How has your business changed in 2013? If you are like many operations, it’s likely that you are using new tools and methods to collect and deliver information. And it may not be by choice. Spotty economic growth in many regions has forced companies to adapt to new financial realities. As a result, geospatial professionals have sought to develop competitive advantages by applying the advances in technologies and professional practices. This change, while not always easy, has produced some very encouraging trends. Let’s take a look at some of the most important developments from the past year.

Imaging, Imaging and More Imaging

It’s difficult to overstate the growing importance of digital imaging in the geospatial disciplines. Photos provide essential data that would not otherwise be available. This takes place on two fronts. First, digital photos have replaced sketches and descriptions used to document conditions and objects found on the job site. Low-cost cameras and highly portable image formats have made on-site photography commonplace.

The second, more interesting, trend is the emergence of calibrated cameras to produce photos for use in measurements. Using instruments equipped with Trimble VISION technology, field crews can quickly capture georeferenced images. Office software for surveying applications merges the images and uses photogrammetric techniques to produce orthophotos and measure 3D points. This helps reduce the time needed on site and enables capture of difficult-to-access objects. Office technicians can also use images to double-check fieldwork and measure additional features. The approach has demonstrated how digital imagry can cut field time and reduce the need to revisit a site.

Imaging and terrestrial photogrammetry will continue to grow. Introduced in October, the Trimble V10 Imaging Rover enables field crews to capture panoramic photos in conjunction with RTK GNSS or robotic total stations. By using the camera at the rover, field crews can enhance the flexibility of in-field imaging to save time while capturing more information than previously possible.

Gaining Altitude with UAS

2013 saw unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) for geospatial applications gain a solid foothold. Several new systems appeared, including Trimble’s UX5 Aerial Imaging Rover, a second-generation UAS that provides simple, flexible field operations while collecting high-resolution aerial images. Because of the low cost and flexibility of UAS, it’s possible to collect data more often and over smaller areas than can be done using conventional manned aircraft.

While the aerial operations are exciting, the true value of UAS emerges in the office, where airborne data becomes part of mainstream information processing and analysis. Desktop surveying software can merge aerial images with terrestrial data (points, attributes and photos) to produce comprehensive information on large, complex sites. This facilitates new deliverables that address both the horizontal and vertical surfaces on a project. Geospatial professionals can use UAS data to create deliverables including orthophotos, 3D photos, point clouds and digital surface models (DSM) as well as detailed feature and contour maps. UAS is poised to make an enormous impact on the geospatial industry and is already making inroads in applications such as mining, engineering and construction.

A major concern remains on how the technology will be regulated to address important issues of safety, privacy and interaction with other aircraft. 2013 saw progress in this regard. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration in November released its roadmap for integrating commercial UAS into the U.S. airspace. The FAA specifically mentioned aerial mapping and charting as applications for UAS. In addition, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and a number of European nations are active in developing processes and criteria to certify and manage the unmanned systems.

Growth of Precise Positioning

In gathering georeferenced data, geospatial professionals and their clients often make trade-offs between precision and cost. Data precision and resolution ranges from of tens of meters using satellite imagery down to the sub-centimeter results produced by high-precision GNSS and optical systems. Precise positioning is driven in part by the increasing density of real-time GNSS networks (RTN), which in turn are facilitated by growing availability of wireless Internet connectivity. This combination has delivered real-time centimeter precision to more regions and applications.

Higher precision is good, but it must be easy, affordable and widely available. If equipment and services are too costly or difficult to use, then the cost of precision will outweigh the value to the client. 2013 saw significant steps in this regard.

Services such as Trimble CenterPoint RTX use geostationary satellites to deliver information directly to stationary and mobile GNSS receivers. This enables the receivers to produce precise positions without communications to networks or reference stations. The Trimble RTX technology enables users to obtain centimeter-level accuracy over large geographic areas. Predominantly based in agriculture, the approach is rapidly moving into applications including construction, surveying and mapping, machine control, monitoring and scientific disciplines.

Expecting the Unexpected

Several news events in 2013 carried implications for the geospatial community. In Australia, massive wildfires devastated large areas in the southeastern states. Wildfires also hit some parts of the United States, where other regions were inundated by thousand-year floods that wiped out essential infrastructure and thousands of homes and businesses. Geospatial technologies such as satellite and airborne imagery and GIS supported emergency response activities during the events. Following the disasters, aerial and ground surveying and mapping played key roles in identifying and quantifying impacted areas and structures as well as rapid reconstruction of vital roads and utilities. The dramatic images and information helped increase public awareness of the value of geospatial technologies and information.

The news wasn’t limited to natural disasters. In October, the U.S. government shut down its non-essential operations for 16 days. Unfortunately for many surveyors and geospatial professionals, this shutdown closed the U.S. National Geodetic Survey CORS network and OPUS online post-processing service. The shutdown did not affect positioning crews working with RTNs operated by state or local agencies or by private network operators. Similarly, companies equipped for post processing could conduct business as usual in surveying, GIS and related applications.

While another shutdown is unlikely, the experience illustrates the value of local networks and reference stations as well as the ability for in-house GNSS processing. As a geospatial professional, these characteristics increase your flexibility to address the needs of your clients.

What’s in Store for 2014?

It’s always easy to say that geospatial technologies will continue to become more flexible and easier to use. This contributes to the trend in reducing the cost and effort of capturing and delivering information, but that’s not where your attention belongs.

The cost of providing a position is independent from the value it adds to a solution or service, and the value of a position may not be realized until far down the chain of processes that make up a solution. For example, what is the value to a utility company in quickly finding a technician to respond to an urgent customer call, or to a farmer who can reduce the amount of fertilizer used in a field? Without the ability to integrate geospatial technologies with other enterprise systems, these solutions could not occur.

Much of this integration comes from software, in the field, on the desktop and—increasingly—in the cloud. The trend of cloud-based information management accelerated in 2013 and will continue in the coming years. Systems such as Trimble TerraFlex combine mobile software with cloud-based services to provide centralized, highly accessible data collection and processing.

The focus is shifting and the shift is accelerating. Innovation will be as important in integration and applications as in core positioning technology. Successful geospatial professionals will do more than provide positions. In 2014, you must understand how and why positions are used and be able to apply that knowledge to improve your clients’ business.

Now it’s your turn. What event or technology had the most impact on your business in 2013? And what technology do you think will become even more prevalent in your business in 2014?

Photos from Trimble total stations provide data for desktop photogrammetry. The georeferenced images can be merged with data from scanners, GNSS and aerial systems.