The National Mapping Council of Australia Forty Years On


This paper recalls the formation of the National Mapping Council in 1945, reviews achievements under its aegis, hazards a guess at future geodetic survey and topographic mapping tasks which will continue to require Commonwealth/ State co-ordination, and pays tribute to those who recommended formation of the Council forty years ago.


In 1945, F. M. Johnston, the Commonwealth Surveyor-General, arranged a meeting of appropriate Commonwealth and State officers for the purpose of considering the future geodetic survey and topographic mapping of Australia.


The 1939-45 War had shown up the deplorable state of Australian topo­graphic mapping and the non-existence of a national geodetic survey. In this situa­tion, there had been a call for both military and civilian effort to produce emerg­ency maps. This had resulted in many relevant governmental organisations becoming directly involved in map production and map usage.


Prior to the War, individuals and conferences of State Institutes of Surveyors had unsuccessfully pleaded the need for maps and for geodetic survey, but it needed the drive from outside to provide the necessary impetus in 1945.


The impact of the War had specifically highlighted the lack of suitable maps to those agencies that were supporting the war effort by resources development and by construction activity. This awareness of the situation on the part of map users led the Department of Post-War Reconstruction to recommend that an overall national mapping programme form part of the nation's post-war effort.


The conjunction of this drive from outside the interested professions and the favourable disposition of appropriate governmental organisations that had participated in and/or benefited from wartime emergency mapping led to a ready acceptance of invitations to the 1945 Commonwealth/State Officers meeting.


This meeting agreed on a series of recommendations asking their respective Governments to approve the establishment of a National Mapping Council for the purposes of planning, organising and co-ordinating the geodetic survey and topo­graphic mapping activities of Australia on a national basis, with the Common­wealth and States participating, and with an avoidance of duplication of effort by different agencies.


The Council was to consist of the State Surveyors-General and two Common­wealth representatives, one from the then existing Commonwealth Survey Commit­tee, and the Chairman of the Council, who was to be designated Director of National Mapping (at that time this position was held by the Commonwealth Surveyor-General).


At Commonwealth level, a submission from the Minister for the Interior received strong backing from the Department of Post-War Reconstruction, the Defence Departments, and the Department of Civil Aviation, and Cabinet approval was given to these recommendations. The Prime Minister then wrote to the State Premiers who in turn gave their approvals to the establishment of the Council and to the participation of State officers as members with authority to deal directly with the Chairman on Council matters.

The Council first met towards the end of 1945 and has since achieved much.


Agreement has been reached in respect of recommended standards of accur­acy, map symbols, air photography specifications, and for joint participation in geodetic and levelling surveys while at the same time topographic map production had advanced steadily.


By 1967, the whole of Australia had been covered by air photography for the first time, quite a reasonable area had been covered by contoured medium scale maps and the balance of the country was covered by the planimetric maps that were position-controlled by numerous astro-fixes, compiled at near photo scale (usually 1:50,000 scale), and published at 1:250,000 scale. The combination of air photos and compilations was to prove of great assistance to technical and scientific personnel engaged in earth science surveys and led to completion shortly afterwards of the overall geological mapping of Australia at the 1:250,000 scale.


In 1967 also, the National Geodetic Survey was completed to the stage of providing a basis for the physical co-ordination of mapping, and the Council had adopted a National Geodetic Datum. The speed with which this survey proceeded was in a large part due to the co-operative effort of all concerned and to the early introduction of electronic distance measuring equipment by Council members.


Conventional geodetic control surveys then proceeded in the more settled areas while in the less developed central portion of the country, an airborne version of this electronic equipment was used to provide horizontal control points to at least a one degree grid spacing. In recent years the geodetic survey has been sup­plemented and improved by the use of geodetic satellite techniques.


During 1971 the levelling survey was completed for the mainland of Australia. This was the result of a combined Commonwealth/State operation in which much use was made of the services of private surveyors.


Normally it would have been difficult to obtain additional funds for this project but the Commonwealth Government of the day was anxious to show its support for mining development by funding gravity surveys that required levelling data. The case for national co-ordination therefore received favourable consider­ation and necessary funding.


Later on, levels were extended into the one degree pattern of horizontal control points and in the less developed areas of the continent these were in turn interconnected by a systematic coverage of airborne profiles.


At this stage, with the availability of air photography and the completion of the necessary survey control preliminaries, there were no longer any technical impediments to the completion of Australia's basic, contoured, topographic map coverage. The production of these maps has since progressed steadily with par­ticipation by all operative governmental agencies and supported by contracts given to commercial mapping companies.


The main retarding factor was the availability of funds. To the map makers this has always seemed to be less than desirable. Nevertheless progress has been such that within the next few years the whole of Australia will be covered by topographic maps at 1:100,000 or larger scale with contours at intervals of 20 metres or less.


If they knew of this, the various Treasury officials who kept such a tight rein on the allocation of mapping funds might say that they has shown a better inter­pretation of appropriate levels of funding than the enthusiastic operators who had sought more money and manpower to enable earlier completion dates.


Side by side with the topographic mapping of the land mass, there has been a steady production of hydrographic charts and by the early 1990's, it is anticipated that the contoured bathymetric mapping of the Australian continental shelf will be completed (embracing an area almost as large as the continental mass itself). Additionally, a special project for the mapping of the Great Barrier Reef is well under way.


A number of organisations are currently engaged in the production of an overall terrain elevation model of Australia.


In 1982, the School of Surveying of the University of New South Wales was given special funds to complete, on behalf of the Council, the re-adjustment of the Australian Geodetic Survey incorporating some of its own Very Long Base Interferometry measurements with extensive geodetic satellite observations and additional ground measurements that had been arranged as a co-operative effort by Council members. The result is probably the best set of geodetic co-ordinates available to any country of comparable size.


Additionally, a satellite-borne remote sensing imagery is available, but at present the Australian receiving equipment cannot provide the finest detail of information that is possible.


A vast improvement in the co-ordination of land boundary maps and survey data has become possible as a result of all these activities. Meanwhile the available topographic maps, air photographs and satellite-borne imagery have all been put to good use by earth scientists and land administrators in the preparation of a variety of resources and land use maps.


In review, the Council and its members have a truly magnificent record. Along the way minor hitches have occurred due to personality clashes and some rivalry among organisations but fact that so much has been achieved is a measure of the professional stature of all those participating, from the original Commonwealth/State Officers Meeting and onward through the forty years of the Council's existence.


It is the writer's view that the rivalry between organisations has, to date, been sensibly restrained and has resulted in greater production for the overall benefit of Australia.


What of the future, will there be a continuing need for a National Mapping Council, how much additional mapping will be required?


It is suggested that from now on, Council members will best serve map users by giving the highest priority to the continual up-dating of existing maps and the maintenance of digital recording systems that will permit the ready accessibility of information to users and the immediate plotting of a complete topographic picture upon demand.

The writer envisages the future development and widespread use of satellite positioning, possibly in combination with inertial navigation techniques, to the stage where the average motorist can pinpoint positions with an accuracy that will be compatible with 1:25,000 scale mapping. The general use of such navigation equipment would seem to provide an admirable tool for map revision, and one that would be within the capacity of a wide spectrum of map makers, and indeed, map users.


It might be worthwhile for the Council to organise and arrange appropriate joint Commonwealth/State funding for a 'road patrol' type of operation that would rationalise the continuous updating process.


As digital recording processes become more common, the question of scale will lose much of its significance and the important aspects will be the amount of detail available and the accuracy with which it is recorded. Desirably, it should be a responsibility of Council members to asess, record and promulgate these accuracies.


It could well be that the digital terrain model will be the one constant basic element in the may cycle, and that official agencies should direct their expertise in this direction together with the provision of a dense series of well marked, permanent geodetic stations that will establish a framework to which planimetric updating can be referenced. There will be a need for the Council to maintain efficient, prompt interaction between its respective digital recording systems.


An important on-going co-operative activity will be necessary in the positional monitoring of geodetic satellites, in international co-operation in these activities, and the derivation of the most precise and practical results from them. The Council framework can, and most probably will, provide the necessary mechanism.


Futhermore, there will emerge more detailed forms of satellite-borne remote sensing that could be of more practical value if it can be geographically oriented in the course of processing by the responsible national agency. This process might call for a national coverage of orthophotomaps in order to permit automated image matching.


These technical activities in themselves surely warrant the attention of the Council. Additionally, if the broader view is taken, it will be realised that our nation will shortly have complete basic topographic coverage at varying scales and contour intervals. These are currently intended to provide a reconnaissance level of topographic information that will, commensurate with size and population density, be sufficient to allow operational planning and a narrowing of the areas within which more detailed mapping will be required for specific purposes.


In planning more intensive future mapping, it must be realised that it would be extremely wasteful to cover the country in such detail as to provide for every possible eventually. It could be a wise precaution to test the genuiness of future demands by requiring prospective clients to contribute a proportion of the cost of any additional mapping that they may request. Otherwise they will almost certainly make irresponsible demands.


No doubt Council members are fully aware that they will best serve their country and its inhabitants by quietly and steadily improving the basic mapping in response to genuine demands from map users, and by building up a good reputa­tion based upon the high standards of the products they make available to the general public.


They must also be fully aware of the continuing value of the Council. The present day members of the surveying and cartographic professions, and indeed all Australians, have cause to be grateful for the far-sighted vision of those who in 1945 convinced their Governments of the wisdom of setting up a National Mapping Council.