Harnessing the Cloud
Real-time office-to-field collaboration increases survey crew productivity for bottom-line benefits.
At land development firm Civil Engineering Consultants, Inc. (CEC) in Des Moines, Iowa, Jeff Gaddis, licensed land surveyor, is responsible for making sure survey crews have the files they need once they are on a site. The company mainly serves the private developer sector, providing land surveying and civil engineering services for new housing developments and site plans for commercial and multifamily construction. As many of the sites are converted from farmland to residential or commercial development, much of the field work involves surveying the locations for new infrastructure to tie into existing city infrastructure. The company also locates and maps routes for transmission lines in remote locations across Iowa for a major energy provider.
Three survey crews are equipped with a robotic Topcon QS-3 (three-second angle accuracy) total station paired with a Tesla rugged field tablet. Each crew also has a Topcon GR-5 GPS rover receiver for establishing survey boundaries and topographical surveying, operating them in conjunction with the Iowa Real Time GNSS Network (IaRTN) operated by the Iowa Department of Transportation.
Gaddis recalls the file transfer challenges he faced a couple of years ago. Often, “I would find out that we needed to go somewhere else, so we’d have to call a crew back; they’d have to drive back to the office and get the right file,” Gaddis says. “So you’re talking an hour of wasted time. And then, if I made a mistake in transferring, they’d end up with the wrong file. Once again, they’d make a road trip back to the office. We could email some files, but that was always troublesome.”
The need to download significant volumes of data at the end of a shift or prior to the crews’ arrival the next morning also created a lot of stress for Gaddis. “Sometimes I’d be downloading from three or four data collectors,” he says.
Jason “Chuck” Sheer, survey crew chief for CEC, recalls how much time used to be wasted when physical storage devices were used for uploading data and his crew was missing one or more files. “We had to actually drive our files back to the office and they’d have to look at it, we’d sit there for a while, and they’d figure what they needed to do,” he says. “Then we had to drive all the way back to the job—there was a lot of wasted time.”
Even when surveyors tried to fill information gaps by talking with the office on the phone, information sometimes would get lost in translation, Sheer adds.
A cloud solution was intriguing. After being introduced to Topcon’s Magnet cloud-based enterprise solution and cloud-enabled family of software applications by Iowa Transit Inc., a provider of survey equipment, supplies, repair and training based in Grimes, Iowa, CEC began testing the capabilities in July 2012 by acquiring a license for Magnet Enterprise, a Web-based, subscription-only component of Magnet that allows management to exchange data and communicate instantaneously with office and field personnel.
The company soon added two more licenses so that all three crews could collaborate with the central office. The Tesla devices were equipped with Magnet Field software, which allowed the crews to upload the data over the cloud-based company account at any time, from any location. They could upload files in various formats, such as AutoCAD, without file size restrictions. The company also adopted Magnet Office software for data post-processing and CAM/CAD drafting.
Today, it is possible for drafters and DTM modelers to conduct a real-time session with field crews, allowing crew members to instantly send and record measurements. Often, the central office uploads text or ASCII files to the cloud while a crew is en route to a project, Gaddis says. The software instantaneously codes the pieces of data and sorts them into the correct layer of a CAD file.
“Sometimes crews are sent to a job that they weren’t expecting, they won’t have paperwork or anything,” he says. “We’ll have to upload PDFs—that happens quite often—so when they get there, they just download them and they have everything they need right in front of them.”
Gaddis now uses the cloudto upload all of the files that a crew will likely need at the start of a shift. He makes sure that the crews get the data they need in a timely fashion and crews do not have to wait to get to the office to provide Gaddis with their files.
“It doesn’t save hours in a day, but it saves minutes and those minutes add up to hours in a week, which equal days by the end of a year,” Gaddis says. “One of the huge benefits is, we’re all over Iowa. We’ll send crews two and a half hours away and they’ll say they’re running into a boundary issue and they can’t figure out what they need to do. I tell them to upload their file and I’ll download it and tell them what the answer is.”
Another recent example of a significant time savings occurred when a crew was leaving a site four hours away from the office. The crew members uploaded their survey files before they left and Gaddis began processing the data even before the crew arrived back at the office.
A company like CEC can also save a lot of time by saving previously completed files in the cloud. For instance, if a subdivision is expanded a few years after its original construction and additional underground collector pipe that is to be constructed needs to be surveyed, the surveying company can build on the existing files without starting over.
One aspect of cloud computing that can be overlooked is data storage and recovery. If an error is made in a file, Gaddis can retrieve an earlier version of it in the cloud. “That storage is always there for us,” he says. “It holds the exact version of whatever they’ve uploaded until we delete it.” The standard cloud storage capacity is 500 megabytes; by November 2012, CEC was out of storage space. Gaddis says the company likely will take advantage of available storage upgrades as it increasingly relies on the system.
Sheer says he likes the office’s responsiveness to field crews that cloud computing affords. “Truthfully, it makes you feel a little better if you do have a question because you can send somebody something right away and they can look at it in a couple of minutes,” he says, noting that the system’s photo transfer capability helps crews show the office what they are having trouble locating. “It does make you feel more independent in that sense.”
Because the company hasn’t even used the system for a year, Gaddis has not been able to calculate the annual savings that he can expect compared with the old means of data “sharing.” What he does know is that the cloud has boosted labor output at CEC. Even eliminating extra travel time and wait time for in-office uploads totaling an hour a week likely boosts staff output by about $10,000 a year, Gaddis estimates.
“I can’t see how there’s any way that it’s not saving us money,” he says.