One of the real challenges facing managers of any business — including surveyors — is knowing when to keep pace with evolving technology. Change for sake of change can be counter-productive. The key is recognizing when change will be productive and even profitable.

The net outcome of implementing a change must present sufficient benefits to warrant making the move to the new solution. Emerald Coast Associates (ECA) recently found itself in such a position, struggling with aging data collecting technology that was increasingly hindering production. Faced with that logjam — and with difficulty getting service and replacement parts — the company swapped out its entire inventory of data collection instruments for an arsenal of five new collectors. At the same time, they added a GNSS capability and upgraded their total station to a newer robotic model. 

Since making those moves, ECA’s crews have embraced the new solutions and, in one project, the firm has reduced survey efforts by almost a week. That “net outcome” mentioned above…more than positive.


Change for the Better

Established in 1979 as Raymond Richardson & Associates, the company now known as Emerald Coast Associates offers a broad range of services including traditional land surveying, environmental work, civil engineering and more. According to Ray Howard, an ECA party chief, a recent project to locate utilities and other assets in advance of a new construction project underscored just how important having the right tools can be to the success of a job.

“For years, we did most of our locating and other survey-related work using a total station and aging handheld data collectors running on equally aging software,” he says. “No matter how efficient we tried to be, we were always up against the shortcomings the equipment presented. The number of times we’d have to reboot each day was often insane. And, when gathering points, the Bluetooth seemed to have so many glitches that it just wouldn’t stay connected. If for some reason I forgot myself and walked away, the connection would instantly be lost, forcing me to have to start all over again. In addition, this type of work can generate some huge files at times and those data collectors didn’t seem to have the power — or the capacity — to handle it. It was just so frustrating.”

According to Daryl Burgis, one of ECA’s three co-owners, the handhelds also had a tendency to develop blank spots on the screen and needed to be replaced about every 18-24 months. 

“We ran them for about seven or eight years, but it got to a point where a change was needed,” he says. “They were failing and difficult to get serviced, and it was apparent that future support for the software was in question as well. Technology is always a tough call in business — when do you cut your losses, sever ties with the old and ‘ring in the new?’ We felt we were at that point and needed to make some calls.”


Roger That

Actually, the only call Burgis made was to Roger Wheeler, sales associate for the Lengemann Corporation, Florida distributor of construction, engineering and surveying supplies. ECA already had a solid working relationship established with Lengemann and Wheeler — the result of purchases of total stations and other surveying equipment, including a Topcon PS-103. Wheeler was quick to recommend Topcon FC-5000 field computers as a replacement for ECA’s aging data collectors. With Burgis’s approval, Wheeler brought one of the units out to Ray Howard in the field and, according to Howard, there was no turning back from that point.

“Roger came out to a jobsite we were working and brought along the FC-5000 running Topcon MAGNET Field software,” he says. “He showed me some of the basics of the unit and asked me to try it. The ease of use, the solid connectivity and the impressive degree of accuracy sold me on the spot. It probably only took half a day for us to learn this system and be productive. Mind you, I had never seen it prior to Roger’s visit, yet I used it that first day and told Daryl that we had to buy these.”

The object of Howard’s attention, the FC-5000, is a rugged tablet-like handheld computer designed to bring to the field many capabilities that were once relegated solely to the office. Offering a seven-inch display for ease of viewing, even in direct sunlight, ECA’s team was able to access or enter data using a finger, glove or small-tip stylus. Even Florida’s heat is no match for the FC-5000, which is rated for optimum performance in temperatures as high as 122°F (50°C). 

With the press of a key, ECA crews can change the screen orientation from portrait to landscape for added visibility when viewing maps or drawings. The unit also uses an Intel “Atom“ Z3745 processor, ideal for driving ECA’s Topcon MAGNET Field software and for handling any large design files the firm generates. 

“The MAGNET software that Roger recommended for use with the FC-5000 is almost entirely menu driven and so much more logical in all aspects,” ECA’s Burgis says. “‘User-friendly’ is an overrated term, but in this case, it definitely applies. Not only do our seasoned people praise it overwhelmingly, the people who are fairly new to this business seem to pick it up much quicker than with the old system. It’s really raised our game in that area. Once we used it and evaluated the difference in hourly, daily, even weekly productivity, we’re seeing that it more than pays for itself.”


Community Service

On a recent project to locate and mark assets in preparation for construction of a new community resource center at Pensacola’s Bayview Park, Howard shot in excess of 3,000 points and got to prove the advantages he was told the new technology could provide.

“The first thing I noticed was how easy it was to get up and running — and stay that way,” he says. “I simply readied the total station, turned the FC-5000 on and the controller started connecting by itself. There was none of the time I previously wasted trying to get it to lock onto me and connect; that alone was impressive. But you couple that with how easy the MAGNET software is to navigate and work for you, and it’s like night and day. Hands down, this is the best controller I’ve ever used.”

One of the biggest selling points for the new technology, according to Howard, is how much one man — with the robotic unit — is able to do now. 

“Because of how easy and productive this system is, it just makes sense to send one man out whenever possible,” he says. “Granted, there are instances when you need more than one man — cutting line, for example — but, for the most part, this is as good as it gets for one person and the savings in manpower will be substantial.”


Exploring New Territory

Some of the features the new data collector offers have allowed Howard and his counterparts at ECA to perform functions that were not possible with the older system. The unit’s “Maps” feature, for example, got Howard’s attention early on during the community center project.

“There were times when I needed to shoot a specific object such as a tree,” he says. “I simply went to the area on screen marked ‘EDM,’ selected ‘Non-Present,’ which essentially tells the unit to pause, and pointed the PS-103 to the middle of that tree. Once the shot was taken, the unit was immediately asking me where to store it and telling me on the map just where that tree is. Shooting offsets is also so much easier and faster than before. Even though it’s simple triangulation, it gets to it so fast that there is a small time savings. Those small increments all add up. At the end of the year, I think we’ll find that we’ve saved a lot of time.”

Tasks like the ability to edit points easily have also struck a chord with Howard as he’s grown comfortable with the new system. He counters that with the actions of a former crew member who had a peculiar way of saving points.

“He would put everything into blocks,” Howard says. “If he shot a stand of trees, he might call it ‘300-400.’ If he shot utilities, he might call those ‘400-500.’ However, if I shot four or five trees and then immediately shot several ground utilities without changing my numbers to match his system, things were off. I would then have to highlight each point in question, click ‘Add’ to create a duplicate point with the new number, then go back and delete the old, wrongly numbered points — it really drove me nuts. Now, I can simply select ‘Edit Points’ on the menu, which brings up a list of all my points. I highlight one, select ‘Edit,’ and the point number can be changed. Again, a small thing, but an important one.”


Keeps on Giving

At the community center project, Howard took shots that included trees, several utilities, manholes, corners and more in a range of varied settings. Despite the size of the area, the presence of trees, parked cars, and the rolling terrain, he said connectivity between the total station and the data controller was never an issue.

“The system package that Roger sold us also included the RC-5, which has components in it to extend the range for prism tracking to about 600 meters,” he says. “Throughout the project, I was continually amazed with how solid the connection was and — if we did lose the signal for a second because we went behind a tree or something — how quickly it reconnected to us. That made all the difference in the world. All told, I’d say the switch to the new system probably saved us about one week of surveying time out there.”

That sentiment was shared by Burgis who, while a seasoned surveyor, says he is still impressed with the level of service Wheeler and Lengemann Corporation provided. 

“I am 33 years into my surveying career and, in that time, I’ve never met a product vendor more energetic, motivated, knowledgeable and accommodating than Roger,” he says. “Actually, Lengemann’s overall customer service and support has always been excellent, but somehow Roger manages to stand out even more. He knows his products and the technology, he communicates well, and he seems to enjoy the personal connection with his customers — that’s a great combination to have. His knowledge of our operation and what he felt we needed really benefited us and will continue to do so for years to come.”