A Custom Fit
The expression “one size fits all” doesn’t work for wrenches, seat covers or T-shirts. It doesn’t hold for professional applications software either, where there are countless workflows, special cases and detailed requirements. As a result, commercial software developers face some difficult choices. They can aim down the middle and try to provide functionality that meets the widest practical range of users and needs, or they can focus on a few niche applications and provide highly specialized solutions. Either way, users may be left with a system that is a close, but not ideal, solution for their needs.
This paradox is especially strong for geospatial applications such as surveying. Software developers serving the global market are faced with widely differing requirements for field procedures, computations and output. And while smaller, more localized developers are adept at meeting local or regional needs, they may struggle to maintain support for the rapid changes in measuring and positioning equipment. Conversely, equipment manufacturers can stay on top of new hardware and technologies, but may not keep up with changing local practices or requirements.
All of this affects the end users, including surveyors and other professionals who need to collect and utilize geospatial information. It also has a direct impact on the cost and utility of the information and services they deliver to their clients. So where can we turn to find the perfect fit?
A promising solution is emerging from customizing and expanding the functionality of existing software and systems. Rather than writing completely new software, developers can create add-ons and extensions to existing commercial packages. This capability has existed in some form for years in various systems. Early customization capabilities existed in the field, where many surveyors created their own specialized software for programmable calculators and data collectors. In the 1990s, Geodimeter provided user-defined sequences (UDS) for their total stations. The UDS enabled surveyors to create standard workflows and reduce the number of keystrokes needed to complete tasks. Various CAD packages have enabled development of specialized applications by external developers, and a few early surveying office packages supported user macros and scripts. And while some office systems in the geospatial arena now offer extensive customization functionality (think Esri), the ability to customize field software has lagged.
Trimble is working to solve that issue. In order to support customization of its field surveying systems, Trimble provides a software development kit (SDK) for its Trimble Access field software. The kit enables programmers to create customized applications that run within Trimble Access. The applications use the Trimble user interface and have the look and feel of fully integrated software. In addition to creating the software development tools, Trimble has implemented processes to facilitate customization and provide support to qualified developers.
According to Jason Rossback, Trimble’s manager of third-party solutions, customized field solutions have demonstrated an ability to improve overall production. Because they can provide simpler workflows that focus on a specific task, the specialized applications increase speed and reduce errors throughout the work of collecting and processing field data. By checking field observations and recorded data, the applications prevent problems in the office that are caused by wrong or incomplete fieldwork. “It eliminates the dreaded ‘garbage in, garbage out’ cycle,” Rossback said, “and the clean field data directly contributes to reduced office time.”
Improving the surveyor’s workflows is a primary goal. In the Netherlands, surveyors collect field data using coding systems that are defined by the most popular office software packages. Rather than computing and using coordinates in the field, the surveyors collect raw measurements accompanied by predefined codes. They then download raw field data and make the computations in the office based on the field-entered codes. Codes for features and functions (such as station setup) require entry of specific information. To handle this, the Dutch company Geometius collaborated with Trimble to create a customized application called “Attributen Survey.” According to Geometius Account Manager Wim Egberts, the application has delivered significant benefits in cadastral surveying, topography and other disciplines. “The system eliminates unneeded steps in the field,” Egberts explains. “The surveyor may not have or need coordinates. They just want to collect measurements and process everything in the office.”
In addition to streamlining field operations through reduced keystrokes and simple user prompts, Attributen Survey improves throughput in the office. Egberts says the system provides customized XML export and simple ASCII output that contains information needed by the Dutch office packages. The data transfer is simple and produces nearly error-free field data that makes for faster processing and analysis. “It enables the surveyors to work in the manner they are accustomed to, but they work faster and with cleaner results,” Egberts says. “It’s become an important solution for the surveyors in Holland.”
Other developers in Europe have discovered customization as well. At Trimble’s distributor Al-Top in Spain, programmers have added a workflow for trigonometric leveling to the Trimble Access software. The system, named “Level Me,” guides field crews through the required measurements, which can be interspersed with other surveying activities. When a level loop is closed, the system displays results and creates output for processing in spreadsheets or through leveling routines in Trimble Business Center office software. The customized software has proven especially useful for trig leveling in mountainous areas where steep terrain and long distances are common.
In the U.S., a customized application is helping surveyors in Louisiana conduct surveys from a boat. The software reduces the number of keystrokes and time needed to capture positions. And in China, customized software called eGrid is used by electricity producers for planning and construction of electric transmission lines.
Software customization is helping to bring surveying technology to a wider set of users. In Spain, researchers in archaeology and paleontology need to capture precise position data during the excavation process, but they often lack the needed skills in surveying or positioning. Antoni Canals, a scientist at the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES), says that collecting 3D coordinates of objects is a significant challenge for researchers. To solve this, IPHES developers created a system named ARCH-e to handle the measurement and data management aspects of the archaeological and paleontological work. Instead of working among a grid of string lines, researchers can use a Trimble S-series robotic total station to measure the 3D positions of objects and features. According to Canals, the software records positions and attributes as objects are uncovered, creating data in compliance with established protocols for archaeological and paleontological excavations. In addition to archaeology, other special applications have emerged to serve nontraditional surveyors in shipbuilding and track and field competition measurement.
One of the most significant opportunities lies in combining geospatial positioning with other types of sensors to produce 3D information on utilities and infrastructure. For example, Optimal Ranging Inc., a California-based manufacturer of systems for locating underground utility lines, has added GNSS and total station measurements to its Spar 300 system. The result is an integrated solution for surveying and mapping underground utilities. “With the increasing use of GIS for asset management, there’s growing need to have accurate georeferenced information on utilities,” says Optimal Ranging President Jim Waite. “We developed an application for Trimble Access to connect our Spar 300 sensors to GNSS or total stations.” In the field, the system determines the 3D location of the underground utility and records it along with coding and attributes. The results can be exported directly to Trimble Business Center, Esri or applications for design or asset management.
The customized workflow is essential to the Spar system’s success. Under the traditional process, a technician would mark the underground utility location with paint or pin flags. Then a GIS or survey crew would visit the site to capture the positions. Waite’s company has combined the work into a single job and cut the field time almost in half. The key is merging the two workflows and resulting data. “Many utility location firms are not familiar with surveying technology,” Waite says. “By making the process simple and tying it directly to the utility sensor, it’s much easier for them to make the jump to 3D information.” Waite also sees the system as a growth opportunity for surveying and engineering companies to add underground infrastructure mapping to their list of services. He listed military bases, airports, universities and industrial campuses as frequent users of 3D information for facilities and infrastructure management.
The ability to create custom workflows and interface to specialized equipment is important, but many applications are successful with more basic approaches to customization. For example, it’s common to create libraries of feature codes tailored to a firm’s needs for data collection. The codes often include detailed prompts for information about measured points and can even prevent the crew from recording a point until all needed information is in place. In addition to descriptive or quantitative data, crews can attach photographs to measured points. Office software then interprets the feature codes to correctly handle descriptions, graphics, terrain modeling and layering.
This approach to customization can even combine different types of fieldwork. For instance, a firm’s environmental services group may use GIS-grade equipment to collect and code information on wetlands, while survey crews gather information for cadastral or engineering applications on the same site. The crews use different equipment and processes in the field, including using subsets of a single, comprehensive feature library. After the fieldwork, office software combines the data to produce a single product for the client. The results can be customized as well. Users can produce specialized output tailored to client requirements.
While customizing software is fairly simple when working at the level of specialized feature libraries, the move to more sophisticated applications and workflows calls for increased expertise. According to Egberts, Geometius employs a software engineer for customization and support of specialized field software. The Spanish distributor Al-Top has also invested in programming staff and resources to create new solutions for their customers. Egberts says that during the initial development of Attributen Survey, his team worked closely with Rossback and the Trimble team. “The work can be very detailed,” Rossback says. “We want to make sure the developers and their customers get good results.” He adds that—in addition to supporting external developers—Trimble’s Development Services group provides customization services for Trimble users. There’s even the potential for individuals or businesses to develop and sell specialized applications. Rossback says that Trimble is always looking for new ideas and is willing to help developers implement their concepts.
While it may be more complex, the SDK approach provides numerous benefits. The development process is faster, because it is limited only to the application’s workflow. Development cycles are shorter and allow programmers with specific application knowledge to focus only on the discipline and special workflows. The developers can call on existing, fully tested functionality to control the measurement sensors, manage data, and communicate with the user and office. This makes it possible to quickly implement support as new instruments and field hardware come online. Because the SDK handles changes to operating systems and computing platforms, the custom applications are easier to maintain. And, as Waite described, it’s made it possible for developers to add geospatial capabilities to their systems without the need to master positioning technologies. The SDK approach is opening doors for an array of tasks that can benefit from adding positions to other types of measurements and data.
Customized software can be an effective way to grow a business, and the return on investment is easy to measure. Take a look at your operation and see where you have opportunities to use customization to improve workflows or streamline the movement of data and information. Something as simple as a well-designed library of feature codes can significantly reduce errors and improve field to office throughput. Larger efforts to customize and extend the function of your system can pay off as well, both through increased efficiency and by enabling you to address new niches and customer segments.
Christopher W. Gibson is vice president of the survey, imaging, GIS, infrastructure, rail, land administration and environmental solutions businesses of Trimble Navigation Ltd.