The role of geospatial solutions, AI and talent acquisition in mapping tomorrow

The role of geospatial solutions, AI and talent acquisition in mapping tomorrow

Interview with Neil Churman, president of Woolpert

Overseeing operational execution, organic growth, and mergers and acquisitions, Neil Churman is a key driving force behind Woolpert’s remarkable growth strategy and success. Recognizing Woolpert’s leading role in the geospatial field, GIM International sat down with him for an exclusive interview to hear about his background and gain insights into his vision for the future.

You graduated in civil and environmental engineering. How does your educational background inform your leadership as president of Woolpert?

My undergraduate education in civil engineering at the University of Pittsburgh provided me with a fundamental understanding of how critical infrastructure projects are designed and constructed. Even more importantly, it equipped me with problem-solving, critical-thinking and analytical skills that translate to the opportunities and challenges we address every day at Woolpert. The connection, coordination and collaboration between engineers, architects and geospatial professionals has been at the core of countless projects. My background has provided me with a tremendous foundation to support our operations and has given me a unique appreciation for what our team does to deliver for our clients every day.

Woolpert defines itself not only as an architecture, engineering and geospatial (AEG) company, but also as a strategic consulting firm. How do these various disciplines and skillsets intersect to create value within the company?

Our integrated architecture, engineering and geospatial (AEG) model is what allows us to provide value in response to our clients’ most important challenges thanks to connectivity across our teams. For example, we’re positioned to work with clients to assess conditions and create a capital plan, map and model existing conditions on a highly accurate basis, and masterplan a project on the front end. We subsequently deliver architectural and engineering designs supported by world-class survey, geomatics and monitoring solutions. And then we work with them to document as-built conditions and employ and manage an asset management plan. Our integrated approach is well-suited to address clients’ needs in an environment where cost, complexity and aging infrastructure continue to grow across all of the sectors we serve.

How would you describe the present state of the geospatial industry?

Our industry could not be better positioned for the future. The need is growing every day to not only capture data on a more accurate and detailed basis, but also to turn that data into useful information. Our clients are clearly seeing the value geospatial certainty brings to their projects and programmes, and they are looking to us to provide them with better insights and tools to execute. Being progressive is one of our core values at Woolpert, and our teams embody that in the innovative work they are doing. I think we are going to continue to see geospatial requirements advance globally. Some areas of the world are more advanced than others with respect to codes and standards but, ultimately, I believe we are on a path towards fully and accurately digitizing our world.

At the helm of Woolpert as president, Neil Churman spearheads the company's impressive growth strategy.

What major progress has been made in recent years regarding the collection, analysis and processing of geodetic data, and what developments are yet to come?

I work closely with our R&D teams on a regular basis across hardware, software and workflows. Based on the advancements they are making, I see major progress in the entire value chain. For example, our teams are able to collect aerial Lidar data with higher point density flying at 10,000 feet (approx. 3,000 metres, Ed.) than we could at half that elevation just a few years ago. We’ve also been able to develop tools to collect both topographic and bathymetric data on a single flight, which gives clients greater insights into accurate conditions in a coastal environment. Additionally, we’re seeing vast improvements as we leverage artificial intelligence and other forms of machine learning, cloud computing and enhanced workflows to move from just a point cloud to an accurately referenced model of conditions with extracted features of interest. I believe that we’ll continue to see improvements in the accuracy of collection, but I see the next breakthroughs being in the analysis of geospatial information to provide automated insights and decision support tools.

Companies within the geospatial industry, such as surveyors and engineering firms, seek to secure a strong foothold in the swiftly evolving market by investing in both resources and talent. What are the primary challenges?

Both resources and talent are key to advancing our growth, and it’s our continued strong performance at Woolpert that allows us to invest in both areas. We are very focused on ensuring we have top talent that we’re providing with the best tools for the job. One of the biggest challenges is to ensure we have an adequate pipeline of trained graduates to come and develop their careers with us. We’ve put in place a number of initiatives to foster partnerships with top technical schools, colleges and universities, as well as our internship programme, to enable students entering our field to gain great experience and the skills necessary to build a career with us. It’s important that we have a strong network of educational institutions teaching these skills, particularly in areas like surveying, hydrography, GIS and other core geospatial disciplines.

Woolpert recently acquired Murphy Geospatial, a multidisciplinary geospatial solutions company headquartered in Ireland. What were the underlying strategic objectives of this acquisition?

Bringing industry-leading teams to Woolpert is key to our growth strategy, and Murphy Geospatial absolutely brings us that in Ireland, the UK and increasingly in mainland Europe too. With its broad range of geospatial solutions across infrastructure, manufacturing, property, energy, utilities and natural environment projects, Murphy Geospatial provides us with a platform for further growth in Europe, as well as new offerings that we can leverage in other regions. It also give us a great portfolio of project experience, including its work on High Speed 2, which is one of Europe’s largest infrastructure projects. More importantly, Murphy Geospatial is a great fit for our culture. We see an extremely bright future ahead with the team as part of Woolpert.

Woolpert's headquarters in Dayton, Ohio. (Image courtesy: Woolpert)

Woolpert operates on a global scale. How does your company handle cultural nuances and cater to an international array of client needs?

We’ve grown from a largely US-based firm just a few years ago to now operating across five continents, each with their own unique nuances. We look to set overarching approaches towards quality, delivery, best practices and satisfaction that set the foundation for serving our clients. We then enable our teams to tailor those to the needs of our clients across the globe. Additionally, our company’s core values guide how we work with our clients and each other across Woolpert. Ultimately, our teams have many differences in their backgrounds, experiences and the cultures in which they live. But at the same time, we are connected by our commitment to serving our clients with energy and integrity, and supporting one another around the globe.

What types of survey projects will be crucial for your organization in the upcoming years, and how does this compare to previous years?

Survey has been part of the backbone of Woolpert for more than a hundred years, and we now have surveyors in North America, Africa, Europe, Australia and the Asia-Pacific region. We’re anticipating a continued need for aerial survey, mobile mapping and traditional survey and geomatics across critical end markets. Climate change, the energy transition, aging infrastructure and resilience are all driving more need and opportunity than we’ve seen in the past. We’re also seeing clients wanting their data to be both more accurate and accessible to them on shorter timelines, as well as wanting to see data in multiple formats, such as both Lidar and imagery in higher resolutions.

Artificial intelligence (AI) appears positioned to catalyse remarkable advancements across various sectors of life and business. To what extent has Woolpert already integrated AI and other forms of machine learning (ML) into its operations?

AI is a key tool in our toolbox to ensure fast yet accurate delivery, and something we are continually investing in. We have a number of AI/ML efforts across the company which are focused on allowing us to increase the amount we can do for clients faster and more accurately with our existing teams. We see it as augmenting our talented workforce. Notably, we entered into a strategic agreement with Allvision in autumn 2023 to gain an exclusive licence to their AI/ML technology for Lidar processing, as well as to have members of their incredibly talented team join Woolpert. We are just scratching the surface of what AI/ML can do for us and the industry as a whole, but we need to remain cognisant that it’s our people that will advance us, not technology alone.

Looking further into the future, could surveyors potentially be replaced by robotics and AI in the next 10 or 20 years?

As just mentioned, AI/ML will absolutely perform aspects of our work. But will it be able to fully replace surveyors within that timeline? I don’t believe so. Surveying requires experience, professional judgment and problem-solving skills that will remain critical. My view is that AI/ML is going to make surveyors’ lives easier for rudimentary and repeatable tasks, but ultimately it will be people who drive the continued evolution of our industry. I see it as being able to help our teams elevate their skills and roles in the company, while AI/ML will give them more time to focus on quality, novel solutions and strategy to give our clients the best possible solutions for their needs.

The surveying profession faces a significant challenge in attracting new students to relevant education, and skilled professionals into the industry. Which strategies do you believe could effectively tackle this issue?

I think showing incoming students the importance of our work, as well as some of the amazing and critical projects we work on, will help us attract them to the industry. We also see lots of talent coming from non-traditional backgrounds – data and computer science, engineering or other STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics, Ed.) backgrounds – who are making the connection between their skills and the importance of geospatial data. Our responsibility – both as a company and as an industry – is to provide a path for personal and professional development, career growth and job satisfaction for these individuals so that they choose to bring their skills and talents to our industry. We have a big focus on that here at Woolpert and have been certified as a Great Place to Work, which is a testament to our employees seeing the value in building their future with us. We are always looking for talented, passionate professionals to join our team and believe there is a great opportunity for employees to grow with us as we grow as a company.

Do you have any concluding thoughts or insights you would like to share with our readers?

I think that the industry and Woolpert are on a great trajectory, and the opportunities for us are going to grow exponentially in the next few years. At the same time, we need to ensure we stay grounded and remind ourselves that it’s people, trained as part of a long tradition of great surveyors and geospatial professionals, that are going to carry us forward. No software or hardware is going to be able to replace listening to our customers and solving their challenges. It’s so important that we continue to show the value of what we do to the world, so the world values what we do. If we can do that, we’re going to create a virtuous cycle that carries the industry into the next generation of geospatial leaders.

Measured from the sea floor, Hawaii’s tallest mountain, Mauna Kea, stands taller than Mount Everest. (Image courtesy: Woolpert/U.S. Geological Survey)
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