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In Review: Autodesk Field Survey

May 23, 2001
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Autodesk recently introduced a new product called Autodesk Field Survey that makes the software-related part of excuses hard to justify.

Figure 1. Links work from top to bottom.
Autodesk Inc.

111 McInnis Parkway

San Rafael, CA 94903

landsolutionsales@autodesk.com

630/775-1470

www.autodesk.com/fieldsurvey

Suggested List Price $1,395

Available through AutoCAD dealers.

As I talk to surveyors in companies of all sizes, I am constantly reminded of opportunities to find ways to reduce the effort needed to take a project from the idea stage to completion. The opportunities vary but include the need to add an important component, such as a data collector, CAD package, up-to-date computer, plotter, or the software to tie them together. Without a set of compatible tools, I find it hard to believe a company can be competitive.

The following statements are typical for not using more modern tools:

  • The programs are too hard to learn.

  • They don’t work the way we work.

  • We are too busy to learn a new way.

  • My software won’t accept a data collector file.

  • The program costs too much.

  • My program—etc.

Autodesk recently introduced a new product called Autodesk Field Survey that makes the software-related part of these excuses hard to justify. Autodesk Field Survey is inexpensive, relatively easy to learn and has all the functions needed for project mapping, lot layout, road design, deed and boundary analysis, digital terrain modeling and drafting. It has all of the functions needed for the complete analysis, design and final layout of a typical subdivision or commercial property.

Project Setup

As with any program, the initial settings for the project can often make life easier. Autodesk Field Survey has various configuration areas in addition to the standard AutoCAD options.

One setting of special interest to me is Object Linking as shown in Figure 1. When all items are checked, these links work from top to bottom. If a point is moved, the coordinate file is updated and any lines based on the point move with it. When a line is moved, any annotations linked to it are updated. The links do not work in the reverse. If used properly, these links can be very helpful, but if a point is moved accidently, the project may have errors that will be difficult to detect.

The connection of lines to points only works if the line was drawn by referencing the point. I found that this didn’t work for lot lines drawn from the lot file. It seems that it should since the lot is defined by point number. Likewise, the lot editor is not dynamically linked to the drawing; therefore, if a point number is changed in the lot editor, the drawing is not dynamically updated.

Data Entry

Starting with typical survey information, Autodesk Field Survey will download or read existing raw data files from almost any data collector on the market. Downloaded data is not archived.

I found that when downloading data from a TDS Ranger, I had to set the Ranger as if it were transferring to the HP48 instead of to a computer. I also had to change the file name if it didn’t meet standard DOS rules. Other Windows CE collectors may have similar problems.

Raw data files are processed through a spreadsheet style editor. Individual cells can be modified by double-clicking. However, I found that it does not issue a warning when an illegal character is entered in a field, such as a letter in a distance field.

Native raw data files from collectors who do not use the RW5 format can be converted using options found in the data collector download menu or imported into the data editor. This is a useful feature when working with firms that cannot download directly to Autodesk Field Survey.

Once editing is complete, a coordinate file can be created with or without adjustments. Adjustment options include compass, crandall, transit or least squares.

A special deed plotting routine found in the Tools menu provides a convenient way to enter existing data from a deed or record plat. A closure report is created once a deed is completed. The resulting data is stored in a file, which can be edited if necessary. The changes can then be plotted on the screen. Data entered in this manner is stored by deed name (could be plat ID) and lot name.

Project Mapping

Project mapping is accomplished by using the “Field-to-Finish” feature, which places symbols on points, connects points with lines and places all of these in the appropriate layer.

Autodesk Field Survey has the ability to use more than one code on a single shot. This is a great time-saver for the field crew when mapping features such as a driveway and a street, a fence connecting with another fence, or a utility pole on a fence corner.

In addition to user-defined codes, which are used to identify features, Autodesk Field Survey uses 11 special codes. All of these are entered into the description field of the shot. One advantage of this method is that any coordinate file with a reasonable coding system can be used with very little editing. Thus, a coordinate file that was obtained from an outsourced survey crew can be used. Raw data files are not required if all coordinates are correct.

Large radii, reverse and compound curves are difficult to code in many packages. Autodesk Field Survey makes this job easier with the combination of the PC and PT commands. When these two codes are used in combination, all points in between are connected with a curved polyline that passes through each point.

With a properly designed and applied coding system, a map of a complex project can be displayed on the screen within a few minutes of downloading the data.

Project Design

The design menu allows for the design of lots by various methods and constraints. Lots can be created by a series of points, a parcel can be divided into lots of a specified size by selecting a front and back polyline, or any closed polyline can be turned into a lot. The area inside a series of crossing polylines, curves or lines can be used to define a lot by first creating a closed polyline that encloses it.

A lot report can be created, which lists bearings and distances and the area of each individual lot but not totals for a block. This makes it difficult to ensure that there are no gaps or overlaps in lot lines. An option to use a report formatter apparently provides for additional options including totals.

Annotation

Autodesk Field Survey provides a rich set of annotation methods. Lots can be annotated as they are drawn with options for placing all data in tables, or by labeling individual elements in a variety of ways. Points can be annotated with coordinates, a coordinate table or offsets from two lot lines. I could not think of any annotation style that was not available.

I found that some routines set the default snap to something that didn’t seem logical. For example, the snap for Label Offsets defaulted to end when asked to pick the point to label. This default could result in the selection of the wrong location on the screen. I could override these defaults by typing in “nod,” but I feel that this should not be necessary.

Contouring and DTM

Contouring takes a different approach in Autodesk Field Survey than in most packages I’m familiar with.

Any 3-D polyline visible on the screen is used as a break line without the need to have points in the database for each of the vertices. The Offset 3-D Polyline function makes it easy to establish 3-D polylines to define parallel features such as curbs, edges of roads, backs of retaining walls, etc. Likewise, if a design profile has been created and plotted, offset features, which follow the CL profile can be created and contours will honor them.

The ability to tag specific 3-D polylines such as curbs, retaining walls, bridge abutments, etc. as hard barrier lines allows the creation of contours that make a sharp change in direction as they cross these features. Features such as rounded ditch banks, ridge lines, etc., where contours must be more rounded are not tagged as hard barrier lines.

Using these features, the triangulation network is created from which contours and the DTM is generated. Autodesk Field Survey does not provide a method for editing the triangulation network. I don’t find this to be a drawback, as I feel it is difficult to effectively edit a triangulation network on a large complex project. Instead, if contours are not proper, I find it more effective to remove or add break lines and/or points as needed to define the surface. This also makes it possible to re-create the surface later if needed.

Figure 2. Road elements are created by specifying the offset distances from the centerline.

Road and Street Design

A typical subdivision requires roads, oftentimes both major and minor. Roads are created starting with a centerline. Any 2-D or 3-D polyline on a drawing can be used as a basis for the centerline. Once the centerline is created, the road elements are created by specifying the offset distances from the centerline as shown in Figure 2. The preview area is excellent in that after any values are changed, the results can be seen by pressing the Calculate button. The Finish button then commits these values to the screen.

Figure 3. A cul-de-sac can be added to road and street design.
If a cul-de-sac is desired, a similar procedure is used as shown in Figure 3 on page 34.

Figure 4. Several different design profiles can be created.

Profiles

Once the centerline is established, the existing vertical alignment can be created by searching all points within a given distance of the centerline by the intersection of the centerline with any visible surface entity that contains a valid elevation.

Several different kinds of design profiles can be created, including generic, road, sewer and pipe. Depending on the profile type checked in the boxes shown in Figure 4, the headings change accordingly.

Table 1. Different profile types create change heading options.
The chart shown in Table 1 shows the options available.

Figure 5. A profile plotted along with the plan view of a corresponding road.
Once a profile is created it can be plotted with various options. Figure 5 shows one profile plotted along with the plan view of the corresponding road. Autodesk Field Survey will automatically create the borders and title blocks for the sheet. Up to three profiles can be plotted at the same time.

Volumes

Autodesk Field Survey provides for surface-to-surface volume computations. This provides for computing such things as stockpiles, mass grading and detention pond storage capacity. Volumes by end area are not available.

Documentation

Documentation includes an online reference and a printed manual. The printed manual is also provided in Acrobat PDF format if a user wants an extra copy.

The printed manual includes tutorials on entering a deed, making a plat and Field-to-Finish. The tutorials include a discussion of the various settings, which affect the project and step-by-step directions to complete the exercise.

The CD contains a MSWord file titled “Autodesk Field Survey Scripted Demonstration.” This was originally prepared for resellers, but is now included on the CD for users. I found it contains valuable information not contained in the tutorials.

Although not listed in the Help menu, my CD had 28 movie files. I was able to preview them, but I didn’t get any sound. I would like to see them made available from the Help menu.

While the documentation was good, it lacked information on some features. For example, anytime a user has the opportunity to create a report, he is also given the opportunity to use the Report Formatter. I searched the documentation for more information on how to use it, but could not find anything.

Data transfers between packages

I get a fair amount of inquiries regarding data transfer from one software product to another. The transfer of drawing and point files is fairly routine, but other data, such as cross sections, profiles, DTMs, lot files etc., are a different story. The need for the transfer of these types of files is increasing. This often causes a lot of extra work when the data files are not compatible. Autodesk Field Survey uses yet another file format, raising more concerns.

Autodesk has addressed this problem in several ways.

Rather than introduce a product that causes additional file transfer problems, Autodesk has provided functions in Autodesk Field Survey for reading and writing Land Development Desktop 2i files and also provides an add-on to LDD 2000 for reading and writing Autodesk Field Survey files.

In addition to the ability to transfer between current Autodesk products, Autodesk Field Survey will directly import and/or export coordinate files to a number of other products such as TDS, Eagle Point, Leica, Geodimeter and older Softdesk products.

The best news is that Autodesk Field Survey, along with the extension to LDD 2000, is the first product on the market to support file transfer to and from other software packages using a file format developed specifically for this purpose. This file format, called LandXML, is an effort by private industry to develop a method to transfer files between programs without the loss of information. (See sidebar on page 32.)

AutoCAD 2000

Although Autodesk Field Survey is based on the AutoCAD 2000i engine, seasoned AutoCAD operators may miss some of the standard AutoCAD features such as Xref’s and some key in commands such as “ddmodify,” “measure,” “divide” and “dist.” I found that most of those I use quite frequently in AutoCAD were replaced with enhanced versions, for example, “measure,” “divide” and “dist” have been replaced with “divlin,” “divent” and “dist,” respectively. I would like to see a cross reference table listing the equivalent in each system as I could only find the replacements by accident when browsing through the manual.

Conclusion

Autodesk Field Survey fits well for the surveyor who wants a graphical based system with the ability to view results both graphically and digitally. It will also appeal to surveyors who like a point-based product. It is built in such a way that for most functions the user has a choice. Take Bearing-Bearing Intersect for example. The sequence would be base point1, bearing1, base point2, bearing2. The base points can be picked from the screen or the point number typed in. Bearings can be provided by picking a line with the desired bearing, keying in two points, which represent the bearing or typing in the bearing or azimuth.

The rich set of COGO and design features included in Autodesk Field Survey provide for all the functionality needed for the design of a typical subdivision, including road and sewer layout. While I have mentioned some areas where I would like the process to be streamlined, the tools are there to do the job properly.

I have only scratched the surface of what is available in Autodesk Field Survey and how it works. As I worked with it in preparing this review, I explored the manual, the movies and the scripted demonstration file. I constantly found new capabilities and alternate ways of performing functions I had already become familiar with. The ability to use common CAD tools in connection with special COGO and design functions makes this product worth investigating when considering a replacement for current technology.

Sidebar: The Advent of LandXML

Surveyors often find themselves working with other firms on projects. Quite often this requires that data files be transferred between them in order to keep the process moving on schedule and to ensure that all firms are working from the same base.

In the past, this has been limited to the exchange of drawing files through Autodesk’s DXF format, and more recently by the direct read and write ability of the DWG formats and the exchange of coordinates through the ASCII format.

As the need to exchange other file components such as profiles, DTMs, lot files and other special data has increased, and the use of AutoCAD’s new object technology matured, the data exchange problems grew.

In January 2000, Autodesk announced a new land development industry initiative called LandXML, which was patterned after a similar effort in other areas of the software industry. LandXML is a file format that allows the exchange of these other formats.

According to information posted on the LandXML website (www.land-

xml.org), approximiately 35 developers worldwide are involved in developing this standard and implementing its use.

Autodesk, through Field Survey and the LandXML Extension to Land Development Desktop 2i, is the first vendor to release a product with LandXML transfer abilities. Other developers are sure to follow in the near future.

If you have ever looked behind the scenes at the Internet department, you have an idea what a LandXML file might look like. All that text where you can see the letters but can’t make sense of the meaning is what makes it work. The part that looks like a foreign language to most of us tells the program that can read it what it means and how to display it.

LandXML is the wave of the future for data transfer between surveying and engineering firms using different products. It is fast becoming a common tool.

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