Whether your business is surveying, GIS mapping and information support, drone operations, mining, agriculture, underwater exploration or building construction, you’re often faced with a series of decisions about hardware, software and services that will ensure your business has the right set of tools to do its work. Many of these tools are geospatial in nature. They consist of 3D modeling, point clouds, sensors, LiDAR, cameras, and other technologies that can facilitate your end-to-end business process.
Most companies find these decisions difficult to make. They might not have the resident technology expertise on hand, or they might not fully understand how all of these different hardware and software technologies from different vendors can fit together and operate in a seamless fashion. Then there’s the issue of business process changes and employee cross-training that might be an additional company investment.
Each of these concerns underscores the importance of investing in geospatial technologies that can interoperate, scale out as your business needs expand—and be usable by your staff.
So, how do you get there?
“Most companies handle part of their workflow with heterogeneous solutions, connecting the hardware and software through neutral formats and struggling with their limitations,” says Pascal Martinez, director of business development for Bentley Systems, a geospatial infrastructure provider.
The problem for companies, unfortunately, is that they consist of construction engineers, surveyors, farmers, deep sea divers and miners—not system integrators. All too often, they find themselves unable to get allegedly “integratable” hardware and software that are advertised with “universal” interfaces to work together.
The problem of hardware and software integration is multi-faceted because it actually goes beyond just getting equipment to work together. For instance, in many industries, there are regulations that must be met for certain geospatial tools, which must be certified as compliant.
“All companies want to get the greatest data acquisition possible from tools in areas such as photogrammetry and LiDAR, but registration does remain an issue,” Martinez says. “Companies would also like to generate the lightest possible 3D model, but few solutions can properly merge different types of data.”
The solution, according to Martinez and others, is for geospatial manufacturers and software vendors to do more to make their tools user-friendly and readily interoperable, and also to assist their customers in the adoption of geospatial toolsets and solutions.
“For instance, software solutions can now use positioning data and trajectories provided by the sensor, which has been equipped with stabilization and control systems to improve the quality of the imagery or point clouds for the software,” Martinez says. “Companies can then look at the most integrated solution, not only covering their production process, but also paying more attention at how their end users will use these tools and what they produce. The key for the company is to purchase a workflow instead of a set of dissimilar products.”
Getting to the Workflow
A workflow-centric approach toward geospatial tool acquisition makes sense—but this is also an area where many companies are stymied.
Who, for example, is going to analyze the company workflows and determine the points at which new sets of geospatial tools should be inserted? And then make sure that not only the tools, but all of the associated work processes (and those who are a part of them) work together seamlessly?
“In every business, the next generation apps that are being built can't be done by your technology people alone,” says Phil Simpson, product marketing manager at Red Hat for JBoss. “What you need is people who are in the business to look at the work processes and revise them.”
This will actually be the case for many surveying, construction, and other geospatially-oriented companies since they tend to operate with smaller staffs and often employ their own engineers to also handle the internal IT—but it might not be enough since being able to hook up tools to a network and/or a server doesn’t mean that you have the business savvy (or the patience) to document an end-to-end work process and then refine both the workflow and the toolset so that both work well together.
This is an area where an outside consultant, or perhaps a vendor with consultative services, can help.
“Companies should be asking themeless questions like, ‘How am I going to use these tools? And who is going to be using them?” says Martinez. “They also need to look at these new tools as investments that can scale outward with their companies and with the amount of data that they will need to manage.”
Positioning for More Data and Future Growth
Martinez adds that, “The worst thing for a company is to be stuck with hardware or software limitations that prevent it from achieving its business objectives. Therefore, for each link of the chain, it is critical to properly test and document those limitations, including sensor limitations or drawbacks, software capabilities and computing performance. Vetting the interoperability between those links is even more important, since the sum of all capabilities is not representative of what the integrated solution could deliver due to a format or incompatibility issue.”
All of these factors are important scalability questions that affect geospatial hardware and software integration because they can have severe impacts on the business.
“Too many companies complain about the lack of scalability of their solution, and end up losing business opportunities to their competition,” Martinez says. “Not long ago, end users were talking in square miles; now, they speak in thousands of square miles. When they were considering small urban areas at low resolution, they now want their entire territories detailed in real 3D with a few-inch precision, including vegetation and equipment. This shift in thinking comes from using sensors and vectors at various scales, aircrafts or helicopters, UAVs, mobile mapping systems containing cameras and laser scanners, and even smartphones! It takes more than hardware-software integration to achieve this goal, but rather a comprehensive workflow and an integrated platform to support the endeavor.”
He continues, “We can say that ‘data is the limit,’ which means that when hardware devices capture and software solutions process data faster, companies must manage more information for a dedicated IT architecture, as well as possess the know-how to operate and secure it.”
So, what are some of the best practices companies who are deploying new geospatial technology employ?
#1: They understand their present and future business objectives.
If you are mapping terrain and anticipate that your work will grow from square miles to thousands of square miles, the geospatial solutions that you purchase should be able to scale to that without obsoleting themselves. For this reason, expanding scalability should be a cornerstone in any requirements document for new equipment or software.
#2: They scale their investments, as well as their toolsets.
In an ideal world, you should only be paying for what you need. If your current need is to map in square miles, you should only be paying for this capability. Later, when you need to scale the tool out, you should also be prepared to scale out your initial investment. The optimal solution on the software side is a cloud-based approach because cloud pricing is closely aligned with an incremental scale out.
#3: They rethink business processes as well as hardware and software.
If more of your technology is moving to the field, it might be that business processes formerly done at a central office should be done in the field instead. In some cases, these processes might not even be done by humans anymore (e.g., a drone can be sent out to inspect utility towers instead of sending out a human crew). The takeaway is that when you redefine your technology base and deploy new tools, you must also revise your business processes. In some cases, personnel may need to be re-trained.
#4: They make integration a primary requirement of every new technology acquisition.
In your contract with your vendor, there should be a clause that the purchase is conditional upon a final acceptance test of the solution, and that part of this acceptance will be a thorough integration test to ensure that the new technology successfully interoperates with your existing and projected technology base.
#5: They look for vendors that offer more than just hardware or software.
“Bentley actively works with hardware manufacturers to seamlessly integrate with their hardware solutions, such as with Topcon for its drones and laser scanners, Siemens for its IoT sensors, and Microsoft for its hosting and cloud processing infrastructure,” says Martinez.
These words should apply to any vendor that you opt to work with. Because so many companies are ill prepared to do their own system and technology integration work, it is vital to find vendors that are willing business partners that will work shoulder-to-shoulder with you on integration.