The University of Calgary Geomatics Engineering
Department was launched in 1979. After 25 years – and a lot creative
marketing, fundraising and recruiting – there’s
much worth celebrating.
BY BILL CORBETT
Now and Then - Top:
the first graduating class; bottom: a graphic
The Department of Geomatics Engineering at the University
of Calgary has become the largest and arguably finest program
of its kind in the world, turning its home city into the
geomatics centre of Canada – all in a mere 25 years
As one of only three such departments in Canada, it boasts
160 undergraduate students, 85 graduate students and 19 faculty
members. Its $4 million a year in research funding includes
contracts with energy, agriculture and defence industries.
Graduates of the department land jobs and faculty positions
around the world, and it’s easy to see why. At a prestigious
annual conference in the U.S. on global positioning systems,
for example, the department’s graduate students routinely
win half the student paper awards – despite stiff competition
from schools like Stanford and MIT.
Not an Easy Road
Still, there were a few times when it looked like the Department
of Geomatics Engineering wouldn’t be around to celebrate
its 25th anniversary. The troubles started with trying
to lure engineering undergraduates to this new department,
which was initially called Surveying Engineering. At a
presentation to attract first-year engineering students,
only a handful of students showed up, compared with perhaps
100 for other engineering disciplines.
To fill empty classrooms, the first department head, Dr.
Ed Krakiwsky, P.Eng., had to heavily recruit surveying students
from technical schools across Western Canada, plus convince
U of C administrators to give them a year’s credit
Another early challenge was the lack of funding for the
graduate program. Without such a program, it would have been
almost impossible to attract top faculty members, let alone
undertake research. Only a frantic, $2-million fundraising
program allowed the department to achieve full status in
Name Change Succeeds
Even after the department was well established, another crisis
emerged in the early 1990, when enrolment plummeted. “Although
surveying is a noble profession, young people weren’t
turned on by the tag of surveying and mapping,” says
Dr. Krakiwsky, now professor emeritus.
So following a survey of students, the department name was
changed to Geomatics Engineering to reflect the high-tech
changes in this burgeoning field. The marketing approach
paid immediate dividends, with enrolment doubling the following
Today, there are two applicants for every student admitted
to the undergraduate program.
“After that crisis, the demand for graduates in the
new, high-tech geomatics industry also shot up like an arrow,” says
former department head Dr. Gérard Lachapelle, P.Eng. “Now,
it’s rare if all our graduates don’t have a job
offer by June.”
The primary reason the program started, survived and finally
thrived was vision.
It began in the mid-1970s with a call by Alberta’s
surveying and mapping industry for a university-level education
and research program, especially to serve offshore and other
petroleum exploration, which had already embraced satellite-based
methods. “The knowledge base to operate these new methods
and instruments required a university-level program,” says
“By having it as an engineering program from the
outset, it allowed us to provide strong fundamentals and
an engineering discipline,” says current department
head Dr. Elizabeth Cannon, P.Eng., the first Faculty of Engineering
recipient of the prestigious NSERC Steacie Fellowship Award. “The
common core studies are the same as those of the other engineering
departments at the U of C.”
The provincial government also had the vision to earmark
$5 million for the new department, which from the outset
was allowed to operate independently, even though it started
life under the wing of the Department of Civil Engineering. “We
were fortunate that, unlike most surveying programs in the
U.S., we could operate independently with our own vision,” says
Attracting Top Faculty
Most of all, Dr. Krakiwsky had the vision to attract the
best faculty and students he could find worldwide. “My
pitch to prospective faculty members was simple: ‘Do
you want to join the team and build the best survey engineering
department in the world?’ That way, we only got brave,
confident people willing to work 12-hour days.”
He sought people who were both top researchers and excellent
teachers. Based on the rather novel idea that students were
the department’s customers, he also pioneered the concept
of students evaluating their professors.
You’re asking graduate students to spend the best five
or six years of their lives in your department. If you’re
not providing a superior environment and the best possible
product, you’re not doing your job.”
Today, the department has little trouble attracting the
best and brightest from around the world. The current faculty
includes professors from France, Holland, Germany, Spain,
Indonesia, Greece and Egypt.
The department also lures many international graduate students
as well as top local talent, who upon graduation find jobs
with surveying and mapping, wireless and navigation, and
Silicon Valley companies; government agencies; and Canadian
and U.S. defence departments.
It’s no surprise, then, that the department and its
steady stream of high-end graduates have helped Calgary become
Canada’s dominant geomatics centre.
Under the leadership of Dr. Krakiwsky and his successor as
department head, Dr. Klaus Peter Schwarz, early research
efforts focused on gravity, positioning, statistical analysis,
photogrammetry and high-precision engineering surveys.
Subsequent expertise has also been developed in remote
sensing, cadastral studies, geospatial information systems,
digital imaging and integrated systems.
The combined licensing revenues from all this research amount
to $10 million to date.
While gravity research – led by professor and associate
department head Dr. Michael Sideris, P.Eng. – has become
a major department strength, global positioning is perhaps
the preeminent research focus, involving six faculty members
and some 40 graduate students.
It’s one of the top groups of its kind worldwide,” says
Dr. Lachapelle, CRC/iCORE Chair in Wireless Location. The
group has done considerable ground-breaking work with energy
firms, the agriculture industry, the military and any other
sector that requires precise positioning data.
For example, U of C researchers are working with the U.S.
Navy to help land aircraft on sea-tossed carriers within
centimetres of their target.
“In this business, we’re always looking for
more accuracy,” says Dr. Cannon. “Accuracy is
In late October, the Department of Geomatics Engineering
will pause to celebrate its considerable accomplishments
in a mere 25 years. It will commemorate the event in typical
fashion – by raising $120,000 for three undergraduate
On Oct. 28, the department will host a celebration banquet,
and on Oct. 29, an open house.