Combating Survey Equipment Theft

October 29, 2006
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With today's robotic instruments that operate on their own, surveyors must apply common sense and technology to protect equipment in the field.


Although it was almost unheard of 20 years ago, today survey equipment and instrument theft is a growing problem. And the cost--in terms of insurance premiums, replacement equipment and wasted hours of labor--is staggering. In my home state of Florida, and in other areas around the country, equipment theft is an emerging problem that surveying companies have been working hard to address.

Over the past two years, surveyors and engineers in Florida's Broward and Dade Counties lost $1½ to $2 million worth of equipment to theft. In the state's Collier and Lee Counties, equipment valued at $300,000 has been stolen since January 16 of this year. Most of the tools being pilfered, including GPS base stations and robotics, are designed to work in the field unattended. Thieves use "snatch and grab" techniques to obtain the equipment unobserved. In other cases, unoccupied trucks and lock boxes have been broken into and forced open.

Even more troubling is that some brazen thieves have actually used strong-arm tactics and weapons to take equipment from field personnel on the job. While using their equipment, several survey field crews have been physically assaulted and at least one person has been shot by thieves who wish to take their instruments.

At my firm, WilsonMiller of Naples, Fla., we tell our employees not to resist a theft because their lives are worth more than the equipment. Although survey equipment thefts in Florida have dropped since an arrest was made in May, we cannot go back to operating the way we did before. We have been seeking solutions to discourage equipment theft and increase safety for our crews.

To protect unattended equipment, surveyors lock equipment boxes inside trucks.

Seeking Solutions

As regional manager of WilsonMiller's surveying and mapping business unit, I have heard many suggestions to combat equipment theft. Some suggest using exploding dye bags like those placed in money sacks to help apprehend bank robbers. Others advise taking the extreme measure of wiring equipment with remote-controlled explosives! Some have suggested hiring guards to protect our expensive equipment in the field, but this seems redundant. Why spend money on an instrument that operates on its own, and then pay someone to stand there and watch it?

Outlandish solutions aside, the real answer involves applying common sense and technology. We need to make our equipment traceable and unusable in the wrong hands. Surveying and engineering firms, professional associations and equipment manufactures must come together to create efficient and permanent remedies to this growing problem. The ideal solution is to make surveyors aware of precautions they should take in the field and to implement technology to make survey equipment more "theft-proof."

SilverShield Security Cover.

Safeguarding Equipment

To protect unattended equipment, our initial response as surveyors has been to secure our instruments onsite and lock our equipment boxes inside our trucks. We have used cables, chains, concrete weights, fancy locks and steel boxes. Equipping cases with safety rings or holes to allow them to be locked tight and fastened down in trucks and offices can be a deterrent to a thief in a hurry. (See sidebar on page 36 for more options on keeping equipment out of sight and locked away.) But chaining down a mobile unit is impractical because the robotics must spin freely. And thieves know that chains can be cut and locks can be broken.

So, in the event of a theft, we must make equipment traceable. A good first step is to maintain a complete, accurate equipment list of the make, model, serial number and color of every instrument in our arsenal. It's also a good idea to label all of your equipment by branding it with your company name and phone number (although nameplates can be removed and written identification painted over). But we don't have to rely on stencils and nametags alone. The technology to help us prevent theft already exists. It's just a matter of applying it to our equipment.

Leica Geosystems (Norcross, Ga.) has developed Personal Identification Numbers or PIN codes for a variety of electronic instruments. Such codes must be entered before the equipment functions and make the equipment worthless to anyone but the authorized user. PIN codes have been available on the Leica System 1200 total stations and GPS instruments since 2005, and in August Leica announced new firmware for the TPS400 and TPS800 units to make all Leica total stations and GPS instruments PIN-code capable.

Sokkia (Olathe, Kan.) has offered PIN codes on its total stations since 2003, and all of its current models feature this protective option. The PIN or password cannot be cleared by anyone other than the owner or an authorized service center, and service representatives require proof of ownership before resetting passwords on instruments. Sokkia also maintains a theft database, and urges customers to report thefts as soon as possible so that its customer service department can be alerted to unusual orders for parts, accessories and operational manuals.

Many Topcon (Livermore, Calif.) total stations come standard with password protection, including the GTS-720 series, GPT-7000 series, GPT-7000i series, GTS-820A series, GPT-8200A series and the new GPT 9000A and GTS 900A series. Additionally, customers of any Topcon GPS+ receiver may request an authorization file that sets up operational work areas (defined by latitude and longitude) for the receiver. When this feature is enabled, the receiver will not function if it is transported outside the operational area until a new authorization file is loaded or it is returned to the area. Topcon maintains records of all authorization files for its receivers.

Trimble (Sunnyvale, Calif.) promotes its system of four layers of theft-protection for its products. The first and second layers are related to the Trimble control units. Trimble handheld and detachable controllers (including the TSCe, TSC2, Recon, ACU and TCU) feature the option of password protection. In addition, these units are also detachable or held separately from the instrument, so an instrument without an accompanying controller has very little value to a thief. Trimble also provides two additional layers of protection: an online registration system and a database of all instruments that are reported as stolen, which is accessible by Trimble dealers.

Tracing and Tracking

Beyond these attempts to safeguard instruments, we can also consider implementing more sophisticated methods of tracing and tracking our equipment. Everyone knows about the LoJack car security system designed to track and recover stolen vehicles. Why can't a similar system be applied to survey equipment, which can range in value from the mid-$20,000s to more than $100,000 for a single instrument? Small GPS tracking devices can be incorporated into survey instruments and programmed so they cannot be easily deactivated or removed. For example, Security Concept's (Milbrae, Calif.) WorldTracker SMS is a pager-sized GPS transmitter that can send messages to a cell phone with the device's coordinates. The manufacturer says the transmitter can integrate with Google Earth to provide a photo location within three meters of the tracking device.

Radio or cell phone links can be created between the robotics in the field and the rover/controller in another location, so one won't work without the other. This type of symbiotic system can be designed so if the robotic were separated from the controller, factory technicians would be required to reset the equipment.

The necessary hardware and software is available. We don't need to invent these protective systems, we just need to incorporate them into our equipment. Manufacturers should become more involved in incorporating tracking features on their equipment. Once word gets out that our equipment is tracked, thieves may think twice about trying to steal it. In addition to building new equipment with this kind of technology, a non-removable method of retrofitting older equipment must be developed. WilsonMiller has 50 survey field crews on the job, and tens of thousands of similar crews exist across the country. There is simply too much expensive equipment already in use for us to rely solely on new equipment for anti-theft measures.

Rising Insurance Rates

Updating old equipment and enhancing new equipment will undoubtedly bring additional costs for surveyors. But ask yourself this: how much does the equipment cost right now if you can't protect it--or your crews? Survey-grade total stations depreciate from their purchase price of $8,500 to $5,000 as soon as they are removed from the case. Purchasing new stations for 20 crews would cost $170,000; for 50 crews, the cost would be $425,000. Now think about more expensive equipment like robots, GPS instrumentation, laser scanners, etc. Could anyone make that kind of investment without insurance?

The rash of thefts in our region has already driven insurance costs to the stratosphere. Surveying and engineering companies in Fort Lauderdale had their deductibles raised from $2,500 to $5,000, and one company was told it would be uninsurable if any more thefts occurred.

In March of this year, two months after a GPS base station, total station and level were stolen from a Naples company, the firm renewed its insurance. Its premium for equipment coverage rose $14,000--and no other insurer would even quote a rate for the company. On April 4, that same company lost a new robotic total station to theft. Imagine what the firm's premium will be next year.

We must increase our measures to prevent theft to aid us in our efforts to obtain reasonable insurance rates so that we can continue to operate our businesses.

A Time for Caution--and Action!

There was a time not so long ago when we didn't think twice about setting up an instrument and walking away from it. We did this thousands of times over thousands of acres. Sadly, the time when we could walk away from our equipment with ease is gone. Now we must be aware that our livelihood, not to mention our safety, can come under attack by thieves intent on profiting from our stolen survey equipment. So, the time has come for our profession to strike back against those who are harming us both financially and physically. We must call upon our colleagues, our companies, our professional organizations and the manufacturers of our equipment to step up against theft by urging safer practices in the field, as well by implementing superior technology to track and disable stolen equipment. Working together, we can put a stop to the problem of equipment theft.

HercuLoc Secure Bed Cover.

Sidebar: Lock It Up in the Truck!

When equipment is not in use, field crews should use common sense and keep their equipment locked away and out of sight. One option for preventing theft of equipment is to invest in secure bed covers and heavy-duty toolboxes to hold and protect instruments.

A.R.E. Inc. of Massillon, Ohio, manufacturers truck caps and tonneau covers for trucks and SUVs. All cap and cover doors are equipped with automotive grade lock cylinders with a durable folding T-grip latch handle for added security. Additionally, most latches and locks have a non-corrosive finish.

Knaack Manufacturing Company of Crystal Lake, Ill., manufacturers weather-guard truck equipment. Knaack toolboxes were redesigned first in the "˜80s, then again in the "˜90s to offer a more secure, durable and safe-to-use toolbox. Knaack's toolboxes include high quality automotive-style locks with heavy-duty latches for ensured safety.

Rates for insurance to protect a surveying firm's investment in expensive equipment, including GPS instrumentation, can rise dramatically as a result of theft.
Silver Shield of Phoenix, Ariz., has been in business for 45 years, and many surveyors have been repeat customers of the company's customizable vehicle Security Covers and Field Organizer products. The Security Cover features locks on the driver side, passenger side and tailgate requiring a key for access. For convenience, one side is accessible while the other remains locked.

Thacker Manufacturing produces the HercuLoc Secure Bed Cover in Tucson, Ariz., which has proven to be especially resistant to break-ins. A cam-style locking system secures the front of the cover and an industrial self-locking actuator holds the rear of the cover shut. Furthermore, the rear lip extends over the top of the tailgate and there are no external locks or latches.

TruckVault Secure Storage Solutions, manufactured in Sedro-Wooley, Wash., features several cases designed specifically to protect surveyor and engineer equipment. All of TruckVault's storage units feature exclusive push-button locks with a key over-ride for added security. Additionally, TruckVault's secure storage products are offered with a lifetime warranty and help protect sensitive surveying equipment.

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