Machine Control and the Land Surveyor: What's Next?


Site Prep Magazine recently published its “Third Annual Machine Control Report.”  It is noted in the article that it is one of the few reports on the machine control market that includes information about the types of heavy equipment being utilized with machine control and the purchasing trends of the construction industry. 

The report is interesting to read and it clearly shows what many of us in industry have indicated and known all along.  Machine control sales are increasing, the types of equipment being utilized is increasing, and the number of companies looking to purchase machine control is increasing.  The report indicates that the greatest benefit to owning and using machine control technology is the ability to complete jobs faster and within budget, which simply means it makes money.  This report is certainly a good indicator of the market and it is no surprise that the machine control market is continually growing. 

I am continually asked about the opportunities for land surveyors in the machine control market and I have written a couple past articles about these opportunities.  But I am more curious about what is the next trend for machine control?  What else is over the horizon that we haven’t seen yet?  I definitely don’t have an answer, but as land surveyors what can we do next, or look to do, to help fill the void that machine control as left in our revenues.

Being involved in the machine control market, I am continually seeing new opportunities that arise as the technology takes hold.  I am currently working on a project that has a 27,000 square foot building surrounded by 11 acres of concrete parking area.  The contractor doing the site work is using machine control to grade the subbase for the concrete parking area.  For this project, I created a surface model for the site contractor to use with his equipment.  However, as the project progressed, I started talking with the concrete subcontractor about how he was going to screed the concrete parking area.  I have worked with many contractors that place the forms on the subbase and then screed the concrete with a power screed. 

For this project, the concrete subcontractor is going to place the concrete and screed it with a laser screed which eliminates many of the forms.  The laser screed is set up to run off a laser level and it will follow the slope of the laser and screed the concrete to an almost perfect slope.  The interesting thing about this project is that the concrete on this project is not just a parking area sloped in one or two directions.  This concrete parking area has catch basins in the middle with slopes that vary in multiple directions.  It looks more like a wash board than a parking area.  This type of parking area is not the ideal situation for using a laser level and a laser screed. 

However, with today’s machine control technology, you can add a system to the laser screed that is controlled by a total station and it will use the total station information to determine the screeds location and grade and slope sensors to measure the slope of the screed board.  The interesting part of this situation is that this system works with point information (northing, easting and elevation) instead of a surface model.  In this case, the subcontractor needed the point information on the surface, so I created the necessary points on a 15 foot grid along all the concrete joints and I provided the subcontractor with this information and was able to gain extra revenue for the project. 

As time goes by, we are going to see new and different uses for machine control as people figure out alternative uses for their equipment.  I always refer to machine control as simply a tool in your toolbox.  Once you own the tool, it is simple to find many different uses for it.  As contractors find more uses for the technology, there will be more opportunities for land surveyors and hopefully more opportunities for revenue. 

Currently, some advanced users are using automated machine control applications to perform accurate profile milling.  In the past, existing roads where milled to remove the asphalt, but the milling machines rode on the current road profile and milled a certain depth.  If the existing road was not smooth, the new road and new asphalt is not smooth.  With machine control technology, you can control the milling machine to follow a proposed profile and it will create a smooth milled surface for new asphalt creating a smooth road.  This technology is available now, and it is catching on quickly as Transportation Departments figure out that this technology will produce a smooth road in a “mill and fill” application. 

But what about the uses we haven’t thought of yet.  I recently talked with Tom Hogan of Keystone Precision Instruments about some of the less know uses and some of the “out of the box” ideas for machine control. 

Tom has recently worked on a project where the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) was looking at a dual mast system on a John Deere high speed dozer to remove snow off a surface that was a few inches above an existing grass area.  The grass area has a special ground based radar antenna that does not work well with snow cover deeper than 6 inches.  In this case, they were looking to remove snow quickly and not disturb the existing ground that contained the radar antenna.  Normal snowing plowing could allow for the plow to tear up the ground and disturb the antenna.

As far as unorthodox ideas, Tom suggested putting machine control on a snow groomer at a ski area and being able to create the exact same run year after year.  Talk about an interesting project.  As a land surveyor, who wouldn’t like to survey the existing mountain side and create a surface model of a mogul course, slalom course or downhill course that could be used again and again. 

The idea of courses could also be used in other sports.  How about creating a motocross track that could be recreated at various venues.  Stadium racing requires fill to be brought in to create a track, so why not create the same track at different venues.  Different tracks have their own qualities, but in certain situations it could be beneficial to be able build the exact same track at different stadiums and machine control technology would allow that.

In theory, you could collect existing information on a world famous golf course and recreate that course on another site.  Obviously, golf courses are designed and built around the existing topography and physical features, but in theory you could recreate the course, or a portion of it, in a new location under the right circumstances.  Machine control technology gives us the capabilities to do this very easily. 

When looking at new ideas or other possible uses for machine control, I find that I tend to think of construction and shaping the ground.  But there has to be other uses for machine control besides putting it on heavy equipment and using it for construction.  As land surveyors that are involved with this technology, we can come up with ideas for additional uses and then “sell” the ideas to our clients.  If you can create uses for the technology, you can create opportunity.  There are unlimited possibilities, we just need to think of them.  Therefore, there are also unlimited possibilities for revenue, we just need to think of them. 

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