Surveying Services

SIC 8713

Industry report:

This industry is comprised of establishments primarily engaged in providing professional surveying services and photogrammetric engineering. Types of surveys produced include land, water, and aerial surveys.

Industry Snapshot

All physical characteristics and points on the earth's surface exist in positional relationship to other characteristics and points. Surveying is the process whereby these land relationships are measured and described. It uses the mathematical principles of geometry and trigonometry to identify horizontal and vertical placement and elevation. Surveys are primarily used in establishing property boundaries and in map making.

The two major types of surveying are plane surveying and geodetic surveying. Plane surveying does not account for the curvature of the earth's surface. It is used primarily for smaller areas where this curvature produces insignificant deviations between the survey results and reality. Surveys of areas measuring roughly 12 miles in any one direction can be handled as if they were taken on a flat surface or plane. Geodetic surveying is used for larger areas in which it is necessary to make mathematical computations to account for the earth's curvature.

According to 2009 industry reports, there were over 12,800 surveying services establishments in the United States. These firms combined to generate $4.75 billion in revenue. Receipts for these services held relatively steady at about $1 billion. Most architectural and engineering firms offer surveying services and do a majority of surveying work themselves. The pure surveying firms characteristically are small and have only a fraction of industry billings. In 2008, about two-thirds (62 percent) of all establishments employed fewer than five people; 96 percent employed fewer than 25 workers.

Background and Development

Ancient Beginnings.
Surveying techniques developed in the ancient world, when people began to describe the dimensions and shape of the earth. Homer (in approximately the ninth century B.C.) envisioned the earth as a flat disk surrounded by oceans. Pythagoras, a Greek philosopher of the sixth century B.C., imagined a spherical world. Gauging the circumference of the earth was first accomplished in 240 B.C. by the Greek astronomer Eratosthenes, who measured the angle of the sun from two points on earth separated by 500 miles. His calculations gave him an answer of 25,000 miles, remarkably close to the earth's actual circumference of 24,901.55 miles around the equator and 24,859.82 miles through the poles.

Before men knew the earth's overall dimensions, however, they developed techniques for measuring and locating parts. As early as 3800 B.C., the Babylonians conducted land surveys for taxation purposes. In approximately 2900 B.C., the Egyptians used surveying techniques to site, level, and erect the pyramids. By 1400 B.C., they were able to survey the land along the Nile River and re-establish field boundaries when floods erased previously established markers. Ancient Greeks were also acquainted with surveying methods. Their knowledge was passed on to the Romans, who refined and further developed surveying techniques used in building roads, bridges, buildings, and monuments.

Early surveying instruments were designed to help technicians accurately measure the angles necessary to calculate precise distances. One instrument, which was developed by the Romans, was called a groma. The groma was a cross-shaped instrument used to make a right angle. It had plumb lines suspended from each of its four ends to aid in leveling.

Another early surveying tool, the astrolabe, was used to measure angular heights. Through the centuries, innovators improved upon the astrolabe's basic design. Glass lenses were added to make sighting sharper and more accurate. Larger astrolabes were developed for astronomical use, and smaller ones were fashioned for mariners. Plumb bobs were added to help determine a true vertical line.

Some instruments that were originally developed to aid navigators were also used by surveyors and mapmakers. An instrument called a cross-staff, or sighting stick, was developed to identify latitude. It had a sliding crosspiece and three sight holes that could be lined up on the horizon and sun to measure the angle. Users of early cross-staffs had to mark this angle and perform complex mathematical calculations to determine their latitude. Later cross-staffs were marked for direct readings.

Both the astrolabe and cross-staff required their users to make direct sightings on the sun. Because of visual problems associated with this task, results were not entirely accurate. In 1607, a device called a back staff was described for the first time. The back staff was designed so that the sun, when placed directly behind the instrument, cast a thin shadow on its staff.

The first precise theodolite was built for the British Royal Society by Jesse Ramsden during the late 1700s. A theodolite was an instrument consisting of a transit (a device used to measure angles) and a level. Surveyors used the theodolite to measure land areas by determining horizontal and vertical angles and applying trigonometric principles in a process known as triangulation.

Surveying in the United States.
Surveying played an important role in the development of the United States. During the colonial period, land was often received by private citizens as a grant from a governmental unit for specified purposes or as payment for services. Recipients would have the tract surveyed and defined to establish the boundaries of their legal ownership. This type of survey was called a "metes and bounds" survey. Metes referred to the boundary lines or limits of the property. Bounds also referred to the demarcation of property limits. Metes and bounds surveys were conducted by beginning at a specified point and describing the perimeter of the land by referencing natural or artificial markers, called monuments, then describing the geometric lines connecting these physical objects. Metes and bounds surveys sometimes resulted in disputes when subsequent and adjacent property owners defined overlapping tracts.

To help make the definition of property lines more uniform, a national grid survey pattern was established during the late eighteenth century and was subsequently used to describe and define property limits in more than 70 percent of the continental United States. Under the Land Ordinance of 1785, townships were defined as square areas, six miles on each side, oriented to the compass points. Each township was subdivided into 36 sections, each containing 640 acres (one square mile). Sections were further subdivided to yield tracts of land that were sold to individuals.

During the 1930s, the United States began implementing state grid systems under which states would maintain State Plane Coordinate (SPC) systems. These would provide permanent point identification and would ultimately fall under the control of a national network. Two types of SPC systems were adopted. One, called the Lambert projection, was used by states with a greater east-west shape. The second, the Mercator projection, was used by states with a greater north-south shape.

Surveying distances in the United States were measured using foot and decimal parts. Angles were measured in degrees, minutes, and seconds. Positions were specified by identifying latitude and longitude or by referencing coordinates from an identified reference point. Elevation was measured from an established benchmark, which was an artificial or permanent marker with a known elevation above or below a specified surface such as sea level.

Surveyors were required to take meticulous notes concurrently with the process of conducting the survey. These notes were recorded in field notebooks, which were then permanently kept under carefully controlled conditions. In the United States, field notebooks were considered legal documents.

The precision of a survey and its cost were related. "First Order" surveys were the most precise and the most costly. Other orders of surveys, termed second, third, and fourth, descended in precision and expense. Specific types of surveys were used for different purposes. Topographic surveys described the shape of the ground; hydrographic surveys mapped the bottoms of water bodies; construction surveys marked areas for specific projects such as buildings, bridges, and highways; underground surveys were conducted for pipelines, tunnels, and mining operations.

Current Conditions

The building and housing boom of the 2000s led to a corresponding increase in demand for skilled and experienced land-surveyors. College programs were created to help fill the need for training and certification, and actively recruited students, particularly in areas that were experiencing significant growth. However, the late 2000s saw the housing market fall apart as the economy sank into recession, availability of credit evaporated, and housing values fell drastically in some parts of the country. Construction of new houses as well as commercial and industry building slowed, and surveying for new builds declined.

However, the industry was expected to benefit from the infuse of funding into public works such as roads, schools, and parks provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, commonly referred to as the stimulus package. Valued at $787 billion, President Obama proposed and Congress passed the act in 2009 in an attempt to jumpstart the economy.

While much of construction-related surveying continued on the ground, geographic information system (GIS) services in general underwent a substantive transformation during the 2000s. Once based on drawn maps, by the late 2000s, most maps were created so that consumers, who were increasing purchasing global satellite positioning (GPS) systems for personal use, could purchase digital maps that were both mobile and interactive.


According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 70 percent of the roughly 150,000 surveying services jobs in the mid- to late 2000s were in architectural, engineering, and related services. Federal, state, and local governmental agencies employed about 14 percent. Major federal governmental employers included the U.S. Geological Survey, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Geodetic Survey, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, and the Army Corps of Engineers. Most surveyors in state and local government work for highway departments and urban planning and redevelopment agencies. Construction firms, mining and oil and gas extraction companies, and public utilities also employ surveyors and mapping scientists. A small portion of the workforce is self-employed.

Despite the recession of the late 2000s, employment projections in this field were good through 2016, with jobs growing faster than the average for all occupations. As the widespread availability and use of advanced technologies, such as the GPS, GIS, and remote sensing, increased, opportunities will be best for surveyors and mapping scientists who have at least a bachelor's degree and strong technical skills. Increasing demand for geographic data, as opposed to traditional surveying services, promised better opportunities for mapping scientists involved in the development and use of geographic and land information systems. However, upgraded licensing requirements were expected to continue to limit opportunities for those with less education.

Even as demand increased in nontraditional areas, such as urban planning and natural resource exploration and mapping, opportunities for surveyors and mapping scientists were expected to remain concentrated in engineering, architectural, and surveying services firms. However, employment was predicted to fluctuate from year to year along with construction activity. In addition, employment of mapping scientists and surveyors by private firms and the federal government is predicted to continue to be affected by budget cutbacks and technological efficiency.

Research and Technology

Technology innovations changed the nature of the work of surveyors and survey technicians. For larger projects, surveyors increasingly used the GPS, a satellite system that precisely locates points on the earth using radio signals transmitted by satellites. To use this system, a surveyor places a satellite signal receiver (a small instrument mounted on a tripod) on a desired point. The receiver simultaneously collects information from several satellites to locate a precise position. The receiver can also be placed in a vehicle for uses such as tracing road systems. Because receivers are available in different sizes and shapes and their cost has fallen, much more surveying work is being done by GPS. In addition to improved accuracy, the system greatly increases the speed of surveying. In addition, additional robotic devices allow an individual to do the work otherwise requiring a team of three or four.

Some surveyors perform specialized functions, which are closer to those of a mapping scientist than a traditional surveyor. For example, geodetic surveyors use high-accuracy techniques, including satellite observations, to measure large areas of the earth's surface. Geophysical prospecting surveyors mark sites for subsurface exploration, usually petroleum related. Marine surveyors survey harbors, rivers, and other bodies of water to determine shorelines, topography of the bottom, water depth, and other features. The work of surveyors and mapping scientists is changing due to advances in technology. These advances include not only the GPS, but also new earth resources data satellites, improved aerial photography, and geographic information systems (GIS), which are computerized data banks of spatial data. From the older specialties of photogrammetrist and cartographer, a new type of mapping scientist is emerging. The geographic information specialist combines the functions of mapping science and surveying into a broader field concerned with the collection and analysis of geographic information.

© COPYRIGHT 2018 The Gale Group, Inc. This material is published under license from the publisher through the Gale Group, Farmington Hills, Michigan. All inquiries regarding rights should be directed to the Gale Group. For permission to reuse this article, contact the Copyright Clearance Center.

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