Point of Beginning

MicroSurvey CAD

December 16, 2002
Robert M. Pasley puts this Windows program through its paces, from field survey to stakeout.

Business is good. I rarely walk into an office anymore without hearing that everyone is very busy. Some firms are so busy they are working overtime and still turn down work. I hear complaints that experienced field and office personnel are hard to find.

So what are the alternatives for becoming more productive with the current staff? A critical examination will usually identify several areas where improvements can be made. A prime candidate for consideration in most companies is to upgrade the existing computer hardware and/or the software. If the existing system is more than three years old, chances are it is out of date. Couple this with the change in project requirements since the old system was purchased, and it makes sense to take a new look at what is currently available.

Software companies have been busy migrating their products to the Windows platform or writing entirely new systems. In either case, they are able to take advantage of the advanced computational power of today’s hardware and the Windows operating system.

MicroSurvey Software Inc. (Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada) has been busy doing just that. They now offer three modern Windows packages. Their current flagship product and focus of this review, MicroSurvey CAD (MS-CAD), was introduced in 1997 and is built around FelixCAD, a German-developed AutoCAD compatible program. MS-CAD is now in its third major release and takes advantage of the advanced computer technology found in FelixCAD and Windows 95/NT.

MS-CAD Professional Version 3.1 is a full-featured Windows program providing many of the functions necessary to take a project from field survey to stakeout. These include mapping the project site, adjusting traverses, project layout, route design, contouring, earthwork volumes and sewer layout.

InCAD Survey, which was introduced in 1990 and runs in AutoCAD, was MicroSurvey’s original CAD-based product. At the present time it doesn’t contain all of the functions found in MS-CAD. The reason is that MicroSurvey Software Inc. uses the capabilities of each platform as much as possible, rather than only use the functions common to each. Since the capabilities of the CAD engines are quite different, the products will always have some differences; however, plans are to keep them as alike as possible and maintain file compatibility.

MicroSurvey 98, their most recent product, is a stripped-down version of their flagship product and sells for about one-third the price. It is missing most CAD functions, DTM analysis and road design.

Field Coding

MS-CAD uses a field coding system called AutoMap. As is the case with most products, this is divided between codes that identify an object in the field and commands that control the way the program treats each code. AutoMap contains the basic requirements for a mapping system. It has the ability to connect points with like codes, draw curves or splines when three or more points are properly coded and close a figure such as for a building.

Commands are based on a concept called Z coding. When the one of the characters X, Y, Z, or a period (.) or asterisk (*) is added to the front of a field code, the program will perform predefined actions.

The letter Z connects the point to the previous point having the same code that follows the Z. Lines are started by a code without a Z. For example, CB will start a curb line. Subsequent shots coded ZCB will be connected together. A subsequent shot coded CB will start a new curb line.

Y connects a line to the last Z or X point without interrupting the ongoing sequence. For example, a point coded YFN would show that a fence line intersects at the previous point. If this line is to be extended beyond the single shot, the asterisk (as described below), should be used instead.

X identifies a point on a curve. Three or more points will define a curve using a spline fit. This is an excellent way to map compound, spirals and reverse curves.

A period will draw a line from the point to the first point in the series. This is a way to close a parking island, building or other features.

An asterisk will form an intersection of two different lines identified by the codes used. For example XCB*SIDEW will indicate a curve point on a curb line and start a sidewalk line. This is a situation found quite often in urban areas. AutoMap provides the basic functions needed for many sites, but I feel that it lacks more advanced functions such as incorporating taped distances, scaling symbols based on field data (except to provide a different code for each size encountered in the field), and drawing parallel lines.

Data Collector Communications

Field survey data can be entered manually or imported from most data collectors. As the data is read, it is stored in the native format of the collector, converted to MS-CAD’s internal data format and points are added to the database and to the drawing. Field data can be viewed and edited using the traverse editor. Data is displayed in a text window and labeled to identify the type of data. When a line of data is highlighted, it can be deleted, edited or a new record can be inserted either above or below it. When editing a record, a dialog box specific to the type of record—i.e., note, shot, setup—allows the user to make the necessary changes. This is nice since the native format of some data collectors is hard to understand. It’s also nice because it leaves the original field data untouched for an archived record. It would be rather difficult to compare the final data with the original, thus an audit trail showing the changes that have been made would be beneficial.

There are two different ways to export an ASCII coordinate file. One lets you select the export format and order from a pre-configured list. This method also will make coordinate transformations to and from a large selection of coordinate types including latitude and longitude. The other method will export to specific data collector formats without transformation.

Roads and Intersections

If you are looking for productivity, it’s hard to beat the road and intersection layout process in MS-CAD. I laid out the horizontal alignment for two intersecting roads by placing continuous lines and arcs. If they are initially laid out using a polyline, they must be exploded.

Using the street layout function, I set distances from the centerline for the inside and outside of curbs and sidewalks and the distance to the property line. I then provided a street name, and the program did the rest. Once the distances were set, they can be saved along with the general configuration settings for use in laying out the next road. However, there is no way to save more than one without saving several versions of the general configuration settings. The ability to save various settings and recall them from the street layout dialog box would be a nice option when working with streets with different configurations.

After I completed the street layout, I selected the four-way intersection design function. I was asked to pick an element on each street in order to identify the intersection to be computed. After some preliminary calculations, an arrow appeared at a corner and I was asked for the radius from the centerline. This was repeated for each corner, after which I was presented with a cleaned-up intersection (Figure 1). The entire process from laying out the center line to the final intersection took about three minutes, hardly enough time to get a cup of coffee. A similar feature is available for T intersections.

While this process is straightforward, I found that the intersection needed some cleanup work if each street had a different number of elements; e.g., if one had curbs and the other didn’t. Depending on the accuracy required, this capability can be used to supplement field surveys for mapping existing streets if the street center lines and curb radii can be identified. It is certainly worth consideration.

Block and Lot Layout

Following the street layout, I proceeded to lay out a block for lots. After a couple of false starts during which I generated some errors with no clues as to what I had done wrong, I was successful. I got a complete block report giving the boundary line calls and the area of the block.

I then proceeded to the automated lot layout routine. Lots were generated clockwise starting with the first line designated as the block front. I was asked for the beginning lot number, then the lot frontage for each lot in turn. In addition to the lot front, I was given the opportunity to change the bearing for the lot line, but I wasn’t shown the default value. There are other ways to generate lots, but none quite as efficient as this.

My next step was to generate all of the lot labels. To do this, I selected lot boundaries one at a time. If I selected a common boundary, both lots were labeled.

House Placement

Using the new house button, I drew a footprint which was placed in a house library. When I selected a house for placement on a lot, it was initially rotated with the front of the house toward the front of the lot and attached to my cursor so I could move it to the proper location. By entering “D,” I was given a dynamic readout (Figure 2) of the distances of the closest house corners to each lot line as I rotated or translated the house. When I placed the house, coordinates were generated for each corner and placed in the point database.

It is difficult to initially place the house precisely on setbacks and/or offsets; however, the current process is the beginning of future enhancements to make this possible.

In order to position the house where I wanted it, I placed the house corners in a MS-CAD group. MS-CAD uses groups as one way to perform common operations on groups of points. These include such things as rotate, translate (they call it shift), and changing attributes such as layers. Points can be added to or removed from the group by standard CAD selection methods such as window and by special MicroSurvey methods such as point number, coordinate or elevation range, description, layer, or by selecting specific lines. Once selected, the group can be named, saved and recalled at a later date. A point can be a member of more than one group, and an unlimited number of groups can be identified and saved. The user can have MS-CAD place a temporary X beside the points in the active group for identification. By generating a point at the desired location for a house corner using standard COGO routines, I could select the house by its group name and place it precisely where I wanted it. The point coordinates were updated accordingly. MS-CAD calls this capability Graphical Editor. The finished lot is shown in Figure 3.

Digital Images

Digital or raster images are easily obtained for most projects. Aerial firms can now provide digital aerial photography along with the map of your project, or in many cases, especially in urban areas, there is probably already one available make a few calls. Old paper drawings can be scanned and inserted for heads-up digitizing.

I had a scanned image of a site plan from which I needed to copy the proposed contours. I inserted the image into a drawing where I had previously entered the boundary for the project. Using four points common to both the drawing and scanned image, I rotated and scaled the image to fit. This worked fine—after I discovered that the registration process creates a second image which was placed at the initial insertion point and rotation of the image. After removing the first image, the second image can be moved and rotated to the proper position. I found this feature to be quite useful, but I would like the ability to turn the image on and off similar to a layer.

Program Design

MicroSurvey Software has chosen to integrate established products into a complete system, rather than reinvent all of the wheels themselves. The other products include FelixCAD, a German CAD product, and QuickSurf, a well-known contouring package. The integration is nearly seamless for most operations, with the user hardly noticing when going from one product to the other. The program will also create an input file for StarNet, a popular least-squares adjustment program, but this program is not integrated with MS-CAD. This approach lets each developer concentrate on the technology he or she knows best, while giving the user the advantage of a large pool of expertise at a large cost-savings.

Connectivity of the Drawing to the Database

I’ve heard a lot of surveyors, especially those who get a drawing file from another firm, complain that the drawing doesn’t fit the design parameters shown. This can happen with any product in which the point database is a separate file from the drawing.

Depending on how the entities are created, modified or deleted, MS-CAD automatically maintains connectivity between the drawing and the database. For example, if a point is moved in the drawing, the ends of any lines that are connected to the point also are moved. If the lines are annotated, they are automatically updated. If the points represent corners of lots or other areas, then the lot labels are also updated. Lines can be trimmed at a corner symbol and the database will maintain the true length, even though the length of the line in the drawing is short. There are limits to this connectivity; for example, if the line is moved (as opposed to moving a point), the connectivity is lost. The functions that can cause this to happen are well documented in the “Getting Started” guide.

User Interface

MicroSurvey uses a combination of toolbars, dialog boxes, drop-down menus and command line entry options. For example, when exporting points, the user is presented with dialog boxes for designating the file name as well as most export options. The exception is point ranges, which are specified in the command line. The addition of text fields in the dialog box for specifying point ranges would provide more consistency and perhaps be more intuitive for the new user.

While there are many traditional Windows 95/NT features in MS-CAD, the user interface doesn’t provide the look and feel one expects for a Windows product. This departure made the job of finding my way around in the program more difficult. I have been told that the next version, expected to be shipped in the early part of 1999, will incorporate more standard Windows features such as more dialog boxes. While this will be a benefit for new users, especially those who are familiar with other Windows products, it may present some resistance from existing users.

Although the user has the option of customizing his or her own toolbars and menus, most will use the ones that are provided. Therefore, I would like to see more integration of the menus for FelixCAD, QuickSurf and MS-CAD. For example, help files for FelixCAD, MS-CAD, Design and QuickSurf are implemented from four different locations. Toolbars for FelixCAD, MS-CAD and Design are implemented from three different locations.

Customization/Configuration

There is a fine line between configuring a program and customizing it. This holds true for MS-CAD, as it provides a large number of settings (I counted over 100) for controlling the way the system works. Many of these affect the CAD engine directly while others affect the way MS-CAD reacts with the database, the drawing file and the way specific operations are performed. These settings are set from dialog boxes, which have drop-down lists where only preset values can be used. Once established, they can be saved and recalled later. This prevents many types of errors when switching between projects for different clients.

Since FelixCAD and AutoCAD both allow the user to customize them using Lisp, MicroSurvey has chosen to provide its own Lisp extensions for the user. These include such things as MS-CAD control functions, reading MS-CAD system variables, access to the MS-CAD coordinate point and line database and annotation routines. MicroSurvey Software Inc. is one of the few developers to provide the use access to its database.

Learning Lisp is one thing, but learning to program dialog boxes is another. Many leading AutoCAD textbooks treat the subject lightly or not at all. The FelixCAD manual provides a fair discussion of the subject, but, more importantly, FelixCAD provides a built-in dialog box designer. This works by the drag-and-drop theory, similar to Visual Basic. Once the dialog box has been “drawn,” it can be tested immediately to see how it will appear in use. Unfortunately, these dialog boxes are not compatible with Auto-CAD.

Documentation

MS-CAD comes with four manuals in hard copy form: the reference manual for MicroSurvey, the user guide for FelixCAD, the QuickSurf manual and a general “Getting Start-ed” guide. These are also provided in digital format along with some additional reference materials. In general, the manuals are well written, although I found some minor editorial errors and a few places where I thought more detail would be beneficial. For example, the documentation was not clear on the procedure for inserting and transforming a digital image.

The “Getting Started” guide contains installation instructions and five tutorials which cover most of the capabilities of the system. The guide also contains a two-and- a-half page listing of new features in Version 3.1.

More importantly, it contains a discussion of how some of the basic CAD commands—such as erase, move and others—will affect the survey database. This is important since experienced CAD operators may use these more familiar commands to perform certain modifications to the drawing. In most cases, the same results can be achieved by using optional COGO commands without losing synchronization.

The reference document for the MS-CAD extensions to the Lisp language is not included. I was informed that only about one in 100 users are interested in this, so it has been omitted. It is available by special request. Perhaps future shipments will include it in the digital format. The distribution CD comes with several movies which are good references. The movies are well done, except that I found that the pace was too fast to absorb easily. This is partly because it is necessary to read the explanation for actions being shown from the screen while trying to follow the action at the same time. The addition of a verbal explanation would be useful.

Tech Support

Technical support is provided free for the first 90 days. After that, it is available by subscription. This includes support for all of the integrated products; thus, the user can get help from one source. A technical support subscription costs $75 per year. This is certainly a bargain, and is money well spent, especially for new users. I found that many questions can be answered by visiting their website, which is available without charge to all users. They post selected questions and the answers as well as updates (not upgrades), which can be downloaded and installed. I tested this and it worked quite well. In addition to the updated program, I received a large list of what was new in the update.

Summary

The initial releases of MS-CAD focused on two-dimensional aspects of the program. The current release has site design, route design, volumes, profiles, cross-sections, sewer design and water main functions, which all include the elevation component. Future enhancements will add to the tools available for 3-D design.

AutoCAD compatibility is a serious issue with many companies. I saved the drawing I created from the scanned image in AutoCAD format and read it successfully in both AutoCAD R13 and AutoCAD LT 97. After working with it in AutoCAD for a while, I needed to add some more contours and able it in MS-CAD. While this was not a complex drawing, it was rather large and the entity types were typical of many projects.

MicroSurvey Software has formed an alliance with SMI Inc. (Church Hill, Tenn.), a leading provider of data collector software. SMI will now sell MS-CAD as “SMI CAD by MicroSurvey.” This alliance will benefit current SMI users who have established a strong relationship with SMI and/or their dealers. SMI has an excellent video which provides an overview of the program.

For those who want to try it before they buy it, a demo version is available. This is a full working program which can be downloaded from their website and is good for 30 days after installation. It comes with all of the documentation in digital form. Thirty days is not sufficient to become an expert, or even to get more than a glimpse of all of the features (unless you have nothing else to do), but it is sufficient to make a purchasing decision if you give it some priority. I was impressed with the number and power of the features, especially those which automated the steps required for road layout, lot layout and house placement. Firms that are looking for a full-featured design package should certainly look at MS-CAD.

MicroSurvey Software Inc.
3396 Sunnyside Road
Kelowna, BC VIZ 2V4
800-668-3312
250-769-4458
www.microsurvey.com
MSRP $1995