Since graduating in geomatics from the University of Essen in the 1980s, Ulrich Hermanski – Chief Marketing Officer and Executive Vice President Geopositioning at Topcon – has seen a dramatic change in the surveying profession. In an interview with GIM International, he summarizes the current status of surveying. He reflects on key advances in the evolving geospatial business, emphasizes the critical role of geospatial, and discusses the role of surveyors – and Topcon – in the future.

You completed your studies in geomatics in 1985. How has the profession changed since then?

A lot has happened since then, but the biggest one in terms of geomatics is of course the impact of digital technology. This change has not only affected the way professionals take measurements and analyze results. it actually completely changed the role of a geomatic engineer. Geomaticians are now concentrating much more on data handling than in the past – or at least they should be. With huge amounts of data now available on every construction site, it is important that surveyors can turn that data into meaningful information for project teams. During my studies, it was more important to focus on accurate measurements and avoiding human error on site than on how the information will be processed by other project participants. And in 1985 there was far less data available – not to mention laptops, smartphones or tablets. Every computer-aided calculation was done by a machine that took up half a room! So if you look at what technology is available to a geomatician today compared to then, you can’t even compare the two situations.

The surveyor’s role is still evolving rapidly and requires different skills. What are the biggest factors in this shift? And what can surveyors do to keep up?

The most important skill for a surveyor is data management and verification. For a project, it is no longer just the quantity of the collected data that is important, but also the quality and the way in which it is presented and communicated. In fact, we are already seeing job titles changing within the industry; What was once a surveyor is now a geodata manager or geodata manager. The speed of data review has also increased exponentially, in line with project team expectations. Gone are the days of a two-week verification window. The surveyors are now expected to perform the real-time verification on site.

Although surveying has always relied on data, the level of interpretation and management of that data has advanced massively as surveyors now learn to leverage huge datasets, with cloud-based and software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions helping to accelerate it the process. As data collection solutions have improved, surveyors are no longer allowed to rely on old approaches to data management, and it is critical that they adopt these technologies in order to add value to a project. This is why it’s important to make understanding data your primary focus for the future – it will only be about working with the technology, not competing with it.

Do you think that our industry will be able to attract enough qualified personnel in the coming years?

The question of how to attract skilled workers is, in turn, due to the change in job profiles in our industry. The element of actual data collection becomes the smallest part of a surveyor’s role; Now it is a matter of introducing data into the construction process and digitizing the entire process. This opens up opportunities for our industry to attract more technology-minded and IT-minded people, and if we can make the positions attractive to these candidates, it will also help accelerate much-needed change in our industry. One of the best ways to encourage these people to apply is to reach out to various universities and courses that are unrelated to traditional surveying and show them the opportunities that exist in geomatics. By comparison, when I was at university in 1985 there were 200 students in my academic year. Now there are cases in which three universities have to merge in order to be able to enroll only 30 people. The race is on to attract youngsters because we have to make sure we all do everything in our power to avoid a qualification gap.

Ulrich Hermanski, Chief Marketing Officer and Executive Vice President Gopositioning at Topcon.

Artificial intelligence (AI) including deep learning and machine learning is on everyone’s lips. Will the AI ​​keep what it promises? And how does Topcon anticipate the future impact of these technologies?

AI doesn’t really affect our traditional geomatics and surveying businesses, but it does have a huge impact on our positioning and machine control offerings. AI offers some really exciting opportunities for our range of products, from creating 3D models to fully automating machines. When it comes to the advancement of AI in the areas of design and positioning, the ability of machines to collect data is vital. A great advantage of the AI ​​implementation is therefore a mixture of intelligent software and high-level referencing sensors on the physical machines. We are currently working on the next generation of sensors for our machine controls. This increases the speed at which information is sent to the control boxes more than 100 times per second, which means the machine becomes smarter and more efficient with every move.

Geoinformatics is increasingly intertwined with everyday life. Which industries or organizations are currently missing something and could benefit from a faster or more extensive rollout?

I have to say that construction is still the least digitized and automated industry in the world. Building is very traditional and historically skeptical about new technologies. However, to stay ahead, companies and industry leaders need to adapt and change the way they work and adopt more advanced workflows. While the technology may seem costly to initially adopt, the return on investment (ROI) and later efficiency will massively outweigh the investment costs.

When comparing construction with other traditional sectors such as manufacturing, the discrepancy between technology adoption is large. This sector was more likely to embrace digitization and automation and contributed to networked workflows, efficient data management and even machine learning. It is vital that construction catches up with these new ways of working and adapts to these new ways of working if we are to meet the infrastructure demands placed on us.

What are the top growth drivers for Topcon?

Our business focuses on two main areas: construction automation and agriculture automation. While these are more traditional industries, there are many opportunities for advanced technology adoption and certain areas are really the drivers of change. Automated machine control is hugely important in both construction and agriculture, with farmers also paying attention to the automation of feeding and plant growth processes. In agriculture, too, it is much easier to permanently adopt the technology, as the location does not change from year to year. However, the automation challenge is greater when it comes to building, as no two locations, projects, or project teams are the same. Our growing world population will continue to fuel these sectors as we all need infrastructure and food – but we just won’t be able to serve the world and strengthen both local and international economies if we don’t use technology .. and fast.

What notable developments can we expect from your company in the short to medium term?

We are currently working on further workflow-controlled solutions. We have recognized that in industries such as construction, easy-to-use interfaces are the way to go and make our customers’ lives much easier. It is very helpful for on-site teams to have technology that is as easy and intuitive to use as an iPhone. In the next six months, we will also focus on applying our technology to “mini machines”. These are smaller machines typically used in smaller businesses that need automation and innovative technology as much as larger developers do. By coupling these devices with easy-to-use interfaces, contractors, landscapers, and smaller property developers – the kind of companies that are not used to having engineers on board – can use our solutions. We’re also looking at the portable capabilities of these mini machines. On large machines, the GPS, antenna and prisms are usually attached to the machine. With this smaller device, however, we have the option of extracting the solution and putting it on a pole. This means that a contractor can easily take a measurement and then put it back on the machine. It’s about making things easier for the end user.

Is there anything else you would like to share with the geospatial community?

One thing I want to emphasize is that geospatial experts understand exactly how tasks are performed on site and what data is required to do so. Data management is critical for the project teams on site, so the people providing the data need to know how to interpret it and communicate it in a meaningful way. By attracting a new generation of geospatial professionals – who will in fact be data managers – workflows can be transformed and projects can be delivered on time and on budget.

Ulrich Hermanski is a regular keynote speaker at events in the construction industry, such as this one shortly before the outbreak of the pandemic in Germany.