rule of thumb”)

Augmented Reality (AR)

  • AR is typically based on actual physical places.
  • AR is an open environment that is partly immersive.
  • In AR, the user controls the environment.
  • AR combines virtual elements and experiences with real world conditions.
  • Experiences in AR can be accessed by computer, tablet, and smartphones.
  • AR is useful for product visualization and evaluation.
  • AR is 75% real + 25% virtual (industry “rule of thumb”)

It is important to know these difference between the two technologies in order to implement the correct one for the task at hand. However, both will play an important in surveying for generations to come.

Photo: Georgijevic/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Photo: Georgijevic/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images


One of the surveyor’s biggest responsibilities is to complete an accurate site conditions model by topographic methods. Once the topographic survey is completed, site designers will utilize this information to create a unique project that works with the existing site conditions. Advances in CAD software and technology allow engineers and architects to design in 3D and blend the new site with the existing conditions, drainage, and utilities. These designs can be further refined into virtual reality models to give the project’s stakeholders a better indication of what the final product will be when construction is completed.

The key takeaway here is that the surveyor is responsible for delivering the existing conditions model. A model that accurately represents the subject site but in digital form enables the design of the project to be more efficient and realistic to meet the client’s expectation. Surveyers, however, will not use virtual reality as much as augmented reality, for many good reasons.


AR is still in its infancy. Because surveyors have an interest in the existing and proposed conditions of sites, the use of AR becomes an important tool for the future. Merging proposed information with existing site conditions can become the norm, but like many emerging technologies, the profession will need to learn how to embrace it.

To get a better idea of how the technology works and why surveyors need to consider using it, let us look at an application that showcases AR: Pokémon Go. Yes, the smartphone game app that took the world by storm in 2016 and captivated many “trainers” to search the streets for Ultra Balls and characters. (There are still more than 100 million active players worldwide.) Players of all ages have continued to search for elusive items and characters in a high-tech scavenger hunt that is constantly changing, and all based upon the real world around us. By merging a real-time view with game entities at random geographic locations, players move about our world using one of the best examples of AR.

How does this apply to the surveying profession? Surveyors could utilize AR in everyday tasks but that would require having a fully developed 3D design model that could merge with the existing conditions in their visual device. There are a variety of devices for utilizing AR, including smartphones and tablets. Many of the new data collectors running Windows and Android operating systems can also be used for incorporating AR into the field operation. Here are some examples of AR how can be utilized for surveying tasks:

  • While construction staking, AR can be used to assist with structure and improvement location. A quick visual check can help confirm staking calculations are consistent with engineering design.
  • Use AR to visually check installed improvements, including curbs, utility structures, and paving. Any deviation from the proposed design should be quite evident.
  • When establishing property corners, AR will help the field crew quickly determine whether the calculated location is accessible. This can be used for staking out pre-calculated boundary points and/or proposed lot corners in a new subdivision.

Photo: AnnaFrajtova/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Photo: AnnaFrajtova/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Here are a few ideas as to how surveyors could utilize AR in everyday tasks in the future:

  • As public utilities are becoming more available within GIS shape files with geographic locations, they could be utilized with AR to help visually establish locations in the field. Mainline utilities and service lines would become easier to physically verify using AR.
  • Another GIS shapefile entity, the parcel line layer, could be used to help the surveyor understand where the property owner believes the line(s) to be as opposed to the actual monumented location.
  • All reference monuments and benchmarks established by public agencies using geographic location information could enhance the “treasure hunt” of confirming local datum points.


Geospatial information has revolutionized our world, so using AR to help when trouble strikes can potentially be a lifesaver. Recently, an oceanfront condominium in Florida collapsed due to structural failure. While the age of the structure precluded it from having any digital geographic location data, any new similar development could be measured and recorded to assist with future emergency needs. Almost all new development has digital surveying, engineering, and architecture and must use local horizontal and vertical datums. Using the proposed information and verifying with post-construction record drawings, the digital record can be created.

It doesn’t take a design flaw to create a public hazard. For instance, a gas leak could render any building, such as the Florida condo, susceptible to catastrophic damage. By having a digital model of the underground structure, emergency crews could use AR to help locate potential open spaces in the building. As is the case with installing fire suppression systems and emergency exits, the cost to create a digital model of a completed building will be well worth it to save lives.

Underground utility corridors within cities, campuses, or manufacturing facilities could also utilize geospatial locations to establish a digital map for future use with AR. It will take time and significant cost to map existing facilities, yet it should be required for new sites to provide this information for emergencies and for use when designing expansions within the site. Having this utility information to use with AR during the design phase could lead to identifying potential problems before construction starts.

Photo: 1001nights/E+/Getty Images

Haiti after an earthquake. (Photo: 1001nights/E+/Getty Images)

Another reason to plan for future safety is how much uncertainty we face in today’s society. At press time, we are coming up on the 20th anniversary of 9/11. We also just watched Haiti suffer another devastating earthquake. The 2021 hurricane season has also been very active, so that danger looms large, too. Disasters happen all the time with little to no warning. Our world is much more advanced than we were at the turn of the century, so we can use these advancements to map our infrastructure. Let us hope we never need to use the digital information for another disaster akin of 9/11. Instead, let us use it to ensure that we can get to someone in a remote spot if necessary.


As previously discussed, establishing a digital twin of our world could help provide a better map for establishing parcel ownership, reducing construction conflicts, and offering better planning tools for future expansion. Will it be completed within my lifetime? No, and I doubt it will be done within the next couple of generations after me.

We can, however, get a significant start on capturing the necessary information to begin the process of digitization. Technology has exceeded my expectations just within the past decade, so I can only hope that more advancements will help with building this digital beast. More architects and engineers are utilizing BIM (building information modeling) for 3D design and collaboration. Most municipalities and counties have built some form of GIS that uses one of the standard geographic datums. Surveyors have fully embraced GNSS technology so state plane and national geographic coordinate systems have become the norm. In addition, we are seeing a wide number of consultants use autonomous vehicles (aerial, hydro, and terrestrial) with photogrammetry, LiDAR, and SLAM remote sensing. Another bit of good news is that computing power is higher than ever and that storage space is cheap for all this data. We should also include how 5G has expanded our reach and, with cloud storage, we can work from just about anywhere. We can do so much more than most of us ever dreamed of, so we need to leverage that into creating a digital entity that can be helpful.

Photo: RyanJLane/E+/Getty Images

Photo: RyanJLane/E+/Getty Images


Augmented reality is one of many new technologies surveyors need to introduce into their toolbox. Many of you may be asking where to begin; my answer, depending on your age, may offend you.

Hire a Gen Zer. Really.

As a Gen Xer, I have come to realize my limitations on technology and being able to fully implement it. The Z generation, while lacking the experience of us wily old guys, see things much differently. The smartphone/tablet/computer, and even the latest data collectors, are designed with them in mind. They grew up playing computer games based in virtual reality, developed excellent hand-eye coordination, and find efficient ways of getting things done. Our surveying world is almost completely digital (when is the last time a client only wanted paper copies of a plat?), so now is the time to make the leap and ditch the drafting table. We have as much to learn from them as they do from us. Together, we can get the surveying profession ready for the next generations. It has been a great profession for us, so let us hand it off to the Z generation. They will (eventually) be glad we did.