Point of Beginning

Technology Profile: High-Tech in the Hollers

October 1, 2008
A Kentucky firm uses GNSS to improve surveying speed and accuracy in tough terrain.

Dealing with overgrown vegetation is all in a day’s work for Tim Bailey, LS, part owner of B & B Surveying.


The region of eastern Kentucky and West Virginia is difficult terrain for land surveyors. The landscape is mountainous, and the vegetation is lush and thick, almost tropical. The “hollers” (valleys between steep ridgelines) can be deep, miles long and completely overgrown. Though typically without roads, the hollers are full of deer and turkey, and hunters use ATVs to get around on the slender, twisty trails. Working with conventional total stations often involves exhausting bouts of machete work and other methods of brush clearing, along with difficult hikes to good vantage points. And rattlesnakes are not uncommon: Tim Bailey, LS, part owner of Kentucky’s B & B Surveying, says that he and his partner have had to use the “business end” of their GNSS receiver rods to deal with snakes on more than several occasions. “The tips on the carbon fiber rods have really good sharp points, and when you stick that in a rattlesnake’s head, he does not move,” Bailey says.

Bailey’s work is split between boundary surveying and coal company work. While he still uses total stations when absolutely necessary, he finds that Trimble GPS receivers--he’s worked with several generations--are dramatically better, even in Kentucky’s and West Virginia’s overgrown conditions. “Once we get the base set up on a mountain or ridgeline with views to the south or southwest, we are good to go,” he says. “I’ll never go back to working with just a total station. I’d retire first.”

But how did a small survey firm in rural Kentucky get into GPS in the first place?

B & B surveyors can set up their base stations on ridges, sometimes with minimal clearance around the antenna, and work conveniently in the hollers down below.

Getting Started

B & B Surveying has been using GPS receivers since 1994. “We knew that technology was changing, and we’d seen surveyors using GPS in the cities, so we knew that it could be very helpful to us,” Bailey says. Bailey initially used a Trimble 4700 GPS receiver when working for a coal company. The company used GPS for surveying strip pits and staking out areas for highwall mining machines.

In 1997, B & B bought its own Trimble 4800 GPS receiver in order to take advantage of real-time kinematic (RTK) technology. “We looked at other brands, which were cheaper at the time, but we found that they took a long time to get lock,” Bailey says.

After a four-hour training session, Bailey was good to go. “We used the equipment from day one, and if we ever do have a problem, support has been excellent. If I don’t actually get [a Trimble representative] on the first call, they’ve always called me back within 20 minutes.”

In addition to coal company work, Bailey also handles conventional boundary work for the gas industry. The boundary work, in particular, is what takes him deep into Kentucky’s and West Virginia’s steeply folded hill country. He’s found that GPS, somewhat counterintuitively, is perfect for overgrown areas. Rather than chopping for hours to clear out needed sight lines, he can set up the base station on ridges, sometimes with minimal clearance around the antenna, and work conveniently in the hollers down below. (With RTK, he can get shots as needed without needing to see the base station.) And in the lush spring and summer months when growth is especially luxuriant, Bailey finds that the Trimble HPB450 radio modem is useful because it transmits better through leaf cover. “When it’s green out, it’s hard to use the internal radio,” he says.

But there’s at least one more wrinkle to using GPS equipment in Southern woods. “Whenever we set up a base station, we always leave a man to watch it. There are just too many trails and people on four-wheelers around here,” Bailey says.

With that background in GPS, Bailey was certainly open to the newer GNSS equipment, though he says that he put off upgrading to the Trimble R8 GNSS receiver for a while because the older model worked so well. “I had a lot of experience with the 4800 from 1997 until this year (2008),” he says, “and it really worked great for us. Our sales rep kept telling us about the R8 and how good it was, but we waited a year or so before we got one.”

The R8 works with the Trimble Recon hand-held field computer and TDS Survey Pro software that B & B had been using previously. However, Bailey opted to upgrade to a Trimble TSC2 controller using Trimble Survey Controller software so he could take advantage of the latest-generation field software. Bailey says that the transition between the two systems was so easy he didn’t require new training to start using the TSC2.

B & B Surveying works in challenging terrain in eastern Kentucky and West Virginia.

Speedy Surveying Year-Round

According to Bailey, GNSS has made a substantial difference in B & B’s operations. “It’s changed our work 200 percent for the better,” Bailey says. “We’ve only used our total station once since we got the R8, and that was just for 10 minutes or so. We use the R8 all day, every day.” He says that most of the time he has 10 to 15 satellites available, many more than previously. The improved availability is a concrete advantage: Bailey’s partner, Billy Barrows, PE, PLS, says, “With the R8 we can now do surveys year-round that we used to put off until the winter months when leaves are off the trees. And we get lock quicker--what used to take 20 minutes now takes seconds.”

Since the Trimble R8 is “future-proofed,” as Bailey puts it, the firm will be able to work with new satellites like the L2C and L5 as they come online. Bailey also says he is looking forward to the day when he can “sit in the living room and get lock.”

B & B Surveying always works on state plane coordinates and checks in with two or more monuments with known coordinates for every job. If he has to extend a network, Bailey triangulates by tying into previously located points after moving the base station. But later this year, he expects that even that part of the job will get easier since a new Trimble VRS network is coming online.

“The highway department has a tower set up, and we’ll be using it in a couple of weeks,” he says. “We have the frequencies; I’m just waiting on a Bluetooth-enabled cell phone.”

Advanced technology is working out well in this classically rural landscape by allowing B & B to replace the highly labor-intensive task of clearing sight lines with the relatively easier chore of setting up a satellite receiver. And even though the Trimble R8 GNSS is good at locating points on Earth, in this particular terrain, it’s nice to know that it’s also effective when dealing with rattlesnakes.


Manufacturer Information:
Trimble, www.trimble.com