Point of Beginning

The Automation Age

May 23, 2011
Trimble’s TSC3 Controller allows users to send and receive data between the field and office and quickly store observations and operating data on the collection device.

Remember when you collected a client’s survey field data but then had to wait until returning to your office to download it? You prayed all the data you needed was gathered, and accurately, to avoid a return trip to the jobsite, which could be two hours away. Fast-forward to 2011, and this issue is becoming ancient history since field surveying data collection methods have improved enormously.

Today’s clientele want more detailed representations of surveyed projects and results delivered in tighter timeframes so they can proceed with the next steps. In response, surveyors are seeking the latest offerings in data collection software. After all, surveying demands have grown. A typical day in the field can involve mapping site control points, measuring a road cross-section and completing a topo survey. Consequently, manufacturers have created products designed to streamline and advance every aspect of field surveying.

MicroSurvey’s FieldGenius software makes it easy for users to create digital terrain models, georeferenced images and linework.

Data collection software is, of course, part of a crucial set of equipment that also usually includes a total station and/or GNSS receiver, a data collector, a computer-aided drawing program, and, increasingly, a laser scanner. Fortunately, each step in the process of measuring, mapping and recording survey data has been automated, allowing surveyors to generate detailed 2D and 3D maps and drawings depicting results of the survey. The payoff has been higher efficiency, increased time savings, better-quality data for surveyors, and, for clients, faster analysis and improved decision-making.

Automation has addressed a multitude of data collection challenges that have emerged in recent years. Among these are:

Proprietary vs. Non-Proprietary Data Collection Software. When shopping for data collection software, the chief consideration is whether it is best to buy a proprietary system built by a manufacturer or an independent vendor’s software. The main advantage of proprietary systems is that they usually offer full functionality with all hardware built by the manufacturer. The disadvantage is that the software may not work with other manufacturers’ hardware. “Third-party developers are hardware-neutral and let the customer choose what equipment is used,” says Jason Poitras, director of product development for MicroSurvey Software Inc., headquartered in Canada. “[For example, when there is] an influx of new GPS and total station hardware, MicroSurvey’s FieldGenius data collection software will be compatible with these new hardware offerings because this is in our customers’ best interest.”

Carlson Software takes a similar approach. “With any given client, it is unlikely that they use one piece of hardware to do all the tasks necessary to finish a job,” says Scott Griffin, national sales director. Griffin notes that Carlson offers a number of GPS, RTS and TS drivers in its Surveyor+ with SurvCE software to run varying manufacturers’ equipment.

However, Shannon Hixon, product manager for Leica Geosystems Inc., maker of Leica SmartWorx data collection software, has an opposing view. “No matter how well third-party software wants to integrate to an instrument, it will never control one as well as the manufacturer’s software,” he says. “So you are always trading off functionality when you choose third-party software.”

HD Graphics and Tablet Computers. With so much data being collected, surveyors have wanted improved graphics to see data details more easily. But it wasn’t easy since surveyors had to constantly tilt data collector screens and squint at graphics that were hard to read and interact with. Software makers have since paid close attention. For example, manufacturers now offer VGA screens with superb resolution. Fonts are larger and bolder, and icons can be viewed clearly outdoors. And a redesigned interface allows the software to work better with devices such as tablet PCs and handheld computers with bigger screens.

Jeremy Taylor, PLS, of Taylor Land Consultants in Apex, NC, uses the Carlson SurvCE Version 2.52 data collection software for all of his conventional and GPS field survey data collection. He notes that the software easily handles small boundary surveys, topo surveys for site design, or even a complex ALTA survey of an existing commercial tract. Still, Taylor says, “I would love to see data collectors evolve to be more of a mini PC,” Taylor said.

Griffin, the Carlson national sales director, notes that his firm now offers the Supervisor Tablet running on Windows V.7. The Carlson SurvPC is actually SurvCE working on a PC. MicroSurvey’s FieldGenius comes with a free PC version that operates on Windows 7 and tablets.

Quicker Data Processing. As surveyors compete to stay active and profitable, they must speed up the workflow of their projects. This means not waiting until they are back at the office to process collected data. So, a huge trend is the ability for surveyors to wirelessly send and receive files or to synchronize data back to a GIS or some other database at the surveyor’s office. For instance, sending data files such as a point file for stakeout, or sending a finished survey job back to the office directly from the field is easier now than ever before. Data collectors now offer built-in Wi-Fi and cell phone connections so that data can be sent between the surveyor’s office and the field using email or file transfer software. The capability enables data to be processed more quickly and allows field workers to to generate coordinates for a surveyed site in real time.

For surveyor Colin Davies with NPM Geomatics in South Africa, these improvements in data collection have proven critical to his firm’s efficiency with customer survey projects. “We have long wanted, and now have, reliability and an intuitive interface as well as integrated modules within our data collection software,” Davies says. NPM Geomatics uses the Trimble TSC3 Controller for its surveying work. “The ability to send and receive data between the field and the office, and the high speed of storing observations and operating data on the collection device have been major improvements in our field surveying,” Davies adds. He continues, “We must be able to connect to a receiver without a cable (via Bluetooth). The fewer cables on a GPS system, the better!”

Quality and Stability. Surveyors should be able to depend on the calculations made by the software. "More than anything else, surveyors must be able to trust their data collection software to get the right answer and to securely store the data. This is the core aspect of any quality data collection software package," says Eric Hall, product manager for Spectra Precision, which offers the Survey Pro software that was originally developed by Tripod Data Systems (TDS). "Beyond that, it’s making the software conform to sound field procedures and allowing the surveyor to do their work efficiently. If the user doesn’t understand what information the software needs because the interface is confusing or poorly designed, then the answers produced will not be right. Also, if the right information is not displayed at the right time, the surveyor may be led to make a poor decision because he or she didn’t have the proper information." Hall notes that Survey Pro is designed to allow flexibility in its GNSS setup routines while ensuring all the proper information is collected so that the final results are correct. "All the pertinent data is presented to the surveyor so they can make the decisions they need to make," he says.

Tailored Applications. For all of their flexibility, today’s data collection tools can’t meet the needs of every application. Therefore, software providers have made their products more customizable. “We realized there has to be a way to really localize the software,” says Leica’s Hixon. “We’ve built SmartWorx on a system that is applications-driven. It has a core set of software tasks, and then in each region of the world we have a development team that writes specific applications based on what customers want.” Hixon cites one application that Leica has designed called “unleveled setup,” which handles data collected by a total station that is in a coordinate system not normal to gravity.

Improved Field Data Documentation. What surveyor has not shot a point and then struggled to describe it when sitting in the office? Data collection software makers solved this problem by offering built-in cameras. Matthew Loessin, president of Frank Surveying Co. Inc., in Columbus, Texas, calls this capability a “must-have” for data recorders. “You can take a photo and link it to a point that you’ve shot,” says Loessin, who uses the Leica SmartWorx software package with built-in camera. “So, when you get back to the office, you can click on that point and have a picture of a culvert, corner, structure or something like that.” Another advantage of being able to marry photos with data points is archival evidence. “We may have to return to sites for a client project,” Loessin continues. “So now we take pictures of our main control points, boundary corners, various features, and can verify not only point positions of control, but we can also see a photo of it when we either set it or found it to see if it’s in that same condition.”

Another related feature tied to built-in cameras is that some data collectors have built-in microphones that allow voice notes to be attached to a point.

The Carlson Survey 3D Field to Finish module from SurvCE helps surveyors create accurate and precise 2D and 3D drawings.

Surveying firms typically use a wide variety of software and hardware since their projects vary in size, type and data measurement demands. Monashee Surveying & Geomatics in Vernon, BC, Canada, for example, tackles simple surveying projects, such as construction layout for houses, topographic surveys, legal boundary work and subdivisions, as well as intricate surveying projects like high-precision alignments on turbine generators. It has an arsenal of various total stations, data collectors, data recording software and CAD diagramming programs.

The most difficult applications are those in industrial environments, says Mark Budgen, a founding partner of Monashee Surveying. “Very often, we’ve got scenarios where sight lines are difficult,” Budgen explains. “With FieldGenius, we can do offset intersections. Also, if we’re doing pickup, the ability to do angle offsets, distance offset, vertical offset, and probing into certain things we literally just can’t see from anywhere is important, and the software allows us to do this, too.” He adds, “In a high-precision environment, it’s great having the data collection software because it has a multi-purpose resection routine that allows me to measure to as many control points as I need to. If this capability wasn’t in the FieldGenius software, we wouldn’t be able to do a lot of the high-precision industrial work that we currently handle.”

The survey firm also uses MicroSurvey’s STAR*NET package that adjusts 2D/3D survey networks. Nearly everything that is collected in the field is processed by Monashee through STAR*NET to control and ensure quality. “It’s that additional ability to test the data and look at the adjustment result,” Budgen says regarding STAR*NET’s benefit.

The Leica SmartWorx software package includes a built-in camera for streamlined data documentation.

A surveying firm’s choice of technology must be tied to how it can gather the data in a more efficient and cost-effective way. “It really becomes a project-specific decision,” says Curtis Sumner, ACSM executive director. “It comes down to adaptability to technology and equipment, but also to opportunity, because sometimes your ability to use the technology broadens your options for work you can perform.”

Mark Contino, vice president of marketing for Topcon Positioning Systems Inc., agrees, emphasizing that modern data collection software is being designed to increase performance and productivity for the land surveying profession. Topcon’s TopSURV8 Field Controller, for example, offers features such as real-time field to finish, advanced roading, road staking, and a vast library of import/export configuration files for other hardware, which allows it to cater to several surveying applications. “Surveyors want to know how software can not only collect points, but also, with this data, how it can help them manage their business,” Contino said. “They want to know, ‘Can that data show my productivity with my field crew? Can I also have a direct link back to my accounting software and be able to bill projects better, more efficiently?’” Absolutely, Contino affirms. “The future is in enterprise-wide software. We’re going to allow surveyors to do a lot more analysis of their business along with taking data.”

Topcon's TopSURV8 Field Controller is designed to increase performance and productivity.

For most surveyors, total stations, data recorders and data collection software is standard equipment. And with continuing improvements in data collection software in particular, there are many gratifying benefits. These include:

• Higher Efficiency. Data collection software allows surveyors to complete surveying projects more thoroughly and accurately than ever before. The ability to more easily integrate this software with a variety of equipment is a huge factor.

• Greater Time Savings. The software has helped substantially reduce the time it takes to collect data in the field, process it and generate a CAD drawing so that project results can be analyzed.

• Better Use of Surveying Resources. The ability to exchange data files between field crews and the main office maximizes the surveying firm’s total personnel pool so that projects have quicker turnaround. It also strengthens workflow.

• Improved Cost-Benefit Ratio. Purchasing software and hardware is now more effective since it can automate the entire data collection process. This benefits surveyors by enabling them to tackle both simple and complex projects, and to meet client project timeframes faster, with more detailed, accurate results.

MicroSurvey’s FieldGenius works with many handheld and tablet devices such as the Nautiz X7 (shown in middle) and Algiz 7 by Handheld, as well as the Archer and Allegro MX field PCs (shown left and right, respectively) by Juniper Systems.

As surveyors try to maintain a steady flow of project work, they will seek the latest advances in data collection automation. One such advance, says Omar Soubra, marketing communications director for Trimble, is that “we will see a trend toward more cloud processing (of data), where surveyors will be able to render and process some of the most complex data representations right in the field.”

A straightforward example of cloud computing is when static post-processed data is collected in the field and uploaded to a server that returns accurate coordinates for the occupation point, Soubra says. “This means that a control point with absolute coordinates in a desired reference frame could be established from the field.”

Still another growing survey technology is laser scanning, which produces point clouds consisting of anywhere from several hundred thousand to many millions of data points as part of a 3D model of the scanned object, site or area. The 3D point cloud method can greatly complement traditional surveying workflows.

Regardless of the technology, data collection software will have to continue to do more to make modern instruments perform to their potential. "Integrating data from multiple sensors and providing pathways for that data to the office software and the final products has always been important and something that Survey Pro has always done well," says Spectra Precision's Eric Hall. "Software that interacts with these sensors in a way that makes those sensors understandable and usable by surveyors is a critical and difficult process. There will always be a push for the next great feature, and that’s as it should be. But stability, quality, ease of use and efficiency will always trump whiz-bang in precision surveying applications."

Professional surveying software and related equipment is a major investment. It might be best to consider buying software as part of a suite that incorporates everything from the total station or laser scanner to the data collector, GIS and CAD system.

Whichever purchasing decision is made, surveyors must consider technology that will not only help them in their present work but also help them expand their business. “Because you can gather data so quickly, anything you buy that will lessen the data processing and data interpretation time is going to be to your advantage,” Sumner says. “The quicker this is done, the better, because it gets you to the analyzing process. And there is no shortcut for that.”