Building a Better Handheld

March 24, 2003
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A behind the scenes look at the making of the TDS Recon.



The Recon can be used in the toughest field conditions.
Although the rumors as to the demise of the HP48 handheld so beloved by surveyors have neither been confirmed nor denied, those rumors may be essentially irrelevant with the launch of the new TDS Recon handheld data collector by Tripod Data Systems of Corvallis, Ore. Made available this past February to its target market including surveyors and mappers, the TDS Recon offers many benefits for the HP48 user. And with TDS’ experience designing and manufacturing rugged handhelds, starting with the Ranger in 1999, savvy surveyors can be assured of a product that is well-planned, well-designed, well-tested and well-manufactured.

The 9-pin serial RS-232 and USB ports accept standard computer cables for maximum compatibility and are sealed for protection.

Its Strategic Building

When TDS entered the hardware manufacturing market with the launch of the Ranger, it did so with finesse and smarts. Research and development (R&D) efforts were strong and comprehensive, design was solid and concise, testing was immeasurable in the surveying industry and the manufacturing decisions were nothing short of scrupulous. The Ranger, in turn, received great attention and sales, and TDS made its graceful entrance into a new market while sustaining its promise to surveyors to supply them with reliable, cost-efficient products. The Recon delivers on this promise as well, this time to a more specific audience, HP48 users. HP48 customers, similar to customers of any market, are content with their products until there is another option. TDS wanted to give them that option.

“The first concept of the Recon dates back two years,” says Bill Martin, director of survey marketing and sales at TDS. “The rumor of the HP48 demise has been going on for many years. We expected that the HP48 would eventually move on [and] we wanted to be able to continue providing a solution for those customers. We also wanted to be able to move them into the Windows CE environment—to provide a low cost but advanced technology Windows CE environment.”

Martin notes that a collective goal to offer a new handheld without making TDS reliant on HP’s (or any other companies’) platforms instigated the Recon’s development efforts. TDS’s progressive nature is another reason for the launch of the Recon, as TDS continues to examine ways to keep its customers supplied with the latest in technology—at an affordable price.

“Primarily our goal was to provide the latest Windows CE technology [on a handheld] at a price point that would attract our HP48 customers,” Martin says. “Our customer base for the Ranger is predominantly high-end surveyors who could afford a high-end product. Our target market [for the Recon] is the HP48 customers who primarily work with mechanical total stations and [are from] smaller surveying companies. They are also frugal with their money.”

TDS tapped into the uncultivated Windows CE software market with the Ranger in 1999, offering surveyors an upgrade from the clunky DOS packages of the day. With the incarnation of the Recon, the surveyor is again offered a solution, this time to Windows CE.NET, an operating system (OS) that LaVonne Frazier, a TDS hardware development manager says “was clearly needed for the Recon.”

“With Windows CE, it’s very component-ized. There’s a huge menu of features available in the operating system for developers to choose from. As an OEM, we could choose to use or not to use them based on the needs of our customers,” Frazier says, adding that the Linux OS always comes up as an option. “The reality is that the support isn’t there [with Linux],” she says.

Frazier says the Recon is on par with the latest and greatest HP Compaq iPAQ. “It’s got the same CPU, but it’s far more rugged and has much better battery life.”

And these are features expected to attract the surveyor.

The Torture Tests

The ruggedness of the Recon, which Martin says is one of its greatest benefits, was considered when naming the product. Martin says a company-wide contest resulted in the name, which suits all the markets TDS was interested in providing for and conjures up visions of people in the outdoors like surveyors, construction and forestry workers, and military personnel.

Although a recent poll on POB Online in February indicated that the majority of pollers think their data collectors are rugged enough for the work they do, the Recon can certainly outperform many of the data collectors on the market for surveyors. In a series of torture tests, the Recon came out shining, even after exceeding the stringent military standards under MIL-STD-810F.

“We selected target specs, the levels we wanted to beat and made sure we went beyond that,” Frazier says. “It was important to us to know that without a doubt we meet our published specifications.”

Not only do they meet them, TDS tested to be sure they exceeded them. Considering the nature of a surveyor’s work, tests were conducted on the TDS Recon in three main areas: drop, temperature and water immersion. The MIL-STD-810F military standard calls for up to five units to be dropped 26 times from a height of 4 feet on plywood over concrete. TDS boastfully set their standards higher than that test and over-delivered; testers dropped a prototype Recon 38 times from 5 feet up—and all with a single unit.

Other tests included baking the unit in a 158 degree Fahrenheit oven continuously for seven days. And although the standard only requires a 30-minute submergence, TDS testers submerged the Recon in water for one hour. The results? Under the Ingress Protection (IP) specification, which rates on a scale of 0-6 for protection against solid objects (the first number) and 0-8 for protection against liquids (the second number), the TDS Recon achieved an IP67 rating, nearly the best possible grade for environmental protection from enclosures on electronic equipment. This indicates that it is impenetrable from dust and water and can withstand most any surveyor’s work environment. The Recon can also operate in a low pressure environment up to an altitude of 15,000 ft, and endured the required vibration tests as well under the MIL-STD-810F standards.

The TDS Recon weighs just 17 oz, has rounded edges for a comfortable hold and hosts the latest Windows CE technology.

Specs for Success

In addition to its impressive platform of Windows CE.NET 4.1 operating system, which allows users to view popular desktop documents such as Adobe Acrobat, Microsoft Word, PowerPoint and Excel in their original formats without having to convert them to a “pocket” version that loses much of the desktop formatting, the Recon also boasts many other advantages for the surveyor.

The Recon is offered in two models. The 200C contains a 200 MHz Intel Xscale CPU, 64 MB of RAM and 64 MB of internal nonvolatile FLASH storage. The 400C model contains a 400 MHz CPU, 64 MB of RAM and 128 MB of FLASH storage. Accompanying the Windows OS is the Recon’s equally reliable software partner. The Recon is packaged with TDS Survey Pro and SOLO View software.

“That’s another benefit of being part of TDS,” Frazier says. “They already have market-leading [software] applications.”

The Recon’s sunlight-readable display uses a reflective color touch screen suited for outdoor use and includes an LED front lighting for indoor and low-light conditions. The unit’s 9-pin serial port and USB port transfers large data files in minutes using standard cables. The Recon also includes the graphical interface features, map views and other capabilities of Survey Pro on the Ranger. The unit comes standard with a nickel-metal hybride rechargeable battery pack, which can be used up to 33 hours, depending on the type of use. For example, if the user keeps the backlight on the entire time of use, the batteries may last just over 10 hours. A battery life of about 15 hours can be expected under normal surveying conditions. Martin says an alkaline battery, as well as several other enhancements, is in the works. Building from the Ranger’s successes, the Recon’s keypad contains buttons that have a distinct, tactile feel and are widely spaced for large or gloved fingers.

With its easy-to-grip, rounded edge, soft rubber exterior, the comfort element of the Recon is further enhanced by the impressive lightweight of 17 oz with batteries. How were the designers at TDS able to pull this off?

“We’re quite lucky in getting the best design engineers from HP,” Frazier says, referring to the pool of Hewlett-Packard employees who have joined TDS in past years. Frazier herself was a platform manager at HP, a similar position to the one she holds at TDS. “We’re constantly working toward lighter and lighter and more durable [products].”

For most surveyors, a data collector that does more than its original intended use can be a blessing. “[The Recon] provides customization options to suit your different applications,” Martin says. “TDS chose the dual compact FLASH slots to allow users broad expansion possibilities. Today, we support and sell Compact FLASH cards to add to the Recon’s memory capacity. We expect that as new CE.Net devices come on the market and we test them to ensure full compatibility, that we will be able to offer additional expansion devices in the future.”

The PowerBoot Module integrates a 3800 mAh battery pack with industry-standard 9-pin serial and USB ports into a single user-replaceable component the user can easily replace even in the field.

Recon users can also add to the usability of the Recon by buying instrument cables, a tripod bracket, several options of cases including a deluxe case with belt clip and neck strap for a stylus, among other options. The key defining feature of the Recon, however, according to Martin is its price. Comparable to the HP48 surveying system, but with many more superior qualities, the Recon with software starts at a reasonable $1,799.

“The price point is unique for what you get,” Martin says. “[It’s] very reliable, very rugged and comes with advanced, field-proven software.”

The Recon came out shining, even after exceeding stringent military standards.

Ready for Distribution

With the excellent lineup of designers and engineers ready to go, and with the success of the Ranger under TDS’ belt, the Recon team set out to make the next generation of powerful handheld data collectors. Strong production efforts began in August of 2001 and a prototype board was established a few months later in December. By April of 2002, the team had a “workable” board with all the components working off batteries and the production team running Windows CE applications. A beta level prototype was sent out by the end of June/early July 2002 and the customer evaluations level prototypes were ready by early October. Final changes were made in the operating system and mass production began in January 2003—an impressive timeline for the making of any instrument.

Two team members, Frazier and Dennis Bowers, TDS manufacturing manager, not only had the experience to aid in the efforts for the Recon project, they had a collective strength from working together at Hewlett-Packard. When Bowers joined in the Recon efforts upon his employment at TDS in July of 2002, he, Frazier and others looked to Solectron Corporation, a provider of electronics manufacturing services with sites all over the world, for its manufacturing contract. “They are a good strong partner with good price points for customers,” Frazier says. Trimble, TDS’ parent owner, encouraged the decision to use Selectron. “Their quality and reputation [sold us],” Frazier adds. “We judged them on the standards [of] responsiveness, delivery, quality, quantity and price.”

With the R&D and designing efforts implemented, the fun and challenges of the torture tests complete to standards and beyond, and the manufacturing in competent hands of Solectron Corporation, the TDS Recon handheld data collector is ready for the surveyor’s use and review. It may be a bit unsettling to advance beyond the adored HP48, but surveyors’ expectations or requirements should be more than fulfilled with the efficient and rugged performance of the Recon—and all it offers at a price point comparable to the HP48 surveying system. Frazier believes so, too.

“I do believe that Recon can easily be a painless migration path for HP48 people,” Frazier says.

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