Point of Beginning

Going Mobile

July 23, 2008


Shipping is made easy with the Leica GPS900 system. The transport container, battery, charger, mini wood tripod and six-piece GPS sectional rod is all a user needs.

The polar-bear-shaped license plate read “Explore Canada’s Arctic.” So I did. In 2000, after graduating as a geomatics technologist from the College of the North Atlantic in St. John’s, Newfoundland, I made my way to Yellowknife, the capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories.

I still recall the words of my first survey mentor, a Canada Lands Surveyor and a man of great knowledge, during the hiring interview. “I like to put my guys on the instrument,” he said. Soon after, I reached my first survey destination: Inuvik, or “Place of Man.” “There you go, Georges,” he said. “And here’s the shovel.”

“Pardon me, sir, so that’s the instrument?” I asked. “‘Explore Canada’s Arctic.’ Yeah, right,” I mumbled through my teeth as we shared the shovel and dug through compacted rock for hours in search of survey monuments established decades ago.

Eight years have passed since then, and I am still in the Canadian Arctic enjoying every bit of it. Today, I am the proud owner of my own company, True North Geomatics Ltd., which offers survey/civil technical services to the engineering, mining and construction industries. This vast region of Canada has more than 3,900,000 square kilometers, a little less than 105,000 people in scattered communities, some remote work camps and much barren land. These characteristics offer many job opportunities for a small surveying company like mine that is willing to go to the four corners of the land on short notice.

This region, however, also offers many challenges to operating a surveying business. Job logistics must be carefully planned, and the unique culture and 11 official languages of the Northwest Territories requires an open mind and the ability to adapt. This culture does not lend itself to an intimidating or browbeating type of business person, and relationships are very important. And patience is more than a virtue here as things don’t often move all that fast.

There are also many factors beyond our control, including dynamic weather conditions, so being able to adapt quickly to new situations and rapidly find practical solutions is critical.

To be successful in the North, a company needs to not only have reliable equipment but it must also consider portability. Depending on the location of a job, forgetting or waiting on a piece of equipment could yield downtime and undesirable costs.

Grab-and-go style: eight parts on the left, eight parts on the right and four batteries.

Up North, the sky is open, and GPS technology is a good choice. In February 2008, our company decided to acquire a GPS system, which was a big commitment for a junior outfit like ours. After a market analysis, we purchased a Leica (www.leica-geosystems.com) GPS900 RTK GNSS system from Butler Survey Supplies Ltd. in Edmonton, Alberta.

The Leica GPS900 system is marketed as an economic one-man RTK GPS system. With its short radio range, it is well suited for engineering-type work on small- to medium-sized worksites. We have found its onboard software to be well designed for civil applications, including the useful formatting for the submittal of reports as well as cut sheets, stakeout reports and the like. All in all, we believe that adding the GPS900 to our inventory will help in developing and increasing the performance of the company. In general, this system is in tune with our company’s philosophy:

FLY IN    SET-UP    SURVEY    PRODUCE    FLY OUT

Fly In

In the North, the vast majority of the jobsites are accessed by air. Depending on the final destination, a surveyor may take a plane (maybe two), then maybe a helicopter, a boat or a truck and, at some point, arrive at his or her destination. The GPS900 is an advantage with such logistics because it’s portable and light.

For many of its survey systems, Leica Geosystems includes the main components inside the transport container. The GPS900 is packaged the same way. Its grab-and-go style, as I call it, makes it easy to get ready for a job and be out the door in a very short time. Many of us “take 5 for safety”; the GPS900 has us “think 5 for the gear”:

1. Red container

2. Tripod

3. Pole

4. Large battery

5. Charger

Jaime Goddard, EIT, with the engineering firm AD Williams Engineering Inc., takes a measurement of a building with a Leica Disto and the GPS900 at an old mine site near Yellowknife, NT.

That’s it. Very simple.

Such a minimal equipment list means that the equipment can be checked in as luggage instead of being sent as freight by cargo. So, the gear is on the same plane as the surveyor, which is a huge benefit, especially in the North when flights are often delayed or canceled because of weather conditions. Financially, the savings on shipping costs are passed on to clients.

Another benefit of the GPS900 system is that the GPS base station is powered by a 12-volt dry cell NiMH battery. Classified as a nondangerous good, this battery can also be easily shipped.

As a backup to the standard aluminum tripod and 2-meter telescopic carbon-fiber pole, we include a mini (25"open/19" closed) heavy-duty wood tripod by CST/berger and a sectional 2-meter GPS pole by SECO in the customized galvanized box we use for shipping. Should the tripod and the rod be left behind or misplaced, our work schedule is not effected.

Setup

The real-time reference setup of the GPS900 system is simple and quick. For an experienced technician, setting up the base station takes less than 10 minutes. One Y-cable is needed to connect the battery to the GPS receiver and to the radio. Communication between the controller and the receiver is done with Bluetooth technology. The same controller is used to control both the base and the rover.

Survey

Setting up the real-time rover is also quite fast, and, in a matter of minutes, work can begin. For those who have used the Leica SmartRover, the setup is identical. The all-on-the-pole system offers freedom of movement, and, in the winter, when thick clothing is required, not having to wear a backpack is appreciated.

The GPS900 has basically the same “guts” as the Leica GPS1200 but with a smaller price tag. It has, of course, fewer bells and whistles. The main differences of the GPS900 are:

  • The GPS900 is designed for RTK work only. The system does not have the capability to record raw data for post processing.
  • The processor engine on the RX900C limits phase solutions (fixed) to a maximum range of 5 kilometers. Beyond that distance, the baseline processor solves for code-only solutions (float).
  • The system cannot output data strings for real-time third-party applications (for instance, to an echosounder during a hydrographic survey).
  • There are fewer customization options available on the controller.>
For the surveyor who does not need capabilities beyond what is outlined above, the GPS900 is an excellent choice in my opinion. It has all of the necessary application programs to properly set up and manage jobs, perform survey and stakeout work (points, lines, slopes, DTMs, alignments) and do field calculations. The RX900C controller is rugged, and the interface is easy to use. The brightness of the screen is also excellent whether one is working under the midnight sun or during the dark days of December.

I’ve found the measurement engine to be solid. As part of the quality-control tests we perform, previously surveyed points are often rechecked in the field. The repeatable accuracy of the system under different satellite signals is excellent. Results are tight and steady, which brings confidence in the quality of the data obtained.

Survey data is backed up even when it is exported from the jobsite to the office in a different format.

Produce

After we arrive at the hotel, camp or tent at the end of our workday, data is transferred to and from our computer via Microsoft ActiveSync. Using Leica’s Format Manager Utility, various template formats can be created according to the user’s preference.

I prefer to export data in two formats on the controller: a point/quality-control text file (*.txt) and a CAD file (*.dxf). Those two files take a few moments to create and become two independent backup files. The proprietary Leica job files are downloaded and processed with Leica GeoOffice software. Then, the data is exported to a CAD package or other software.

Fly Out

Once the field work has been completed, the compactness and portability of the system makes it easy for the operator to pack up and quickly leave the jobsite.

How quickly? Here’s a story to illustrate: A few months ago, I was scheduled to travel on a crew van (100 kilometers of road across the tundra) to catch a plane in the nearby community. The workers had been onsite for 28 days, and, on that morning, there was a unanimous decision (that I was not aware of) to leave the worksite at an earlier departure time than scheduled. The survey gear wasn’t packed, and I had a feeling that the mob already sitting in the van would not have much patience for the surveyor to get his stuff together. I was sure glad to be able to pack my gear (and have everything accounted for) in less than a minute! No plank to walk!

A Good Decision

Not all GPS systems are created equal. Each manufacturer offers a little something different. It is best to take a long hard look at all of the parameters in which a surveyor’s work will take place, including the type of work, environment, clientele, personal preferences, etc., before purchasing any equipment.

And regardless of a firm’s size, at the end of the day, one of the greatest satisfactions for a business owner is to be able to say, “Yes, this was a good decision, and I am glad that I made it.” At True North Geomatics, we’ve done that with the Leica GPS900.