While at InterGeo in October, POB had an opportunity to sit down with Mark Richter, director strategic marketing, Real Time Networks and Services Trimble Advance Positioning. Surrounded by technology and innovation, we tried to put things into a real world perspective.

Though hardly an old-timer, Richter recalls learning basic surveying with manual tools (prisms and chains) as technology was coming to the fore. Speaking of Trimble, he began our discussion saying, “When we deployed the first production system in 1999, it was something new; it changed the way surveying worked, how the cadastral worked. Suddenly, it has evolved and it is a de facto standard in the geospatial industry. Suddenly, you had all of these integrated technologies, and GNSS became more standard with different technologies utilizing GNSS. That’s pretty amazing, and I don’t think we’ve come to the end yet.”

POB: With so much that has become standard, how do you keep refreshing and bringing new capabilities?

Richter: If we just look at RTK, RTK became VRS (virtual reference station), which is more or less the same differential concept, but getting rid of all of the systematic errors.

We introduced the technology in 1999 for the first time with a nationwide system and that has become, in the geospatial world, the de facto standard. People in cadastral using GNSS, they’re using VRS. No local base station, no hassle with the battery in the base station, you don’t need additional resources to take care of the base station, you don’t have these system dependencies like in RTK.

POB: If GNSS and RTK work well, how do you make the case that newer technologies are better?

Richter: Our goal is not to replace and tell everyone to drop VRS. In areas where there is ground infrastructure in place, please continue to use ground infrastructure. But, in addition, RTX is a benefical complement to that technology.

One of the weaknesses of VRS connectivity is you have to set up your communication – meaning with your mobile device – and there are areas where there are drop outs. The connection is down, so you don’t receive corrections, and when you don’t receive the network corrections, you cannot work.

Look at it this way: You are working in the VRS network, and for some reason, the mobile phone link is down. You will still receive corrections from the RTX via the [satellite] L band and you can continue doing your survey with the same level of accuracy.

There are still a lot of areas where there is no ground infrastructure in place, but they still have the demand to build up a cadastral. We don’t want them to start with a single base or with post processing. With RTX, you have your L-band receiver, you have your subscription and you get your corrections via L band.

POB: Tell us a little more about RTX.

Richter: Earlier this year [2018], we announced improved performance specifications for RTX, so today we can get down to 2-centimeter horizontal accuracy. That is where we think it is interesting for the surveying world.

We have standard RTX and RTX Fast. The initialization time for standard RTX is up to five minutes. In select areas, for instance in Europe where we have 95 percent coverage, and in North America, you get 2-centimeter accuracy within a minute.

POB: How do you get to that level of accuracy?

Richter: A big thank you to the R&D effort. The algorithms behind it are the key. That’s the part the user never sees.

We support every satellite constellation in our RTX feed, so we have GPS, GLONASS, BeiDou, Galileo, QZSS… so if you have a robot that supports these signals, they’re ready to go.

The key in this whole PPP concept is to estimate the satellite clocks and orbits as precisely as possible. With our global tracking systems and our algorithms, we are able to estimate the satellite clocks and errors better than 1 centimeter. That allows us, with all of the other parameters that need to be estimated and reduced, to get down to this 2 centimeter level of accuracy.

POB: You say it is a complement to VRS, how does a user determine it is the right time to move or upgrade?

Richter: It depends on culture and region how people respond. And it depends on industry.

There are industries that, if I have a running system and GNSS is good enough, it’s not the core [they might not make the move]. But in the geospatial world, absolutely, I would see that they are open to saying “this actually helps.”

In surveying, they are out in the field and they are being paid by the project or by the hour, so they want to be as efficient and productive as possible. VRS was already a great step change. But what happens if they are using third party VRS networks who don’t take care about the connectivity? Then the mobile phone link is down, and they have to wait. And when they wait, that means they’re losing money, they’re not as productive.

But if you have a solution that can bypass that and help me still be very productive, that means for me as a surveying company money in my pocket because I’m reducing my time spent on the job. It can make a difference competing for a job or, if he actually calculates what he earns on the job per hour, he actually increases his margins. It can also simplify the workflow and reduce the hassles.

We went through the same evolution or transformation when we introduced VRS. Previously, you had an RTK base station. You could record the coordinates of your base station and you had to write down the vector and you had to repeat surveys 30 minutes in between or two hours in between. You wrote down the drop.

Then with VRS, there was no base station. You had to adapt the reporting. And now it is the same with the PPP or Trimble RTX. It’s a different way of doing this. That’s happening step by step, the transformation of the reporting.

POB: Where do you see things going next? What’s the next big challenge for the technology?

Richter: In geospatial, we’re now saying that we are looking at the adoption. We want to increase and penetrate the geospatial industry. There’s still a huge potential.

The technology itself allows us to bring precise positioning or an accurate position onto any kind of device, even outside of geospatial. Think about automotive and a precise and reliable, accurate position anywhere, anytime without communications hassles. And mass market, there are just so many kinds of applications where this kind of positioning is a natural consequence. 

You can see here [at the InterGeo show], it is dramatic. Perhaps 30 percent of the booths have UAVs. Several years back, it was for geeks who were just interested in remote control and now it’s a professional business. And how do you position [UAVs]?

If you move to autonomous [vehicles], you cannot always do this with a differential. If you want to work on longer distances, then [this] is the way to go.

That is what I see in the future, that this precise positioning will get more and more utilized in not only the traditional survey work, but it also feeds into these mass markets. I wouldn’t call it a consumer market yet. If you look at it 10 years forward, we’re looking at the consumer market.

Outside of geospatial, precision farming is one of those applications. Agriculture is utilizing that type of technology. And I also believe that the agriculture market will be the first industry that will utilize commercially produced autonomous vehicles. They don’t have the issues with traffic or humans in their way. They are adopting the technology.

At the end of the day, it’s technology. But over the last decade, it has been turning the technology into usable workflows that help the individual applications for industries. That is key.

Mark Richter is director of strategic marketing, Real Time Networks and Services, for Trimble Advance Positioning.