From Milkmen to Mainstream

November 21, 2003
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A compendium of emerging technologies in land development and surveying.



As time goes on, technology improves and firms advance, and certain technologies end up by the wayside. In much the same way that we no longer have TV repairmen or milkmen, we have seen drafting people give way to designers, and now workers who perform survey stakeout watch as GPS-guided machine control makes its way onto many project sites. And as some technology diminishes, other technology options emerge.

Many new technologies on the market today affect the land development, planning and surveying industries. The firms that have aggressively moved to integrate these technologies into their workflow have achieved a proprietary advantage over their competitors.

But to implement some of these choices, proper corporate philosophies must be in place. Management support must exist not only in authorizing the purchase of these new tools, but also in shoring up the system surrounding them. Continuing education for staff members must be funded. Too often project managers say that training is low on the list of priorities. However, they are paying for that lack of training every day-on the job-and with poor results. Employees are forced to use a hunt-and-peck method to see how functions are supposed to work and often fail to find the intended and imaginative methods that the software designer envisioned. If the staff had a formal and routine method to learn how to use the technology, it is hard to argue that production wouldn't be better. Software subscriptions, maintenance programs, updating internal design methodologies, and funding for research and development are all examples of the investment needed for successful implementation of the tools of today's modern trade.

The Topcon GTS-230 combined with the FC-1000 field controller is a wireless system that eliminates common connection problems and broken cables.

Implementing the Needed Infrastructure

Some of the emerging technologies in the civil engineering and surveying fields comprise the addition of robotics to construction work, hardware advances and enhancements in data access, retrieval, sharing, transfer and processing.

So what kind of ancillary support is needed to accommodate increasing technological capability? One is the connectivity within the corporation. A solid network, one that meets both business and CAD needs, while being manageable, secure and flexible, depends on first-rate infrastructure equipment. At a minimum, an AEC firm must have this equipment in its arsenal:

    Enterprise, Local and Wide Area Networks
      VPNs, home-office and mobile connectivity
        Firewall protection and intrusion detection
          Virtual networks and load balancing
            Wireless office connectivity (or Wi-MAX)
              Voice and data integration (voice-over IP, LAN-PBX)
                High availability and disaster recovery
                  Enterprise-wide Intranet and FTP sites

                One of the most important functions that managers can perform is flexibility-and even proactivity-in creating a workflow that looks to the future. For instance, a firm learning to design roads and sites using CAD software creates a practice to grow strongly using new technologies. Gone are the days of the project folder that contained the engineer's computations and the construction plans that exhibited the draftsperson's drawing and representation of the design. Today, the CAD file contains the graphics pertaining to the design, while CAD project databases are the containers for the design content. Both of these data repositories now routinely move forward beyond the plotting phase. CAD files containing graphic data are now shared extensively with others for referral and analysis purposes. According to Chris Bradshaw, VP of Autodesk Infrastructure Solutions (San Rafael, Calif), it is estimated that eight other people use a CAD file after the draftsperson completes it.

                Another element new to many today is that the engineer's design can move directly to the construction site with robotic machine control. But, the design organization must be in a position to take advantage of computer-aided design and three-dimensional site modeling in order to make maximum use of this new technology. This modern workflow is a requirement in order to cooperate with developers who use contractors with robotic excavation. Many firms cannot take advantage of this opportunity due to the lack of training on the software. The sooner a firm moves to training its staff, the more rapidly it can join the emerging technological advancements of the industry.

                Trimble's SiteVision data management software has quality control features for 3D site simulations.

                Technology Coming To a Site Near You

                GPS-Guided Machine Control
                This technology is designed to minimize or eliminate survey stakeout on large projects and to deliver the engineer's design directly into the field.

                In a concise overview, machine control involves several principal components:

                1. A computing base that stores digital surface model and isopach data (volume consisting of the differences between two surfaces) and instructs operations;

                2. A positional system that determines the locations of earthmoving vehicles in real-time;

                3. On-board computers that provide data to equipment operators and/or directly control the earthmoving equipment's blades; and

                4. Hardware fitted to the excavation vehicle, including hydraulics, receivers, compensators, onsite GPS stations (or total stations) and base station radio transmitters.

                A surveyor, being the most appropriate and schooled person to oversee and work with the design data, can run the data through a set of QA/QC techniques to ready it for machine control usage. Robotic machine control has been proven to be a highly effective method of earthmoving, and thus a technology that numerous construction contractors are implementing. The contractor who invests in this technology can receive a return on investment in as little as a few months.

                Wireless Technologies and PDAs
                Used for data collection or data disbursement to the field, the advent of wireless capable hardware eliminates many connection problems, bent and missing pins, broken cables, etc. Offerings such as Topcon's (Pleasanton, Calif.) GTS-230 series total station combined with the FC-1000 field controller, a true wireless system that supports Bluetooth wireless technology, are intended to simplify routine tasks. For instance, a handheld automatically synchronizes with your desktop computer when you walk in the office. Your mobile phone, handheld and personal computer all share the same address book, schedule and to-do list. Another system that supports infrared transfer abilities is the Sokkia (Olathe, Kan.) SDR8100 or Ranger.

                Many of the popular surveying equipment manufacturers now have PDA hardware carrying very capable surveying and graphics software. Surveyors are now using traditional PDAs such as the Compaq iPAQ (Hewlett-Packard Company, Palo Alto, Calif.) for operations including GPS collection.

                Since many of us now have cell phones, wouldn't it be great if the PDA and cell phone were one and the same? A recent launch by the Mobile Devices Division at Microsoft Corp. introduced its alliance with Motorola Inc. to build and deliver a series of Microsoft Windows Mobile-based Smartphones and Pocket PCs. In conjunction with this strategic alliance, Motorola has unveiled the Windows Mobile-based Smartphone, the Motorola MPx200 Smartphone, which extends desktop computing to the wireless world.

                Improved Software For Portable Devices
                The possession of hardware does not produce solutions; rather having software that integrates into the hardware is where the production exists. We have seen extraordinary results in this area from being able to view CAD drawings to performing surveying computations.

                Autodesk Inc. offers a program called OnSite View, which supports all of the Windows CE operating system variations, including PocketPC, Palm-size PC, Handheld, Handheld Pro and Tablet devices. Users convert their AutoCAD drawings (DWG) to the Autodesk OnSite View drawing (OSD) for viewing and use on the handheld. Excellent abilities exist now for checking plans in the field.

                Carlson Software's (Maysville, Ky.) SurvCE is a complete data collection system for Real-Time Kinematic (RTK) GPS and total stations. It uses and creates in-field coordinate geometry and supports most major brands of total stations and GPS. Points and curvilinear linework appear on the screen in real-time as they are measured. Another variant on this is Carlson's Tsunami software that plots graphics in the AutoCAD (DWG) format. Surveyors can create or update drawings in real-time. GIS technicians can store points and input or update to Microsoft Access (MDB) database tables. Construction surveyors can stake out by point number or snap to any CAD polyline, line or arc.

                Software for Quality Control of Machine Control Data
                With the evolution and acceptance of machine control technology, the need for QA/QC of 3D design data becomes that much more important. The person overseeing the quality control checks on data must have proper training, field experience and understanding to develop or QC machine control data. This can-and often should-be the surveyor. With the proper person positioned to take on this great responsibility, and the advancement and enhancement of software programs, some even relation-based, the data used today on projects becomes even more intelligent.

                Manufacturers know this and are launching new products or enhancing current products to answer this call. Soon, Autodesk will ship the Autodesk Civil 3D add-on to its Land Desktop software, an offering that will link design components together in relationships. When a modification occurs to one design item, it automatically affects and recomputes another. Land Desktop already supports various aspects of the data that machine control requires.

                Topcon's Top Site software prepares 3D data and sends it to the machine control format required to direct excavation. It has quality control diagnostics and 3D simulation so the design can be visually checked before it goes to construction. Trimble's (Sunnyvale, Calif.) SiteVision imports data from Terramodel and other manufacturers, and also has quality control features for 3D site simulations.

                Software for Dozer Operators
                It was only a few years ago when people scoffed at the idea of computers on the construction site. Now computers are showing up not only in construction site offices but installed on the earthmoving equipment as well. All of the major manufacturers now offer software solutions for guiding the equipment operator or the dozer blades themselves, including Trimble's BladePro, Topcon's 3D Construction, the new Topcon 3D GPS+, and Leica's (Leica Geosystems, Atlanta, Ga.) Dozer 2000 and GradeStar 3D grading solutions.

                Improved Computer Hardware
                The Tablet PC offers portability, the use of pen-style input and the power of a full-function PC with the convenience of a lightweight notepad.

                Wireless Technology
                Security issues notwithstanding, wireless technology is a convenience that is ready for prime time. PCs or laptops purchased from Dell Inc. (Round Rock, Texas), Compaq and others have offers to include wireless devices that run around $50 each and link in with a router in the office (which is quite inexpensive as well). Wireless technology gives a user instant access to the company network, intranet or Internet without network cables. Wireless is a great new addition to the toolkit, but something new is on the horizon: Wi-Max.

                Wi-Max is a technology similar to wireless but it has a range of 30 miles rather than 300 ft. With wireless broadband technology, the service provider could offer the same speed and quality of service of network access as the wired broadband solution. In addition, the service provider could offer "on demand" high speed bandwidth for events such as tradeshows, or nomadic businesses such as construction sites with sporadic broadband connectivity needs. Using the IEEE-802.16 specification, it can reach up to 30 miles with a typical cell size of four to six miles and can achieve up to 100 Mbps in a 20 MHz channel.

                Software for Data Access, Sharing, Viewing and Analysis
                Data sharing and access has reached a new level with the introduction of the XML data structure. There is nothing else like XML or LandXML for moving a project's design data between companies or CAD systems. It is an open, software independent system that allows an organization to import design data into its CAD system using its own CAD standards.

                Another interesting genre of software has to do with the viewing and analysis of data. Autodesk's release of On-Site Desktop (renamed Autodesk Envision) a couple of years ago allows non-AutoCAD trained users to use AutoCAD and related XML data to view site designs and perform fairly extensive analyses.

                Time to Integrate

                The land development, planning and surveying industries are witnessing the emergence of many impressive technologies: image and map databases in mobile map-based systems, integration of navigation and mapping in mobile systems, high-portability field devices, palmtop, laptop and PDA-based GIS, embedded navigation and positioning techniques, wireless location techniques for mapping, in-vehicle navigation and location-based services, 3D mobile mapping and GIS integration applications, high-mobility user interfaces, and Internet or wireless location-based services. Let's get to work!

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