HxGN RadioPodcast

Preparing tomorrow’s surveyors

In this episode of HxGN Radio, Christine Grahl from Leica Geosystems, part of Hexagon, goes behind the scenes of the Civil Engineering Geomatics program at Oregon State University by speaking with Dr. Ezra Che, Research Assistant Professor in Civil & Construction Engineering.

CG: Hello, and welcome to this episode of HxGN Radio. I’m your host, Christine Grahl. In today’s podcast we’re taking a look at one of the leading geomatics engineering research and educational centres in the United States, Oregon State University.

Our guests today are Research Assistant Professor Dr. Ezra Che, along with one of the students in the programme, Tyler Clark. Thank you for speaking with us today.

EC: Thank you, Christine.

TC: Thank you.

CG: Ezra, tell me about the geomatics engineering programme at Oregon State University. What is the primary focus of the programme?

EC: So, we focus on a lot of areas in geomatics. The main focus areas include 3D laser scanning and LIDAR, aircraft systems, geographic information systems, geospatial hazard analysis, GPS and GNSS technology, cadastral surveys, geospatial data management, and geomatics computation and programming. I can go on and on; this is just a short list of our focus areas.

CG: That’s a very big list. Is there any one topic in particular that you find is drawing new students into the programme?

EC: To me, I would say that LIDAR and laser scanning is the one drawing a lot of attention. Nowadays, you can see the autonomous vehicles and all the advanced or emerging technology coming out. And to be honest, it’s really hard to catch up. So, we, in the university, we don’t want to let our students come out from the campus not being able to catch up with the emerging technology. So, we are trying to kind of have a balance between the traditional survey to lay down that good foundation with all the theories, all the traditional survey, and also to cover the emerging technologies so that they can be the next generation of engineers or surveyors, so they can bring those technologies, that knowledge into the industry and can help the industry advance and improve the workability of all of those technologies and data.

CG: Tell me a little bit about the approach that the university takes. Are you doing a lot of hands-on instruction?

EC: Yeah, absolutely. So, in our survey courses, you really cannot learn survey equipment without using those. I’ll give you some numbers here. So basically, for every hour of lecture on survey, we will have two hours of lab sessions associated with it. It’s a full package. For the lab session, the students will have the opportunity to run the equipment themselves and complete a project in the class. And sometimes we will have final projects, so the students have the opportunity to start from the very beginning, start from planning, and then do the data collection, and then do the data processing, get a chance to play around with that software, and then do the analysis, and then push that to the application, to the specific needs for that project. So, our students can have this good coverage on the entire workflow. And again, the lecture is just as important, but it’s just laying the foundation. At the end of the day, we want our students to be able to get a real project done in the real world, right? That’s our goal and our objective.

CG: Are you collaborating a lot with local firms, engineering firms, surveying firms to make sure that the programme is in line with the skill sets that they need?

EC: Yes. So, there are several aspects. First, those companies will offer summer internship opportunities. So, our students can do internships during the summer and get to know how things are run in the industry in those companies. We also periodically invite people from companies to the campus to do presentations and give us talks and let us know what’s new, what’s coming up and everything. We also help industry by doing research to help solve some problems or provide solutions for companies. So, we work really, really closely with all the local business or larger companies through internship, through guest talks, through the research collaborations. And also, we write proposals together to help the projects get funding. So, it’s kind of a multifaceted collaboration.

CG: Sounds like there’s a lot of opportunities for local firms to get involved, and possibly even national firms to get involved in the work being done by Oregon State University. And especially as you look at the situation right now, with a need for talent, partnering with a university like Oregon State just makes sense to make sure that they’re getting the talent that they need with the skill set that they need.

EC: Yeah, absolutely. So, I think one thing I would note is our research at Oregon State University, we are trying to solve real world problems. We’re not just doing research only to serve the, let’s say, scientific community. We also do those things for engineering applications. We see the needs, and then we come up with research opportunities and we deliver the solutions. And then we are pushing hard to make these solutions available. So, we also have that commercialisation. We have contracts with companies so that they can use the research outcome so that the outcome doesn’t just sit in publications. That’s kind of our philosophy in doing research. And we become the first customer of our own product.

CG: That’s fantastic. So, it’s actually a way for firms to extend their capabilities by tapping into the research abilities of the Oregon State programme.

EC: Exactly.

CG: I’m curious about the students that you see coming into the programme right now, and the students that you already have, the ones that have just graduated, maybe. What stands out to you the most about these students?

EC: The students are unbelievable. They’re incredible. They’re talented, they’re smart, they have great work ethic, and they’re creative. So, for a lot of the research, it’s actually students leading the projects, leading the research. And of course, our faculty, as advisors, we will provide guidance, we will provide support, and sometimes we will work with students together to make sure the students can get from point A to point B in the most efficient way so they don’t get lost along the way, because it’s really easy to get lost in research. There are so many distractions and so many things that are interesting. But for the students, there’s really not a single formula to apply to all the students. We treat students as individuals. So, we customise the curriculum. We customise the research plan or the mentoring plan for each individual student because some students want to stay in academia, some students want to go into industry, some students want to start their own business, and each path requires different skills and knowledge. And we encourage students to find what they want, and also try to achieve their goals with the associated, let’s say curriculum, research topics, projects, and all the rest.

I can give you a quick example. For example, if some students want to stay in academia, they will need a lot of teaching experience to get a faculty position, let’s say. And in that case, we might shift the funding or the support of the students to a teaching assistant to get them gain that experience of teaching and interacting with students.

And for the students want to start a business, let’s say, and there are programmes at OSU to support that effort, like the Advantage Accelerator Program, to help you learn how to de-risk your startup company venture, and also try to get experience on the business side, in addition to the disciplines that I just mentioned. It can be like the core knowledge of survey.

CG: All right. Excellent.

And we have one of the students here from OSU, actually a former student now, right? Tyler Clark, you just graduated with your undergraduate degree in civil geomatics engineering. Did I get that right?

TC: Yeah, pretty much. I got the civil engineering, and then I used my tech electives to specialise in the geomatic side.

CG: Why did you decide to study geomatics engineering?

TC: I just kind of fell into it. Initially, I came into college undeclared, but as I kind of moved forward, I knew I always really liked the construction side, and that moved me towards civil engineering and the potential design, and how you can take that as a designer and the broad application of that field, even in terms of construction management. Additionally, within the Oregon State programme, you have some select tech electives, and I was able to fulfil those courses with geomatic specific courses, and that will allow me to take the PE and PLS, become licenced as an engineer and a surveyor. So initially, that was my interest, just have another abbreviation after my name. And I knew it was good money, but as I moved forward within the studies and took some of the surveying theory courses, as well as the later stuff, it really grew my interest in terms of broad applications of the geomatics field.

CG: What did you like the best about the Oregon State programme?

TC: I think it’s a little different if you do the graduate or PhD approach, because that is a select curriculum. But for the undergrad, since you are choosing your tech electives, I was really able to select the kind of geomatics courses I was interested in and kind of steer my focus towards my own interest. So, I was able to do coastal remote sensing and UAS surveying applications, whereas some of my peers who were more interested in the kind of conventional, traditional survey approach, they were able to take classes like control surveying and get that more in depth than what surveying theory covered, as well as some of the property boundary courses. So, I really like that I could kind of steer it to whatever I was interested in.

CG: What do you think are the biggest opportunities for professionals with a geomatics engineering degree? Maybe I’ll start with you on this one, Ezra.

EC: I think the world is going to more and more interdisciplinary professions or research. So, it’s like everything is combined together. When you talk about AI, when you talk about all those emerging technologies, it’s not specific for one discipline, for one focus area. Everyone can benefit from it. But you want to add that flavour of geomatics or surveying to that, so you can apply that properly and know what is behind the scenes, know what’s in that black box.

So, to us, we want our students to be versatile, we want our students to be able to adapt, and also we want our students to be more creative so they can lead the industry to the right direction with all the knowledge they get, because what’s the state of the art or what’s in the industry right now is not necessarily the cutting-edge research, because by definition, research is not going to be widely available for all companies. So, we want our students to bring something new to the industry, and our hope is the industry also appreciates that new technology and knowledge that the students can bring.

CG: Tyler, as you look ahead to your career, now that you’ve finished one aspect of it and you’re on the verge of starting your new path, what technologies or applications most interest you?

TC: I think it’s really broad at this point. Even when we were at HxGN LIVE, I was able to look at a lot of the future technologies and more recent stuff, how laser scanning is expanding. I was particularly interested by the BLK2FLY drone and how LIDAR is being applied and integrated in drones as well. That was something I was really interested in, is the applications of drones and GNSS and scanning and all this new modelling and how there are more opportunities there. And that’s expanding even among the traditional surveying.

CG: What most excites you when you think about your future career?

TC: I guess just broad application. I was taking some of these courses. I was able to see, oh, I could go work for NOAA and do post hurricane change analysis and help recover there, or I could do monument recovery and discover these old historic monuments that haven’t been found in a hundred years. And even just kind of figuring out property issues or just drone photogrammetry, structure from motion, how I can model that. There just seems to be a lot of opportunities within this field. And now, kind of the most exciting part is looking at the potential of where I could go with this.

CG: Ezra, what role can professionals play in strengthening the programme?

EC: So, first of all, I just wanted to say, I think the industry, including all the players, are doing a fantastic job in communicating with the university, with OSU, and we can have those long-term connections to kind of communicate, to go back and forth on how we should train our students and what’s needed in the industry right now. And to me, I think what the professionals need to do is to embrace the new technology and let the university know their challenge. So, I mentioned the research opportunity. So, the university or programme, we can become basically an R&D department for some of the smaller companies that don’t necessarily have an R&D section. So that can be a good two-way collaboration, because we have our students trained to address a problem that the industry or this company has, or maybe even in a particular project. And that can expand the field, that can open up more gates to more opportunities and applications. So, I think that’s what we should do.

And plus, personally, I think the industry, the companies should do a better job in branding to attract, to make surveyors sound cooler, to get more prospective students. I’m talking about high school students, to get them into this field. And I think that’s the real need there because we are short for land surveyors right now, and we desperately need more survey students. And also, I know companies need more surveyors and licenced surveyors to fulfil their tasks, their projects. So, I think that will be a good thing that we should think about together. And we need to sit down and come up with a plan so we can attract more people into our field, into our community.

CG: Well, and when you think about where things are going with artificial intelligence, with the whole concept of the metaverse, which is just in its infancy right now and still trying to be defined, and all these other things that are coming along that we can’t even imagine yet, it’s hard for private industry sometimes to move in that direction, because at the end of the day, they have to make a profit. So, to be able to partner with someone like OSU to say, “Here, explore this for us and come back and help us understand how we can use this in a very practical sense” Is valuable.

EC: Yes. Yes, exactly. So, research by definition is unknown. So, we don’t know what we are up to. We don’t know if we can make it or not. We don’t know if this method will work for this application or not, and we can afford it because it’s a research project. We’re doing that research from different various sources. But companies don’t necessarily have this, I would say, luxury to afford those risk, because they need to feed their employees they need to make profits. There’s nothing wrong about that. So, I think what we should do is collaborate, and then we can share our experience. We’re more than happy to share our experience in our past research. You see a lot of successful research outcomes in papers, in the publications, in reports. But you rarely see how it fails during that process. So, I think that’s equally important to the industry because this is how I failed, and this is how it doesn’t work or didn’t work. And then some lessons can be learnt by everyone. And I think that can become very, very valuable. But the reality is we can only report certain things because there is limited resources and time, and the publication has their preferences on what can be published and what cannot.

AI and deep learning, all of those technologies are great, but they are not designed for surveying necessarily, or for certain engineering applications. And I think it’s the engineer’s responsibility to find the right use of these tools, just like computers. When the computers first came out, it wasn’t for surveying, but we surveyors become the first group taking advantage of it because we have a large amount of data to process. That can be a very, very long process, and the computer just makes it really, really fast.

So, I think AI is going to be the same thing. We cannot wait for computer scientists to come up with the solution and say, “Hey, surveyors, here is the perfect software for you,” or “This is the best machine learning, deep learning model for you.” I think it’s our responsibility to come up with the solution for our community, for our industry, because the end of the day, we learn the fundamentals. We know what we need, and we know what people need from us. So, I think that’s going to be the right way to go. And also, honestly, I think the deep learning, AI, it can be very, very overwhelming nowadays because everyone is talking about it. And I think we need to calm down and start from the basics and kind of know what we actually want. You can make a lot of fancy things, but at the end of the day, we need to get the projects done, and we need to make sure we can sign off the survey, we can sign off the work. Because there are engineering or legal ramifications; we need to be responsible for the work that we did.

CG: All right. Great insights from both of you. Very exciting work being done at OSU, preparing students for what comes next. We appreciate your time today, and thank you for joining us.

To our listeners, you can learn more and tune into more HxGN Radio episodes on iTunes, Spotify, or SoundCloud. Or visit hxgnspotlight.com for more stories from Hexagon. Thank you for listening.