In Review:SurvCE by Carlson Software

March 26, 2002
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Complete data collection in Windows CE.

Figure 1. Stakeout screen.
The surveying profession is always in transition. Laws, environmental concerns, licensing requirements, business practices and field equipment are among the issues we deal with every day, those that are dynamic in nature. In my lifetime, field equipment has progressed from transit and tape to theodolites, EDMs, aerial surveys, total stations, robotic instruments and GPS, with other developments in between.

Now, GPS is being used to gather boundary and topographic data and to control earthmoving machinery. What is coming next? The “tongue-in-cheek” ideas presented by Dennis J. Mouland, PLS, on page 92 of the October 2001 issue of POB may not be too far-fetched.

As a part of implementing these changes, industry manufacturers have always been in the forefront in translating the results of university, government and their own research into usable solutions. Carlson Software of Maysville, Ken., has been one of these.

Beginning with a simple (at least it seems so looking back) COGO program in 1983, the company has kept its ear to the ground and has filled technology voids with such things as mining modules, GPS-based dozer control, GPS-based marine surveying and the latest, Tsunami, a data collection package in a CAD environment running on lightweight field computers. In 1996, Carlson recognized a void in the GPS arena and introduced SurvStar. SurvStar started as a GPS data logger and later added total stations. SurvCE, Carlson Software’s new complete data collection system for real-time GPS and total stations, is graphics-based technology with more new features running under the Windows CE environment.

The Windows revolution has now extended itself to the field. Windows CE and the advancements in processor speed, storage capacity and display technology have expanded the potential functionality of field computers. SurvCE has taken advantage of these advances. The graphical display is constantly updated to show the target position. Using GPS or robotic total stations, the update is dynamic, i.e., the target icon moves on the screen as the rodman moves on the ground. Using conventional total stations, the screen is updated for each shot.

Screen Graphics

Screen graphics are an essential part of the system. When collecting data, the points show up on the screen as they are collected. They are labeled with point number, elevation and description. Each of these attributes can be made visible or frozen as best fits the job at hand. This, coupled with the available pan and zoom capabilities, provides a high degree of utility.

When a point number is needed for such things as a backsight, occupied point or point to be staked, a person may enter the number, choose one from a list, or select one from the screen. If, when selecting a point from the screen, it is within a close proximity of others, then all within the cluster are displayed in a list for final selection.

A valuable feature is the ability to import polylines from a DXF file. This is handy for staking points or doing a boundary survey. By attaching the imported DXF file to the project, a person can easily compare what needs to be done with what has already been accomplished and where he is in relation to the total project. This, coupled with the ability to turn layers on and off as needed, greatly enhances the productivity of data collection or stakeout.

Functions to convert imported polylines to points and/or center line files exist, but are not apparent by inspecting the menu system. These commands, as well as almost 40 others, are available by typing them from the keyboard when in the map view. They include LA, which turns layers on and off, import and export DXF files, draw polylines, delete polylines and predetermined areas, just to name a few. These commands are available only in the full map view, requiring one to exit whatever routine he/she may be in and to return via the menu. I would like to see direct access to the full graphics screen and then a return to the last position.

Figure 2. Cut sheet format screen.

Data Translation

Completion of large projects often requires the collaboration of several firms. This can require that files of various types be exchanged among software that uses different formats. SurvCE provides significant capability. Profiles can be converted from TerraModel, Land Development, TDS, SDR and LandXML. In addition, profiles can be translated to LandXML. Center lines can also be converted to SDR. They can be translated between metric and English units.

The most significant of these software is LandXML. This file format has been under development for more than three years and is making file transfer between programs a breeze. The LandXML format eliminates the task of developing translators to other products. Instead, each developer can simply develop their programs to read and write in the LandXML format, and the job is done. (Carlson Software is among those supporting the LandXML format. More information on this effort can be found at www.landxml.org.)

COGO Routines

SurvCE contains the basic COGO functions: Inverse, Area, Intersections, Point Projection (the location of a point in relation to a baseline or the perpendicular intersect of a point with that baseline), Station Store (the location of a point by specifying the station and offset from a baseline) and transformation (Translate, Rotate and Scale. These are restricted to the entire dataset). My beta version did not contain a pre-determined area function from the menu. This and others are available from the command list as discussed elsewhere.

Figure 3. Cut sheet printout.

Field to Finish

SurvCE uses a subset of the system found in Carlson’s desktop products for a field-to-finish operation. These elements include the ability to connect points with 2D or 3D polylines and to label points with number, elevation and description. This, coupled with the ability to see the target position on the screen, is a great time-saver and can eliminate the need to return to the field to fill in missing data.

All new projects start out with a code list copied from the point code table. When a point code is required, this list opens for easy selection. However, if the required code isn’t present, it can be typed into the code box. It will then be added to the list for later recall when appropriate. These additional codes are not automatically added to the feature code list, so only points are added to the screen. If the new code represents a linear feature, such as a fence, it is necessary to edit the point code table to add it. As with any field-to-finish activity, a well-established coding system results in a better finished product.

The point code table does not contain the layer for the entity. I would like to see this added, as it would aid in isolating project elements when needed on a complex site.

The resulting map can then be exported to an office PC as a DXF file, but the data must be reprocessed in order to gain the full capability of a field-to-finish product.

User Interface

SurvCE is targeted for any Windows CE device ranging from the relative inexpensive Compaq iPAQ to the more rugged boxes such as the Ranger, DAP CE5240 or CE5320. This provides the user with a lot of choices. These boxes naturally take advantage of the touchscreen technology that these devices offer. This review is based on it running on the Ranger.

It took me a while to get accustomed to the touchscreen technology, but now that I have, I love it. These devices come with a stylus, which is used to select the option desired as they are presented on the screen. The Ranger isn’t equipped with a storage slot for the stylus when not in use, and as a result, I soon lost mine. I discovered that a small plastic coffee stirrer, found in most carry-out coffee shops worked quite well.

Documentation

I believe user documentation is an essential element in a user’s acceptance of a new product. Although the documentation I received was not the final product, it contained a lot of detail in those parts that were complete. It contained screen shots of the various functions with a detailed description of each element of a dialog box. I found a few exceptions, which I expect to be included in the final product.

Stakeout

It is difficult to comment on features that are not completed. However, when released, SurvCE will be rich in stakeout routines. These include point stakes, stake a line, offset staking, slope staking and staking a DTM. These will provide the opportunity to stake anything from pre-computed points downloaded from the office computer to complex road jobs defined by horizontal and vertical alignments to templates with widening and super elevation.

I was able to use several of these functions and was impressed with the feedback provided by SurvCE. For predetermined locations, such as point stakes and offsets, the initial screens provided the direction and distance to the target point as well as a graphical view of the instrument and target location. After an observation is made to a tentative point, the graphical display shows a bull’s eye of the target and the relative distance and direction to get on the point. If the target is a design element with an elevation, the cut or fill will also be displayed. Notice the scale bar at the top of the screen showing the relative size of the bull’s eye shown in Figure 1 on page 40.

If a firm pre-computes all stakeout points, as many do, they can simply download them and use the point stake feature. However, SurvCE provides a better method. By generating and downloading a cut sheet list, the field crew simply opens the list and selects a point from the list. The resulting cut sheet file will then include the station and offset of the stake location. The cut sheet list is a simple comma delimited file containing the station, offset, design elevation and description. The description is limited to center line, edge of pavement, curbs and ditches. I would prefer to see a tag placed on each point as it is staked as an easy confirmation that all points have been staked.

Cut Sheets

I am amazed by the number of firms that are preparing cut sheets by hand. I believe this is largely due to the lack of software to translate field information into the desired format, as well as the reluctance of some firms to trust the data collector. SurvCE eliminates the first excuse and provides an independent check for those who use the second excuse.

The types of data that are stored are slightly different for each type of cut sheet as shown in Table 1 on page 40. They all provide a great deal of flexibility. Any item in the list can be turned on or off, and the order of the items can be easily set by the user. One simply highlights an item in the list, as shown in Figure 2 on page 41 and selects the on/off or move up/down buttons as is appropriate. The cut sheet data can be stored in a comma delimited text file, the note file or both.

I found the comma delimited text file to be an excellent feature. This file can be imported into Microsoft Excel or other common spreadsheets and displayed as shown in Figure 31 on page 41. By developing user-defined macros in the spreadsheet, additional columns, formulas and any other necessary modification can be automatically performed. Firms should be able to customize the final cut sheet to match individual style.

Set Collection

Verifying existing or establishing new control is an essential part of project development or a boundary survey. The set collection sequence in SurvCE allows as many as 12 points to be observed in any desired sequence from a given setup. If any set is out of the tolerance previously established, the user is notified. A direct and reverse report is displayed when the required number of sets has been completed. If any of the sets are not acceptable, additional sets can be collected while still on the occupied point. The raw data will contain all of the sets taken. If any should be rejected, they must be turned into a note prior to final processing in the office. The results of the set collection process are retained in a file and can be copied to a PC and printed for the record. A sample file is shown in Figure 4 on page 45.

Summary

As our handheld devices become more powerful, it’s easy to want them to do more and more. Can you remember the days prior to the HP41CV? This was a powerful tool compared to the trigonometry and logarithmic tables and the old hand cranked field calculators that preceded it. It’s easy to always want more, but in my experience many of us are not using what we have to its full potential. There are a lot of reasons for this, among them the difficulty of learning a new product and the lack of time to work on it.

In my opinion, SurvCE is a powerful product and is easy to learn. The graphical feedback and the well-designed dialog boxes of SurvCE are easy to follow. This, and a well-developed user manual, will make it easy for anyone to learn. The similarities of the functions in SurvCE with Carlson’s time-tested desktop programs will prove popular with current users of other Carlson products.

The product I reviewed was a beta copy for Version 1.0. There were significant improvements in the functions and changes to the user interface each time I received a new copy, providing ample evidence that Carlson was listening to beta testers, such as myself.

There are many features that I don’t have room to discuss, such as the option to use alphanumeric point numbers, picking the desired solution for a Dist-Dist intersect from the graphical screen, options for the action of the enter key when collecting data, and for those who prefer it, a text-only screen that can be used instead of the graphics screen when collecting data.

Like any new product that is loaded with features, the more I used it, the more I discovered what it would do. The ability to change the column order and number of digits displayed when listing points, and the option to use a text or graphics-based screen when collecting topographic data are a couple of examples.

When I first learned that Carlson was developing a data collection program, I wondered why, when there were already several strong programs available. My review of this product has convinced me that this has not been a half-hearted effort. Carlson has produced a product that will stand beside any on the market and perform well for those who use it. Carlson has a reputation for listening to its users, so as the user base extends beyond beta testers, there will, no doubt, be additional features added. I believe that SurvCE will be a product that will keep pace with users’ desires and with technological advances in handheld devices. I look forward to the opportunity to use the final product.

The content and order of data in this example has not been modified. For clarity, a blank line has been inserted between the offset and point stake data. The format of some cells has been modified to change the alignments from left or right to center. The lines around the cells have been added.

Carlson Software
102 W. Second Street
Maysville, KY 41056
606/564-5028
www.carlsonsw.com

Product Mix Modules are available for total stations, robotics or GPS or any combination. Roading features can be added to any of the above.

Prices aren't firm at press time but will range from $1,000 to $3,000 depending on the modules purchased. This does not include hardware since there are so many options.

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