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Of Seconds & Centimeters: How South Carolina Positioned Itself at the Forefront of Global Positioning

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From Theodolites to Satellites, Lew Lapine has been a Global Positioning Pioneer

Lew Lapine

Lew Lapine, chief of the South Carolina Geodetic Survey (SCGS) and a former director of NOAA's National Geodetic Survey, does a field survey using the South Carolina Real-time Network – a new technology that SCGS developed with NOAA's Height Modernization Program and Continuously Operating Reference Stations as its foundation.

For 12 years now, Louis Lapine, PhD, has been chief of the South Carolina Geodetic Survey (SCGS). This agency establishes horizontal and vertical geodetic control points throughout the state to allow land and land-related items to be referenced to the national coordinate system maintained by NOAA’s National Geodetic Survey (NGS).

Dr. Lapine’s lifelong passion for making maps has taken him from land to sea and back again – literally. During the course of his 40-year career, he has charted new territory of his own in the world of surveying and geodesy, which, simply put, is the study of the size and shape of the Earth.

A native of Cleveland, Lapine attended The Ohio State University and obtained a bachelor’s degree in geodetic science. After graduation he received a commission in the NOAA Corps, the uniformed officer corps that operates NOAA’s research vessels and aircraft.

Early Years at NOAA

Original CORS station

Pioneer GPS manufacturer Charles Trimble titled the first Continuously Operating Reference Station to Dr. Lapine when he retired as director of NOAA's National Geodetic Survey. It now occupies Dr. Lapine's office at the South Carolina Geodetic Survey in Columbia, SC.

During his first two years at sea, Lapine increased his skills in computer science and geodesy every day as the digital data acquisition officer aboard the NOAA Ship Researcher. In the ensuing years, he worked in NOAA offices, in the field, and at sea, finding time along the way to complete a master’s degree in geodesy and photogrammetry. He recalls a career- and muscle-building highlight from those early years: “In 1972, I led the team that resurveyed the Mason-Dixon line with a theodolite, a classic triangulation surveying instrument. We actually had to drag our drafting table out into the field with us then.”

In 1984, while working in the headquarters of the National Ocean Service, he was asked to develop national policies on mapping and surveying. That’s when he discovered he could combine his gift for mathematical precision and his “gift of gab” to formulate and write clear, concise policies and standards.

In 1988, after having successfully managed a staff of 15 and overseen a $40 million budget, he became chief of NGS’s Photogrammetry Division.

Executive Decisions

Major accomplishments of those years included developing Global Positioning System (GPS) technology that made it possible for the U.S. Virgin Islands and 19 Pacific Rim islands to connect to the worldwide geodetic network. Dr. Lapine also initiated production of the first all-digital mapping products and pioneered the use of GPS and airborne photography to produce high-accuracy mapping products. Dr. Lapine’s work has become the production standard for both NOAA and the surveying industry.

By 1992, Dr. Lapine’s NOAA career had taken him from lugging his own drafting table to sitting at the head of the conference table: He became the Director of the National Geodetic Survey, a post he held for six years. As director, he helped develop, defend, and bring into being NOAA’s Height Modernization Program – the foundation upon which virtually all new advances in geodesy are based.

Carrying On in Carolina

GPS receiver and a theodolite

Generations of GPS: At left are the tools of the South Carolina Real Time Network, the Scout GPS and portable “base” station; at right is the Wild T-3 theodolite, the unwieldy instrument that Dr. Lapine carried into the field, along with a drafting table, to resurvey the Mason-Dixon Line in 1972.

These advances include the South Carolina Real Time Network, the first virtual reference station network in the world that continually sends collected positioning data to the SCGS office. These data are made available for a myriad of GPS applications.

Dr. Lapine thinks that virtual real-time networks have the potential to change the way we view our world as much as maps did back when people first scratched them out in the dirt to show the way from here to there. “Accurate, real-time positioning is important in just about every aspect of modern life,” he says. “This is the future of geodesy and surveying.”