Accessing the Digital Connection

March 1, 2004
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Discovering the ease of bridging data transfer programs aids a Texas firm in profit and growth.



Over the past decade, advances in technology--both hardware and software--have benefited surveyors, civil engineers and their clients. Few today can imagine life without the modern total station, GPS or data controller, the device that controls setup and operation of the instrumentation, analyzes and pre-processes the data, and packages the data for use by other applications. What's behind the advances in hardware is powerful software: programs that connect field and office, at times seamlessly, making both field and office staff more efficient, more productive--and thus more profitable. The company I work for, CDS/Muery Services of San Antonio, Texas, is one firm that has profited--and grown--through its use of the 'latest and greatest' software available.

As an engineering technician and staff sergeant in the United States Air Force for 11 years, I often worked under extreme conditions. Whether providing field damage maps in the first Gulf War and the Korean Nuclear Crisis of 1995, or digitizing an Environmental Cleanup Map of military installations in Alaska, our job was to provide engineering surveys when and where needed, and produce accurate drawings in adverse conditions in a matter of hours. It was a test of productivity and innovation, when missing a deadline was not an option. It was also a test of technology; the Air Force depended on the latest technology to meet the stringent demands we placed on both the hardware and software. And it was a test of teamwork. With limited personnel we had to perform tasks normally undertaken by a much larger group. Today, in my role as project manager/CADD manager at CDS/Muery Services (CDS/MS), I depend on the same formula I did in the service: advanced technology and teamwork equals increased productivity and innovative solutions.

Those components worked then. They're working now. In just four years, CDS/MS has experienced rapid growth in the midst of a challenging economy. From 20 employees in 1999, CDS/MS now has 85 employees including 16 survey crews. The company opened a second office in Houston in 2001. And from the beginning, it has stayed on the cutting edge of technology. CDS/MS bought one of the very first GPS receivers commercially sold and has been performing GPS services ever since. We use conventional total stations, the latest GPS equipment and data controllers, and of course, we keep our software subscriptions current for all our software packages. My job requires that I know more than eight CAD programs as well as numerous raster, imaging and drafting packages--and that I am able to ensure all our software integrates and stays running on all machines.

Of increasing importance to CDS/MS is creating a digital connection between field and office. For years, surveyors have created complex field notes and sketches of projects to minimize the need to return to the field to solve any missing data or human script errors. Because human error has often accounted for the most problems with any surveying project, surveyors for generations have concentrated on repeatedly verifying data and calculations to build confidence in their work and its accuracy.

At CDS/MS, we predominantly use Autodesk (San Rafael, Calif.) software programs and Trimble (Sunnyvale, Calif.) surveying equipment in our projects. We're able to access the digital connection created between hardware and software--field and office--through Autodesk Land Desktop and Trimble Link software, which provide a seamless data transfer. While substantially increasing our productivity, the digital connection created by the software allows us to eliminate as much human error as possible from transferring field data to the office and back again. We've found the digital connection has increased productivity and decreased the potential error budget on most of our projects. Having a digital bridge has also strengthened confidence in our overall projects.

As surveyors, we can't forget or discontinue the basic principles involved in producing highly accurate and complete data. Technology, whether hardware or software, is only a tool of today's trade; however, CDS/MS takes seriously the challenge to use the tools of today to their fullest potential: for our benefit and that of our clients.

CDS/MS also stresses teamwork; our philosophy includes sharing our knowledge with everyone in the firm. We've built a strong and integrated team--and our clients know that. As our productivity and expertise have increased, so have our clients' expectations. We've had to do projects quicker, faster and better, while still maintaining our stringent quality standards. Advanced technology and teamwork helps us do that--over and over again. Here are some projects that reflect our philosophy.

This data from the San Antonio Airport was connected using Trimble Link.

Sidewalk Improvements Project

A local community improvement district contracted Houston-based engineering firm Montgomery & Associates to design sidewalks along a three-mile stretch of heavily congested urban street in Harris County--without taking additional right of way. CDS/MS was subcontracted to establish onsite horizontal and vertical control, provide a detailed topographic survey, and stake the project base line along this section of roadway without closing the street; we performed the work between June and September of 2003.

Intially, we established onsite geodetic control stations using GPS static survey methods with Trimble GPS Total Station 4700 and 5700 RTK GPS systems. This control was densified using the GPS systems and TSC1 data controllers. The topographic survey was performed using Trimble 5603 Direct Reflex (DR or reflectorless) total stations. This topographic survey included collecting and recording a massive amount of points--more than 11,000--multiple angles on key points for immediate mean angles, and feature codes and line chains. We did this quickly, safely and without disrupting the normal traffic flow. Multiple field crews working to collect data gave the office staff the significant task of managing large quantities of data on a daily basis. This data had to be downloaded, processed, verified for continuity and consistency, and then imported into Autodesk Land Desktop. Office personnel had to simultaneously process traverses and topographic data each day. Downloading the controllers through Trimble Link and its user interface increased our productivity and streamlined normal error checking into one process. Soon after the controller was connected to the project, information flowed onto the screen as survey technicians watched the virtual survey crew re-create the field survey within our Land Desktop software. One of the most valuable features of Trimble Link is the way it transfers all of the original data into a digital file. This gives us the opportunity to quickly create FBK files and back up the survey data, which means we never lose any conventional information.

Boundary resolution was also part of this project; after reviewing stacks of deeds, right of way maps, plats and many other documents, a base map was created. We overlaid this map on the road's center line, created an alignment and uploaded it directly into our data controller. Field crews were able to locate property corners referenced from the original right of way strip maps quickly and accurately, utilizing the station and offset routines within the controller. The fieldwork became dynamic outside of the office, freeing office staff to work on drawings and boundary resolution from the previous day's fieldwork. And by enabling each member of the staff to focus on his or her specific tasks, our overall team goal can be better achieved.

CDS/MS surveyor Michael McGuinness, RPLS, collects topographic data for the sidewalk improvement project in Harris County.

Stockpiles Quantity Surveys

This multi-year project consists of assisting the client, a material seller with 11 sites throughout the state of Texas, in taking inventory of their stockpiles of material, which include various grades of gravel, organic material and wood products. The task seems simple enough; the twist is the limited time we have to survey the stockpiles and provide a monthly volume report. In addition, the piles are often moved in between each survey, adding another complication.

CDS/MS began the project by setting a number of standard feature codes for line chains within our project and establishing a base surface of the client's stockpile area. GPS equipment was used to establish a pair of control stations at each site via GPS static survey methods. These stations were set at locations that were unlikely to be disturbed for the life of the surveys. At the same time we established the control, we collected enough topographic features via RTK GPS and integrated Laser Atlanta's (Norcross, Ga.) Advantage, Laser Technology's (Centennial, Colorado) Impulse 2 and LaserCraft's (Norcross, Ga.) Contour XLRic laser measurement equipment to establish an accurate and complete base surface, and to survey the stockpiles at each site. On return to the office, the data controllers were downloaded into Trimble Geomatics Office software, a data processing and management application. The software's user interface makes it quick and easy to error check survey data and codes before sending it to Land Desktop to compute the volumes and prepare the exhibit maps. Having the tools to inspect data along the download process allows for a simple, accurate and more efficient transfer of data, giving us a higher level of confidence in the overall project. We then exported the topographic datasets to our Land Desktop project with a few simple steps. On this initial survey, the base surface of each site was generated from Land Desktop. Then each of the stockpile surfaces was generated. Finally, a surface-to-surface comparison was made to compute the quantities for each pile.

At a predetermined interval (monthly, quarterly or semi-annually), CDS/MS survey crews return to each site, set up on the primary control and re-survey the stockpiles. The laser technology interface with RTK GPS technology allows us to survey these stockpiles more efficiently and safely than actually climbing on to the various piles of organic material. Field crews used breakline codes within the controllers to produce 3D line chains and code each point with the type of material surveyed. Because we coded points with the proper material and breakline information in the field, we reduced the time the office staff spent processing the datasets. Typically, we are given a one-day to five-day turnaround time to deliver the final reports and maps to the client, so streamlining the process to as few steps as possible is critical.

Because we wouldn't give up our high standards or accuracy levels to meet the deadline, the conduit Trimble Link provides became one of the keys to success. Downloading thousands of points and generating surfaces within our project revolves around the ability to maintain the line chains and feature codes from the controllers directly into the project drawings. Time spent in the office to create a surface of each stockpile and run volume reports based on the previous month's survey and the base surface was greatly reduced. Survey technicians only needed to build pile surfaces from the line chains and feature codes used. Dozens of surfaces and volume reports can be generated quickly. We repeat this process every month to provide the client with accurate accounts of the amount of material transferred in and out of their facilities.

CDS/MS surveyor Alton "Bubba" Geisendorff, RPLS, collects topographic and navigation aids data for an airport obstruction survey.

Airfield Obstruction Survey

From January through May of 2001, CDS/MS designed a process for surveying obstructions around the San Antonio International Airport and its outlying areas. To make things more challenging, the project included creating a 3D environment of the airfield and all its obstruction zones.

CDS/MS started by collecting and checking all known airfield monuments and control points. We uploaded our controllers with the latest information on the airfield control network directly from Land Desktop through Trimble Link, eliminating the possibility of any human error in our datasets. Field crews could quickly and efficiently locate monuments and confirm any others that had been destroyed. Verifying airfield runway elevations was a key factor in this process, as obstruction zones over an airfield are based on the airfield's elevations.

We used our GPS RTK equipment and collected all found monuments and tied airfield paving. This information was uploaded through Geomatics Office software and processed accordingly before the 3D drawings around the airfield could be made within Land Desktop. While the field crews switched gears and equipment to reflectorless total stations to collect a detailed topographic survey, office staff developed a complete and accurate 3D environment of the airfield obstruction zones.

Using a collaborative network within the office, we were able to collect, process and store data by using the digital connection between the two software programs, creating a digital 3D airfield. The dynamic flexibility of our survey equipment and software enabled us to have a vibrant project that grew in multiple directions under one tightly controlled environment. Phase I of this pilot project was completed with a massive amount of information--topographic and control points, aerial obstruction data, airfield NAV (navigational) aids, glide slope information (the fictitious path an aircraft takes when it approaches the airfield), FAA airfield regulations, published latitudes and longitudes, and aerial photogrammetry--collected and stored for Phase II.

Phase II included returning to the airfield and working with the airfield management staff to show them penetrations of the obstruction zones around the airfield. At any moment, we had to show whether an object was an obstruction to the different zones. Since tall objects were the focus of the airfield staff, we used reflectorless total stations to survey into the sky--or so it seemed. Before the crews headed to the field, we uploaded the complete 3D environment we had created from Land Development Desktop directly into our controllers. Identifying obstructions became mundane at best. The equipment now was working for us rather than us working the equipment. Point-and-shoot surface comparisons were shown on-the-fly on our controllers' illuminated screens. Cut or fill displays from the uploaded surface (TIN) gave the immediate result we and the airfield staff were seeking. This project was a successful example of how the equipment and software did the work and how the power of having a digital connection between field and office glued it all together.

Using Today's Tools

It's been many years since CDS/MS started using a digital bridge to connect field with office. And as with other advanced technology we've used, it would be difficult to now work without it. While we continue to maintain basic survey principles to produce highly accurate and complete data, these new tools have increased our efficiency, productivity and profitability while doing so. We continue to face new and challenging projects daily. But today's tools help our team meet those challenges effectively and create innovative solutions for our clients--quicker, faster, easier and more economically.

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