Boom `n Puck

A 678Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine complete with images is available by clicking HERE

This was the part of the job that Vel liked the least assembling the rig. The sedan skid attached to the skate lifted off to into its storage cradle in one bay of the three-car garage attached to Vel’s Laurelhurst house (she had the formal dining room removed to make room for the garage/workshop that now dwarfed the rest of the structure) and the skate, following the trail of magnets that were sunk into the driveway, backed in under the boom skid in the adjacent bay.

The skate was a newer model, a bit more ruggedized than most, rated for moderate off-road. It did look a little out of place when carrying the flashy sedan skid she used in town. Most cars on the road were skate-skid combos, with the skates containing the drive train and basic systems, and a wide variety of skids bringing a new level of utility and personalization to personal and commercial transportation. Her Ford and Bardejov combo was at least color-coordinated.

The Boom skid locked in on the right side of the skate. After dropping a shallow skid blank onto the left side, Vel chose two utility boxes filled with gear she might need for this job, and then took extra care loading the Puck box into its position just behind the cab. The cab lowered forward in front of the skate and the whole cab front lifted back so she could wheel her chair back into it. After checking the contents of the mini-fridge, and stowing some personal items, she set the cab back up on the skate and headed off for King Street Station.

Laurelhurst, an older Northeast Seattle suburb had not changed much since she first moved there with her parents as a toddler. As she passed the newly renamed William Gates Elementary (her alma mater, and incidentally his) the only noticeable changes to the neighborhood were the recently removed overhead utility lines (homes were now individually powered with the same peroxi-cards used in vehicles). It was hard to believe that an updated engine and generator idea from the 1940s was now the answer to nearly all energy needs.

The neighborhood still retained the street monument cases set more than a century before (few 20th-century surveyors would believe the high-tech contents). But no technological innovation could supercede the definitive legal weight of physical monumentation when it came to cadastral matters, though their utility as spatial reference had long since fallen in the face of dynamic positioning.

Despite all of the research and development into vehicle guidance (though collision avoidance measures were now mandatory on all vehicles) manual driving was still the norm, and one of Vel’s simple pleasures. Backing the rig onto the rail car was the exception, and always an unwelcome chore. Vel preferred to ride in the cab for most rail connections (and with her ADA waiver was one of the few people allowed to do so). The overnight ride to Twin Falls, Idaho would give her a nice view of the night sky through the clear cab roof and a chance to do some star gazing, maybe even some light reading. She was working her way through issues of Ben Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette. "Such a genius," she thought. "He must have done some surveying." She had previously read that George Washington was urged to enter surveying by his older brother who pointed out that in that day and age surveyors were held in high esteem, rivaling surgeons and scholars.

The night sky was not as clear as she might have hoped; it probably would take centuries to undo the damage wrought by centuries of dependence on fossil fuels. She did catch a glimpse or two of the international space stations and the faint golden halo of the Southwest Solar Array (SWSA). The custom weather reports she had ordered up in pre-planning had predicted a window of low winds for the early morning. This was good, as she was gambling on completing the job in a few hours owing to the efficiencies of the Puck (as opposed to the prospects of an all-day job with her old boom).

Vel was one of the early adopters of boom technology for surveying, hence the nickname "Boomer". She felt a lot of pressure to succeed after submitting her master’s thesis on the technology at the Landau Institute in Munich a decade before. Now with most firms having at least one boom rig, the operators were now all generically referred to as boomers. Though there was a specific skill set that made for a qualified boomer, it was now widely adopted, though heading for obsolescence with the introduction of the Puck.

The boom, a marvel of robotics, usually consisted of a five-axis arm that could easily reach any position within ten meters of its base, and while widely utilized for a myriad of other commercial and personal applications, the surveyor’s boom was one of the most sophisticated. The head was packed with modules for scanning, monument setting, XGNSS antennae, cameras, sensors (and in Vel’s case, also served as robotic hands for most of the physical tasks of her work).

Thirty minutes after driving off the rail car she arrived at the site. A thin red ribbon was forming to the east in pre-dawn light, silhouetting the low skyline of Twin Falls. The parcel she was to map today had been a cellular communications site half a century before, and was now to become part of a housing tract. Only the tower base and utility building remained. Vel swung the boom head out low over the adjacent intersection and blasted a few nails into the pavement at the rough extents of the parcel. Final marks would be set after resolving local geodesy and calculating the boundary.

It was likely that the only time during this job that she would have to wheel her chair outside was to set up the Puck. The boom could certainly have taken care of that, but wanting to take advantage of the morning air, she lowered the cab down to roll out. Vel had never let her chair hold her back. She had taken on all aspects of her surveying education at UW Renton and Munich with relentless determination. Although her custom chair cost a small fortune, it had enabled her to traverse rough mountain terrain, rise up to set tripods, and even tilt over to pound wooden hubs. Unable to walk since birth, she eschewed the option for advanced prosthetics and pressed on to take up the career of her late grandfather, chair be damned. She would often joke with her non-surveyor friends "I share something common with four of our past presidents, three of which are immortalized on Mount Rushmore, and I am taking bets on a fifth," displaying her signature brash (but well earned) self-confidence.

There were two Pucks in the box. Captain Janeway and Seven-of-Nine (as she liked to call them) measured approximately twenty centimeters in diameter and approximately ten centimeters thick at the middle. Slots for 2-cm peroxicards (these were hard to find as most machines used the standard 6-cm cards) fed these hungry little darlings. As she spun up the gyros on Janeway, the seven gold-tinged concave propulsion disks on the bottom and the four smaller verniers on the top began to glow orange as an ionized swirl formed in each. The Puck lifted off, did a little orientation wobble, then set off on a lazy calibration loop that Vel had programmed to skirt the perimeter of the site.

It was time to set the peds up over the nails. Wheeling ahead of the rig, which followed her chair like a faithful pet, she flipped open the remote and tapped in some instructions for the boom. In the head of each nail she had set was a synthetic emerald less than half a millimeter in diameter, an unmistakable target for the self-centering and leveling pedestals ("Da-Links" as they had been dubbed as a play on words, and as a nod to the robotic foes of Dr. Who, the celebrated BBC series now airing with its 28th Doctor). As the boom carefully set down each ped, it hummed, rotated, wiggled, and shuffled its way over the nail. The clamshell over the dome would open, and simultaneously a process of locking on to the XGNSS constellations and SPLDR (pronounced splay-dar, which stands for Sync Pulse Laser Distance and Ranging) acquisition of the Puck began.

With three peds on the ground and checking in, Vel wheeled back into the cab to set up comms and geodesy. A tiny dish on the cab set about seeking a commercial satellite for secondary comms, and another small dish (resembling a pilsner glass) aimed towards a SKAT tower in Twin Falls, providing a link to the web of hard fiber she needed for the massive throughput required for remote processing of even the smallest Boom or Puck survey. Observations would be stored in a gel-block at her home in Seattle and in the archives of the National Geodetic Survey in Virginia ("Provide your own block, and we’ll store it," was their policy).

While fundamentally working on the same principles as early GPS, GNSS, and later XGNSS (Extensible Global Navigation Satellite Systems), using these systems to provide reliable and precise relative reference for ground control had stood the test of time as an unparalleled utility for land surveyors. As Vel would tell friends (who didn’t mind her postulating about subjects for which they would otherwise have held little interest), "No matter how many constellations get launched, and however many frequencies they add, there is no getting past the ill effects the layers of atmosphere have on the signals passing through them." Friends had heard this too many times: "The key is ground infrastructure, networks of stations that sync up with the signals from the satellites and model out those effects." What would follow was the inevitable long-winded testimonial to her grandfather and his part in NorthWestern States Reference Network (which, for sentimental reasons, she still insisted on using when working in this part of the country).

Vel ran that speech though her head each time she scrolled though the XGNSS options (both commercial and public) on the HUD (heads-up display) in the cab. Xnavstar, XGLNSS, Copernicus, ArgenT, OzGP, XQZZ the list was growing. Most systems also included some psuedo-orbit satellites, low enough to mitigate the latencies which prevented any real-time augmentation from the new geo-magnetic receptors (which finally solved the vertical handicap of the early satellite systems). Vel chose ten of the Argentine birds for signal, and two Chinese psuedo-birds for augmentation. With corrections from NWSRN, she checked residuals between the peds and boom, and checked to see if the Puck was tracking true to its predicted trajectory.

The boom head had its own SPLDR tranceptors. Though an older model (does three years qualify as older?), it still served fine for redundant observations, and could still reach places where a moving Puck could not. Though the Puck was moving, its position was fixed to the millisecond simultaneously from each ped (and boom). The position of as many of the sixty SPLDR tranceptors ringing the Puck rim, which each ped could "see", was recorded and passed down to the rig. With the pitch, yaw, roll, and trajectory of the Puck recorded to dizzying precision, Vel could "fly" the Puck around the site giving the scanners, cameras, and sensors on its belly a passing view over every nook and cranny of the site (and structure). It was full 3D surveying, and a lot of fun to boot!

Flying the Puck was the highlight of each job. Vel could track progress in a lower resolution rendering on the HUD, and she could almost "paint" a picture of the site using the Puck as a sort of brush. Short of a sudden wind burst, or a cynical local hunter, the Puck was safe to buzz around the site, though Vel had to be careful to sweep effectively so as to avoid using too much memory.

"Are you getting this Duke?" she enthusiastically quizzed her colleague on the other side of the globe. "Yes, Miss Kawashima, fine and dandy, as you Americans would say," replied Shridar Dukar, her processing and drafting partner in his usual "Why-are-you-bothering-me-at-this-hour?" tone. A pisciculture student she met in Munich, Dukar worked from his farm in the heart of the Indian State of Orissa, halfway between Bhubareshwar and Bombay. Fish farming had become quite automated, and in the time left on his hands, he took up 3D visualization as a casual contractor, with Vel as his main client. Dukar would mold the torrent of data coming from each of the components at the Idaho site in near-real-time. A whiz at holographic drafting, Dukar would distill the billions of points into a framework of modeled surfaces and wire frames. In another window of the HUD Vel could see the fruits of his labor. "You’ll never catch me," she joked. "MoneyPenny, I have been chasing you for years, and do not intend to stop," replied Dukar, doing his best James Bond imitation. A jolt for Vel, was this a sudden frank revelation confirming her suspicion of long-distance flirting? But it was time to get her head back into the business of flying the Puck, for she had just missed a corner of the old cell tower foundation, and therefore expected the usual admonishment from Duke.

With the Puck cooling off in its cradle, and Duke finishing off his modeling, Vel pulled up the scanned records for the site. She was in luck. Twin Falls County had nearly all of its cadastral records scanned and online; she had not been so lucky the week before and had to spend two days in the bowels of a federal records center in D.C. searching for a railroad right-of-way survey. It was estimated that a full 60% of cadastral records remain un-scanned. Digital submission was yet to be adopted by most jurisdictions, due, in part, to the three decades of CADG I S antitrust suits. The issue of digital signatures was into its second century of debate. "Job security for us surveyors," she thought. Indeed, the evaluation and analysis of evidence had become (if anything) more complex, and had broadened the skill sets needed to encompass the entire spectrum between the practical and professional sides of surveying.

Damn! She would need to pick up another quarter corner to the south of the site, and from what evidence she could gather it had not been visited in over a decade. The recorded position had not been certified by the NGS or any of the commercial services. She’d start digging, but did not have GPR (ground penetrating radar) on her boom. There was a GPR unit at the lab of the College of Southern Idaho that she could perhaps borrow, as she knew one of the instructors of their survey program quite well and could donate some lecture time in trade.

Then she saw it; what looked like an old roll of flagging (Lord knows what color it originally was) sitting among a pile of old 20th-century glass soda bottles. Confirming her hunch, she found a rebar and cap near the pile (where they must have set up a GPS unit on a tripod as an eccentric to the corner that should be under those trees to the NW). She took an actual compass bearing (adjusting for nearly a century of change in declination) and dragged a tape over to the trees.

Whistling for the rig (a custom feature she loved, even though she had to disable it in all but the most remote and open sites), she positioned the boom to gently scoop off a few inches of sandy soil at a time until the stone monument was revealed. Wrapped on schedule! She would draft the certificate of survey on the train ride, create a geodesy log, file the report with the NGS and the state of Idaho, and wait Duke’s deliverables. The modeling of the site was done only a few hours after she left the site, but Dukar would spend as much time preparing the basemap as needed for archaic 2D CAD style drawings suitable for industrystandard contact plan sets. With all of the advances and innovation, it still boiled down to D-size sheets of paper (owing to legal considerations). Just a crying shame, but lucrative for talented fellows like Dukar.

The next few days would be a break from Vel’s standard two-site-per-week schedule, but not from the professional side of her surveying career; she was to be heard by the Washington State Board of Registration for Land Surveyors and Engineers. A group of local surveyors was challenging the Puck technology which she had first used on a topo and boundary survey for the Queen Anne Water Tower Rehab project on contract to the city. As far as she could tell, this was the first test nationally for this new tool, and there would actually be press present (did survey magazines count as press?). Licensed in five states, and holding all four of the surveying licenses in her own state, Vel had been before the board as both expert witness and complainant. But she was not worried in the least; she had a few surprises for the board.

Tomorrow would be spent in the dusty archives of the City of Seattle, a visit to the site armed with some of her antique equipment (she loved her old Topcon Guppy from the 1980s), a steel tape, some sympathetic surveyors to help, and an annoying amount of self-confidence. The board would never know what hit them. But for now it was time for some needlepoint, some Mahler, and a celebratory brewski (or two).

Next Installment: "Boomer’s Hearing"

Author’s Note: All of the technologies mentioned in the preceding are either under development, serious proposal, or exist in perhaps less efficient forms. Are you ready?

Gavin Schrock has probably been surveying a wee bit too long. Although an accomplished geek, he would rather be selling hot dogs on a tropical beach somewhere. Against the better judgement of the publishers of this magazine, the editors still insist on running his pieces on a regular basis.

Editor’s Note: Kudos to Schrock for creating the original black-and-white sketches for this article, and to graphics whiz Joel Cheves for adding the color.

A 678Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine complete with images is available by clicking HERE

About the Author

Gavin Schrock, LS

Gavin Schrock is a surveyor and GIS Analyst for Seattle Public Utilities, where he focuses on using digital data to improve the cost ratios for engineering projects. He has worked in surveying, mapping, and GIS for 23 years in the civil, utility, and mapping disciplines. He has published in these fields and has taught surveying, GIS, and data management at local, state, national, and international conferences. Contact Gavin Article List Below