In Review: FieldGenius by MicroSurvey Software Inc.

November 25, 2002
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A look at software that does much more than collect data.

MicroSurvey Software Inc.
#110-2300 Carrington Road
Westbank, BC, Canada V4T 2N6
800/668-3312
www.microsurvey.com

Suggested Pricing: Hardware package deals are available for several Windows CE devices. These range from a software and accessories package for the iPAQ priced at $1,195, up to the DAP FieldGenius package priced at $3,995.

When the HP-41 was introduced in 1979, it revolutionized surveying by providing unprecedented computing power in the field. For years, improvements in handheld computing power were primarily limited to increased memory, processor speed and connectivity to desktop computers. The introduction of the Windows CE operating system in 1996 opened up a whole new world for portable computer power. This, coupled with new advances in hardware, including touch screen technology, lower power requirements and LCD screens that can be read in the sunlight, created an opportunity for the development of surveying software that is easier to learn and to use.

MicroSurvey Software Inc. of Westbank, British Columbia, Canada, has introduced its FieldGenius data collection software. This software does much more than collect data.

User Interface

The user interface is one of the attractive elements of FieldGenius. MicroSurvey has capitalized on the Windows CE capabilities and touch screen technology by providing the surveyor with easily accessible functions. The user interface varies slightly depending on which CE device is being used. This review is based on the Panasonic Toughbook.

The basic interface consists of a central graphical screen (Figure 1) surrounded by various command buttons and drop down menus. The buttons on the left of the screen control the pan and zoom of the graphical display and the visibility of point ID, description and notes. The buttons on the right represent the most commonly used features. A command line field at the bottom is where one enters data required by many of the functions. The drop down menus at the top provide access to the other functions.

Smart menus appear depending on what you select from the graphical screen. For example, when selecting a point, the user has the options to edit, take a check shot, stake, occupy or to check the perpendicular offset from any selected figure.

Figure 1. FieldGenius user interface.

Data Collection

MicroSurvey has divided data collection into three distinct sections: traverse, point collection and mapping. Establishing the occupied and backsight points is a simple process. The tabbed dialog boxes, as shown in Figure 2 on page 37, are designed to be processed from the left to the right. The occupied point must have coordinates that can be entered in the “Occ” tab if necessary. The backsight can be any point defined, undefined, real or imagined. An important option is the “Measure Distance” check box. If this is checked, then the backsight must have a number assigned along with established coordinates or the direction to the point. The BS field is smart in that if the BS point has coordinates already established, the inverse direction will appear in the “Calc’d Bearing” field, and if not, then this field will be available to enter a value. If backsight coordinates have not been established, they will be established when the backsight is shot. This eliminates the need to shoot the BS as the first shot to establish position and orientation for a new project. If to a point with established coordinates, the backsight distance is automatically compared to the inversed distance between the occupied and backsight points and the difference is displayed. This can be accepted, in which case the measured distance to the backsight is retained for future checks. The coordinates of the backsight are not changed. During the backsight procedure, the circle reading to the backsight is automatically read and stored for future calculations. Some instruments allow the horizontal circle to automatically be set to zero when shooting the backsight. Those surveyors who prefer to carry azimuths in the field can do so by setting the desired value in their instrument and use the option to “Use Instrument Circle Reading.” The instrument and raw data file will then show the observed azimuth.

A backsight check function exists that will display the current distance and circle reading as well as the last one saved. If the new values are accepted, then these become the new values used in any computations.

FieldGenius always requires a shot to the backsight as it will not let you continue without it. This is a great safety feature. While it’s not often that an experienced field crew will fail to properly set up their station, it does occasionally happen.

Figure 2. Backsight screen.

Set Collection

Set collection is initiated by selecting Auto Traverse from the “Trav” drop down menu. FieldGenius approaches this in a flexible manner. For each shot, whether to a BS or FS and whether Face1 or Face2, the user has the option to measure only angles or both angles and distances. While I like this flexibility, I would like the option to establish the sequence I want to use and bypass the need to pick this choice each time.

The number of sets can be left open, or they may be set to four. After each set, the results are displayed. If for any reason there is a bad set, the entire sequence must be discarded. Unfortunately, there is not a cancel button, so there is an extra screen to go through before being able to start over. Target heights are set after the set sequence _is finished.

If one wants to collect sideshots before continuing with the traverse collection, the Sideshot menu can be selected after exiting the Traverse function. The new Occupy and Backsight Points are already established. If one wants to set a fly station, there is a two set sideshot function that serves this purpose. A fly cannot be set from the Traverse menu if a closure report is desired.

The collection sequence is limited to BS FS FS BS. While this may be the most common sequence used, some surveyors prefer other orders.

After all traverse points have been collected, the “End Traverse” selection will compute and display the closure for the traverse. Adjustments are not made.

Figure 3. Stake location.

Points

Points are the reference used for defining most project elements. The ability to achieve a consistent and meaningful description for points in a project requires a well thought out and understood description list. While everyone must eventually establish his or her own list, once developed, FieldGenius makes it easy to use.

When shooting a point, descriptions are available from a drop down list arranged alphabetically. As a description is typed in, the list is automatically searched for a match as the letters are typed. Once a unique match occurs, the desired description will appear.

If a description does not exist, it can be added to the drop down list by entering it manually in the description field. This new description will appear in the drop down list, but will not appear in the library for use on other projects, or on the current project once the program has exited. Since field crews cannot always finish a job without the interruption of visiting another project, I would like for this list to be retained if this job is reopened later. In addition to the point description, a note of up to 27 characters can be attached to any point. These notes are displayed in FieldGenius and are carried through to MicroSurvey CAD.

Currently the point database must be displayed one at a time, however, a future enhancement will include a spreadsheet style point list.

Point IDs are automatically incremented and can be assigned any numeric value from 1 to 999,999, a range sufficiently large for most projects.

While FieldGenius doesn’t allow double coding of points, it has handy options for accomplishing the same results. The SS menu contains two options “Repeat Last Shot” and “Add Invert,” which will create another point based on previous information. The “Repeat Last Shot” will create a point with a different description based on the last angle and distance information. In addition to the ability to change the description, “Add Invert” allows the point to be moved vertically in either a negative or positive direction. This can be performed for any point previously established. The most common use of this would be when popping manhole covers and measuring the distance to the inverts.

Additional shot options found under the SS (Side Shot) menu are angle and distance offsets, remote height, trilateration and planer projection. For ease of use, I would like for the “Add Invert” to be added to the smart menu for points, and the Offset options to be accessible from the SS dialog box.

For invalid shots, FieldGenius has the handy “Undo Last Shot” feature. This will place a note in the raw data file and remove the point from the point database. This provides a note with a consistent format that can be recognized by processing software and treated accordingly. This is not available for set collection.

One important feature in data collection is the description attached to the points gathered. FieldGenius uses a predefined AutoMAP library. Any number of libraries can reside in the data collector. The one to be used is selected at the time a new project is created. This library is a comma delimited ASCII file, which can be opened in any text editor or spreadsheet program. However, the easiest way to modify this file is to use the editing tool in MicroSurvey CAD. At the present time, FieldGenius only uses the listed description and if present, a replacement text string. FieldGenius presently displays all information in the project with view control over point IDs, descriptions and notes. Future versions will have enhanced view control that allows the user to toggle on or off display of specific items, according to their respective point descriptions.

If a point needs to be removed from the database, there is only one way to do this. This provides protection from accidently erasing points. While the original raw observation to the deleted point will remain in the raw data file, there is no record in the raw file that a point has been deleted. I would like to see the original point data placed in the raw data file so it could be restored later if necessary and properly handled by software processing the raw data file.

Figure 4. Adding points along a line.

Linework

Keeping track of linework, called figures in FieldGenius, can be difficult in a complex site. FieldGenius has simplified this procedure by a system of groups, with each figure in a group having a distinct group number. The group name is the description used for the first point shot when creating a new figure. As more points are shot, they are added to the current figure and the points connected with a line. For example, if surveying a parcel containing several buildings, one can use a description such as BLDG for all. Then when a new building is started, one just selects the “new” button at the top right of the screen, selects BLDG for the point description, and the system starts a new figure. If the point description has been used on a previous figure, as in this example, the group number is incremented. FieldGenius plots the figures on the screen as they are collected. Consequently, if one then needs to add to a figure already started, the figure can simply be picked from the screen. Then the user can select the "Make Current Line" option from the smart menu, or can select the figure from the active figure drop down list. This automatically selects the group name as the default point description.

Figures can be designated as finished or closed (i.e., the last point connected to the first point). Closing a figure automatically places it in the “Finished” category. Finished figures do not show up in the active line drop down list and they cannot have additional line segments added to them unless they are reactivated. A closed figure must have a segment removed before it can be reactivated.

There is currently no convenient way to measure the remainder of a building after shooting two or more corners; however, I previewed a future enhancement that will allow this. When available, it will be quite easy to use. One will merely select the figure defining a portion of the building, make it the current figure, and then provide the deflection angle and distance to draw succeeding segments.

Stakeout

At present the only stakeout routines available are radial stakeout of points and stake a point on a line. While a full complement of staking functions such as stake to a cross-section template, slope staking and offset staking are on the way, the ones currently available provide a lot of flexibility, especially when combined with the ability to generate points along and offset to a figure.

Stakeout will store either the elevation as staked or cut/fill in the raw file, but not both. The MicroSurvey staff tell me that the stakeout report capability will be greatly expanded in future versions to include both staked and design coordinates as well as other parameters appropriate to the stakeout method being used.

To stake a point on a line, one first has the option to shoot an angle in the general direction of the line without sighting a prism. This provides the distance to the line, which saves some time as it is not necessary to sight a prism to get the initial computed distance. If one knows the approximate location of the line, then the angle and distance can both be retrieved on the first shot. After this initial shot, the procedure is similar to staking a point in that the error in the location is shown graphically, as shown in Figure 3 on page 38.

Once a point is located within the desired tolerance, an option exists to save the data to the raw file. This brings up a dialog box informing the user that the data has been saved. I would like to see an option to turn this off, as it adds a lot of keystrokes for a large stakeout job.

I would like to see a symbol placed on the screen, or some other way to identify the points that have been staked. This would make it easier to verify that all points have been staked prior to leaving a setup. Since a symbol name is a part of the AutoMAP library described earlier, I expect to see this in a future edition.

COGO

COGO routines in the release I reviewed are limited to Traverse/_Intersect, Inverse, Station/Offset and Offset Intersection. The next release will greatly expand these functions by adding calculation tools such as local transformation, curve calculations and more.

Intersection solutions, as well as the ability to traverse by direction and distance are accomplished from the same menu item. The data required is entered in the command line by following sequential prompts. By providing or skipping information as the prompts appear, the program can determine the type of intersection to compute. Once completed, FieldGenius presents a summary in a results dialog so the correctness can be confirmed. While some folks prefer the command line input style of providing data, I prefer the dialog type of interface where I can change the input without starting over. Perhaps a future version will provide this as an option.

Points along a figure can be generated by identifying the desired alignment from a drop down list. A dialog box, as shown in Figure 4 on page 38, shows the beginning and ending stations for the figure. These can be changed to alter the portion of the figure where points will be added. The dialog box also contains fields for specifying offset values, descriptions to be added to the points and some options for adding notes. The note options include Stations, Stations/Offsets as viewed from the CL, Stations/Offsets as viewed to the CL or None. I would like to see this function added to the smart menu so the figure can be selected graphically.

Data Transfer

One of the neat features of FieldGenius is the way it connects to and transfers data to the desktop computer. After the initial installation, all that is necessary is to plug the Toughbook into the docking station and a window appears listing the files that are available for uploading. The user then merely selects the files that are to be transferred to the desktop and they are sent to the FieldGenius Sync directory. MicroSurvey CAD, when started on the desktop will check this directory and list any jobs that are waiting to be imported.

Files that are ready to be downloaded to FieldGenius will appear in a window following the upload process. The files are first created in MicroSurvey CAD and sent to the FieldGenius Sync directory. These files can include all, or a portion of, a project and can consist of points only or drawing entities. The drawing will appear in _FieldGenius the same way it does on the desktop.

Files that have not changed but still reside on both systems are not transferred, even though they may be selected for upload. However, there is no notification for this. If a newer file resides in FieldGenius than on the desktop, the user has the option to overwrite the newer one or to not make the transfer. MicroSurvey has made a good start with its Active Sync connection. However, I would like to see it expanded to take full advantage of Microsoft’s briefcase checkout procedure that flags files that have changed on either device.

Conclusion

There are many features, such as setting a temporary target height, adding general comments, displaying the area of figures, finding the intersection of a line with a figure, audio notes and several others that merit discussion. Many of these items are things we have come to expect in a data collector, but the ability to use graphical input in the execution of these functions intrigues me. The extensive use of graphics makes this product easy to use and one that, with a little cooperation between field and office personnel, will enable the field crew to take on more responsibility for project activities.

During the process of this review, I had several conversations with Mark Cahill, data collection product manager, and others on the MicroSurvey staff. I also spent some time browsing the MicroSurvey bulletin board. My experience is reinforced by the discussions and comments on the board, which indicates that the MicroSurvey staff are receptive to the wishes and suggestions of users.

The next release will add a lot of maturity to FieldGenius, with the addition of RTK GPS, more robust stakeout functions, additional COGO routines and refinements to many of the existing functions.

FieldGenius is a companion product to MicroSurvey CAD, a desktop surveying and design program developed for the analysis and design of projects, both large and small. We will explore this product and tell you more about how they work together in the next issue (January 2003).

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