National Surveyors Week 2020

To close out National Surveyors Week, J2 Engineers spoke with Jon Overton, Survey Manager, to learn about what drew him to surveying and the technology he uses on the job. Jon has more than 22 years in the surveying industry, holds a BS from Virginia Tech, and is licensed in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. Additionally, he is a certified FAA/NGS Aeronautical Surveyor.

J2: When did you know you wanted to get into the surveying field?
I was always a math person and enjoyed being outdoors. In college, we had field surveying classes running stadia with a plane table and alidade to create topo maps. It was refreshing to see the practical applications of math in the field.

After college, I worked in various surveying fields, including land development, transportation, and aviation, before joining J2, bringing my career full circle.

J2: Surveying is different than a typical 9-to-5 job. What is your typical day like and the benefits of the profession?
Surveying is unique in that you use a combination of book smarts and street smarts to be successful. You need to know the theory of surveying principles and then have the skill to apply them in the field practically. A typical day in surveying may include a range of challenges from chasing old deeds and manipulating LIDAR generated point clouds to going in the field to QA work and working with engineers at any stage in a project. The benefits of surveying, for me, center on the challenges and the people. The high-end survey technologies present challenges that keep me engaged in the work. The people in surveying and engineering are smart and interesting, and I enjoy working with them on projects.

national surveyors week

Jon visually extracts site features and automatically generates surfaces from millions of collection points gathered from Terrestrial LIDAR scanner data.

J2: What technology do you and the J2 surveying department typically use?
J2 uses a variety of the latest surveying technologies, including Robotic Total Stations, GNSS (GPS) with Networked RTK, Terrestrial LIDAR scanners, and GIS with oversight of SUE and aerial photogrammetry. It’s a lot, but I am going to try to explain them all to you.

Robotic Total Stations
We use Robotic Total Stations in day-to-day operations and refer to them as workhorses in the surveying industry. They are fully automated theodolites with onboard electronic distance measurements that work by line-of-sight. They also have the benefit of only needing one person to operate.

Global Navigation Satellite Systems and Networked Real-time Kinematic
We also use Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) with Networked Real-time Kinematic (RTK) in day-to-day surveying operations. GNSS utilizes GPS with a single receiver or unit that links up to a network of base stations throughout the region, providing real-time corrections to achieve sub-centimeter positioning accuracy. These units have the advantage of a single operator. However, they have the disadvantages of needing open sky to connect with satellites, geographic limitations from regional network coverage, and are subject to cellular signal fluctuations.

Terrestrial LIDAR scanner
Terrestrial LIDAR scanners, ground-based scanners, work by light detection and ranging. They emit light and time the reflections to create data returns, also known as points. We use these Scanners for specialized survey projects where direct access to the feature that needs mapping may be an issue or requires great detail.

Our scanner produces consistent and precise data, while its onboard positioning software ensures data is accurate. The scanner light-emitter spins vertically, and the instrument spins horizontally while slowly scanning a pre-defined area at a collection or spacing rate set by the user. The light reflects off of surfaces and creates point returns. We group these millions of collection points into clouds. We input these point clouds into our software to analyze the data and filter out the noise or useless data (i.e., reflections bounced off cars, people, or the surface of tall grass). The cloud data then visually extracts site features and automatically generate surfaces. Once collected, the LIDAR data is a permanent record of the site.

national surveyors week

This aerial LIDAR scanning point model showcases 210 acres of the proposed Shellhorn Road route. It displays, using conventional and GPS data collection, 90,000 data points (shown in red) with supplemental ground topography for three miles of existing roadways.

Geographic Information System
We use Geographic Information Systems, GIS, to spatially organize large amounts of data. It is useful when assigning multiple values to line/point data, accessing specific details of large data groups, or for data presentation purposes.

Subsurface Utility Engineering
Subsurface Utility Engineering, SUE, is a discipline in surveying and engineering that deals with the underground mapping of existing utilities. It uses designating equipment with magnetic inductive techniques, ground-penetrating radar or excavation/exposure, and direct access.

Aerial Photogrammetry
Aerial Photogrammetry maps use digital aerial photographs to generate mapping via a fixed camera on an aerial vehicle — typically a plane, helicopter, or drone. It’s best for mapping large open areas of land, large volumes of dirt/earth, or remote features that are inaccessible by foot.

J2: Describe the particulars of an ALTA survey and how we can use technology to perform these surveys.
ALTA surveys include significant boundary components. We perform ALTA surveys conventionally with Robotic Total Stations and/or networked GPS. You need to find and locate the property corners, report the evidence, and retrace the boundaries following good boundary practices. However, using drones for mapping site features is beneficial.

J2: Thanks for breaking down all the tech options within surveying in such a clear fashion! Two more questions.

What piece of advice would you give to surveying students?
Get yourself educated. Everything is streamlined from the field to the office, meaning you need a strong background in math, surveying, and technology. Cross-educate in the engineering disciplines and have a good understanding of business and finance.

J2: What piece of advice would you give to engineering students?
Surveyors are your first in, last out people on your projects. They are involved in every phase of a project life cycle from base design to plan layout/as-builts and platting. Establish a good relationship with the survey department.

To learn more about J2 and our Survey capabilities, please visit