Jens Peder Kristensen is the CEO of Denmark-based TinyMobileRobots. The company's marquee product, the TinySurveyor, is predictably small. But the technology has the potential to make a big impact in land surveying. Kristensen was working in the agriculture industry at the time, when he met a land surveyor and a robotics researcher who were testing a robot for measuring the slope of newly built highways. 

“Typically, when you pave, at least in Europe, you have several layers or pavements,” Kristensen explains. “So, it turns out to be a very, very hard job for the land surveyors working with a total station manually measuring these layers of pavements.” First to use a GPS to find the measurement point. Then to use a total station to measure the slope and move to another point.

To solve the problem, Kristensen asked the robotics researcher if there can be a robot made to move automatically between points. The short answer: “Yes.” 

TinySurveyor“And he did, very quickly, make a prototype. And actually, it turned out that that was a strong need for some surveyors,” says Kristensen, who is a business consultant and researcher of many years in his own regard. Adding a sprayer can to the design made it so the robot could be used for layout tasks. 

“The slope measurement is a very small initial part of what the TinySurveyor is doing, but the layouting is the biggest business for the robot,” he says. “After that, we had a lot of good software technology, which we used for developing all of our robots.” 

The TinyMobileRobots catalog includes: the TinySurveyor, TinyLineMarker Sport (for small to medium arenas), TinyLineMarker Pro (larger arenas) and the TinyPreMarker.

“I first met Jens at INTERGEO in Hamburg [Germany], where he was displaying the TinySurveyor for the first time,” says Cameron Waters, geospatial business manager for Position Partners Pty Ltd, based in Australia. “What was instantly attractive about the solution was that it was such an obvious application for robotics. It appeared simple and elegant, so much so that I thought surely there must be lots of people doing this already. It was in fact a very unique solution but solved a very real problem for the Australian surveying and engineering market.” 

A skill shortage of land surveyors is one of many challenges facing Australia that encourages the country to push the boundaries of autonomous technology, says Waters. “Add this to the low construction productivity levels plagued by rework and repetitive tasks become a major opportunity to automate, free up surveyors and improve productivity.”

At 36 pounds, wheeled, equipped with GNSS integration and total station compatible, the TinySurveyor hit three critical areas of importance for Position Partners’ customers: quality, safety and productivity.  

“Often massive productivity gains come at the cost of quality, but this isn’t the case for the [TinySurveyor],” Waters says. “The line work quality is significantly better then manual methods and it also improves the productivity of the road marking crews that don’t have to ‘interpret’ curves and circles.” Using the robot’s built-in USB port, users can upload layout design in CSV or DFX formats. 

TinySurveyor customers include councils, contract surveyors, earthmovers and some of Australian largest construction and engineering companies. In many cases, the technology enables surveyors to be in two places at once. 

“What we see if you look at the road marking market, if you will, a lot of these contractors have limited surveyor knowledge,” explains Mads Genefke, director of sales and marketing for TinyMobileRobots. “So, they will typically get this data from the contractor, the road owner, or whoever it is that gives them that project. So, in that sense, this is the data that many times, often, is already around. So, the robot will just grab that file and, and just automate that job.”

He adds, “So, this is where we’ve seen sometimes that the engineers sitting in the office have to do a better job now to be completely correct in their drawings. It’s not a big job for them, but they just need to be a bit more careful because the robot does precisely what they tell them to do.”

Yes, robots are here to stay in survey work, but they come in peace. TinyMobileRobots CEO Jens Peder Kristensen tells why: 

Let’s get the question on everyone’s mind out of the way: Can the TinySurveyor be a replacement for a real, live employee?

TinySurveyorIt’s actually really nice, a little to your question later about automation, the whole idea about the TinySurveyor is to automate large two-wheel, monotonous, surveying jobs. So, yes, it automates the work of the crewmembers from the surveying or from the road marking business. It depends, of course, a lot on which task is being done. 

In some cases, it is important because it’s something about the safety of the crewmembers. And sometimes it’s actually a question of, do you do a job that is not really treated for humans because it’s so boring. Or, you’re doing it in the middle of night so you’re so tired that you can’t really do it. Then you need to have the robot actually undertake the job.

Of course. There are jobs like that in every profession. 

The idea about the TinySurveyor is actually to shorten the layout process. For example, if you’re building a road, sometimes you need the layout to set the lines for the paving. Sometimes you need it for less driving. Typically, crewmembers from road marking companies go out with a measurement tape, bars, strings and a lot of different stuff, and they work out, foot by foot, or mile by mile, through the road stretch.

The robot can just simply run by two to three miles per hour, marking the same layout as they need. And layouts are extremely important because the road marking company has experienced that it’s extremely difficult to do final marking using GNSS equipment. GNSS equipment can easily be disturbed by trucks, by roads, overhanging trees, and by houses nearby. And then, there can be some unintentional jumps in the GNSS signal, which makes the machine controlled by the GNSS signal move a little.

Exactly. It can make the final marking a nightmare to nail down. 

When you do a final marking, you can’t accept any mistakes at all. It just has to be spot on because you cannot remove the marking again. But when you’re using the robot for layouting, the robot very quickly makes, generally, a very good marking. If there’s a small GPS, GNSS jump or something, then the final marking person can easily see that these lines need to be corrected. So it can do the final marking much better than it would be able to do without pre-marking.

The TinySurveyor, even though you could imagine that it could be replaced by automated marking machines, actually has a big role in layouts for the marking of roads. 

How turnkey is the TinySurveyor’s operating system? Could you get the TinySurveyor and program it without much prior surveying knowledge?  

TinySurveyorA robot like this always handles a manual and an autonomous mode. When it’s in autonomous mode, it’s got a job to do and it’s fully autonomous and doing what it’s set to do, according to the orders. When it is in manual mode, it is typically because you need to drive it from, for example, your trunk or your car to the starting spot. You drive it manually like a small remote-controlled car. That’s why you need the manual mode. 

But the whole idea about the robot is to be fully automatic. And the reason that we say yes it’s fully operating automatic is it’s very easy to follow. You just need to keep an eye that nothing is coming into the way. So you have to supervise the robot when it’s working, but you can easily be doing all the other work when you are supervising the robot.

So, in reality, you can send another crew member with the TinySurveyor while the one with the survey knowledge handles other jobs. 

You don’t need to be a surveyor to operate the robot. So, if somebody else prepared the data, then you just need to enter the data into the robot, and the robot will start working. So, it’s both a yes and no. You need to be a surveyor or similar competencies to prepare the data, because the data needs to be made as comma-separated files, or as CAD files need to be set up with the right coordinate system. But when you’ve done that, you have a file, you enter the file into the robot, and you start working in automatic mode.

The TinySurveyor is also used on other jobs like solar cell parks festivals, construction stakeouts in airports, harbors and other environments indoor and outdoor environments plantations for location of equipment. 

The first one is actually quite interesting because a festival is often under high pressure to use every square-foot as optimally as possible. Festivals, they have sort of a guest area, then they have the booth area. In the booth area, they try to squeeze in as many booths as possible. If one booth is just located two feet wrongly, then all the booths assigned in will be squeezed two feet. And it would mean that the last booth is not able to fit into the space they are being located.

So, it’s extremely important that all the booths are located very, very accurately. And that’s why they need the layouting from the robot. Typically, the layouting of the robot is supplemental. There’s some other kind of marking that’s put into the ground. But the robot does the first marking, and then, a land surveyor or some official follows the robot and puts the sticks in the ground.

For many smaller survey operations, the person making the CAD files is also the person out doing the layouting. But it sounds like the TinySurveyor will allow that person to make the files and send someone else out on the road.

Yes. I think we see that the layouting is the biggest segment and is also the main purpose. I mean, if you’re constructing a road, you are always under a high time pressure. And if some parts of the road construction can be more effective, if you can shorten the time for that, they are extremely interested in that. And that’s what the robot can do in the layouting. It can shorten down the time that you need to allocate for layouting. And it can help you if you’re delayed. It can help you catch up some time. 

From first putting the TinySurveyor on the market, how has demand changed?

That’s actually a good question. And I think it’s a good time to look a little back because nobody was expecting a robot to come. Nobody was expecting this to happen. So, there was no demand for the robot. We were exhibiting at the INTERGEO in Germany seven years in a row, and it was, I think, the biggest attraction there because everybody was surprised.  

We’ve been looking at the same thing for 10 years now. Now, there was something new, so they had a lot of interest. I think we had to really create this market ourselves because nobody else was doing the same thing. 

Are there any plans to add LiDAR scanning capabilities to the TinySurveyor?

The main technology for the TinySurveyor is GNS- GNSS technology. And the main purpose of LIDAR would be to make some kind of 3D mapping or do some kind of simultaneous mapping and location indoor. 3D mapping is better made with other types of equipment. The robot could be equipped with a LIDAR and you could do some scanning, but it’s absolutely something that we would support if a customer wants to go that way. But we don’t have our main customers doing it.

That brings us to the company’s philosophy of “we don’t automate for automation’s sake.” America has a love-hate relationship with technology. Give us some insight into how you approach innovation and making the necessary adaptations.

I think automation has been going on for thousands of years. I mean, inventing the wheel for faster transport, inventing the bow for more efficient hunting. Those are examples of automation. And we’ve seen that happen. I mean, it’s part of human culture — to automate. The robot is just a part, a small element, in that big trend of automation.

We see the robot as a co-robot. It’s actually the term from industrial robotics. But, this is a robot that you work with. It’s not a robot that takes your job. It’s a robot that you work with, and it makes you more efficient.