In June 2007, Apple started shipping the iPhone, a revolutionary combination of function, design and flexibility. The new device became an instant and enduring success. In the ensuing years, consumers have come to expect—and demand—instant access to information, entertainment and personal communications. Today these expectations extend to the business and professional world, including the geospatial arena.

For many years, geospatial professionals have used specialized computers and software for their work in the field. Accurate mobile data—quickly collected and made available whenever and wherever it is needed—remains among the most important trends in the geospatial world. While that trend isn’t slowing, the flood of consumer devices is changing and expanding the way mobile data is gathered, managed and shared.

Customization and the Cloud 

As organizations add geospatial information to their asset and operations management, they often encounter obstacles in efficiently collecting and using the data. The

A technician carries a Trimble R1 GNSS receiver in his pocket to provide positions on his Android smartphone app for data collection. The solution increases precision and reliability of positioning, even in areas that lack cellular coverage.

Courtesy of Trimble.

wide variety in workflows and information, combined with the physical separation of field tasks from office analysis and information management, produces significant challenges in enterprise management. To meet the challenge, flexible solutions are emerging for gathering, managing and sharing geospatial information. It starts with customized software.

Organizations often need multiple functions (data collection, guidance to field workers, inspection and supervision, etc.) to run on their field devices. Ease of use and fit to task are essential for each user or function. In addition, field and office teams need to have current, accurate information. These needs can be addressed with a two-pronged approach. First, rather than relying on vendors to provide specialized software, users can customize their software to meet their own needs for data collection. Second, by using cloud-based services and technologies, information can be exchanged quickly and securely.

A good illustration is Trimble TerraFlex field software. TerraFlex provides customizable data collection software and cloud services to manage and combine data from different activities. For example, by customizing the field workflows in TerraFlex software, a water utility can collect data on the diverse assets of sanitary sewers and stormwater and then blend the information to create comprehensive datasets of underground assets. Field data is transferred to the cloud, where office staff and other field crews can access it. By using the cloud, data can be seamlessly transferred to multiple formats or integrated into other systems. Using the TerraFlex solution, maintenance crews can quickly identify assets in need of repair. Likewise, for electric utilities, collecting information on vegetation under power lines is much different than counting inventory of equipment on power poles. When the seemingly unrelated data is combined, it provides valuable information for maintenance and enterprise operations.

While it’s clear that software flexibility plays a major role in mobile data collection, many organizations are also looking at the hardware components of their field operations.

You May Already Own Your Next Data Collector

The iPhone unleashed a flood of consumer-style devices and workflows, and many organizations recognized that the smartphone could provide a new platform for commercial applications. Although companies often issue smartphones to employees for basic communications, many take it a step farther and turn to smartphones and tablets as field devices. Consumer-style hardware can be suitable data collectors for many applications. By running professional-grade apps such as TerraFlex for field data collection and management, the devices become efficient, task-focused tools.

Operating on consumer smartphones and tablets, Trimble TerraFlex provides flexible, professional software for data collection. The familiar user interface provides shorter learning curves and increased efficiency for field workers.

Courtesy of Trimble

Because many workers own smartphones, they are already familiar with the basic operation. That familiarity, which comes at no cost to the company, helps to ease any reluctance in adopting specialized apps required for their tasks. Some companies have adopted a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) strategy, which uses company-provided software running on their employees’ personal devices.

Whether a smartphone is company-owned or BYOD, the key is the common operating systems such as iOS, Android and Windows. By supporting these popular operating systems, developers of geospatial apps enable companies to create customized workflows that provide consistent operation and output even though the field workers may carry different types of devices.

One crucial tradeoff is durability. It can be addressed by using rugged professional-grade devices that combine commercial software with the familiar look and feel of a personal device. These solutions provide smartphone functionality and popular operating systems as well as positional accuracy, visibility in sunlight and ability to operate in challenging environments—characteristics not found in many consumer-grade products.

There’s another reason why many organizations are turning to smartphones and tablets as field devices: the increasing use of geographic locations in field workflows. But smartphones are not always the best tools for positioning.

A Precise Solution to Smartphone Positioning

As more organizations add geospatial information to their enterprise solutions, demand for reliable and accurate geo-location is expected to increase. This demand can rapidly outstrip the positioning capabilities of most consumer devices.

Smartphones and tablets provide positions using built-in circuitry and a technique called assisted GPS (A-GPS), which relies on connection to a cellular network. But this approach can’t provide the precision needed for many applications. GIS, utilities and many other industries need more than the several-meter resolution delivered by A-GPS. When working in areas where cellular signals aren’t available, positioning accuracy using smartphones degrades even more.

The challenge is to enable workers to use familiar devices and obtain positioning data with the needed reliability and precision. Devices such as the new Trimble R1 GNSS receiver, used in conjunction with a smartphone or field computer, help to solve this problem.

Transported in a pocket or belt pouch, the R1 can be mounted on a rod or placed directly on an object to capture positions with sub-meter accuracy. The unit operates automatically and streams positions via Bluetooth to the user’s smart device. When needed, the receiver can be configured and controlled from the smart device—yes, there’s an app for that. The R1 can be readily transferred from one user to another, quickly connecting to the new user’s phone, tablet or field computer. In doing so, the Trimble R1 protects an organization’s investment in positioning while allowing it to keep pace with rapid changes in smart devices.

Positioning solutions such as the Trimble R1 are ideal complements for the widespread acceptance and availability of “consumerized” field hardware and flexible software. The combined solutions provide an increased level of function and flexibility to collectors and consumers of geospatial information.

Combining the Trends

We expect that the new trends—customization and cloud-based operation; consumer-style hardware and software; and need for precise locations—will continue to expand the role of geospatial information in enterprise management. The variety of products and solutions can help organizations find—or develop—systems that tightly fit their needs.

In addition to the long-term benefits in productivity and streamlined processes, the customized solutions provide front-end savings in time and cost needed to implement the improved workflows and data management. As you take a close look at your business, you may discover that new tools for productivity are already at your fingertips.