Advanced GPS technology puts a Florida site work contractor at the forefront.



As general superintendent and survey manager at Steven Counts Inc. (SCI), site work contractors based in Summerfield, Fla., I have the unique opportunity to see the direct result of new technologies as they are applied. Because of my background, I see these results from a surveyor's eyes as well as from a contractor's perspective. Several of these new technologies have greatly improved the ways in which we at SCI

perform earthwork operations and construction staking tasks. Advanced GPS technology alone has provided our company with greater productivity than ever before in both of these areas. When I multiply the leap in productivity and savings we have experienced using GPS by the number of surveyors and contractors across the country, the result is exponential. With the increased speed and accuracy of GPS technology, we have opened many avenues of opportunity for new development, which is helping our company to grow.

Larry Miller, survey crew manager for SCI, sets his first stake with Topcon's Millimeter GPS/Lazer Zone system. The system's PZL-1 Lazer Zone transmitter enables vertical accuracies to within a few millimeters with GPS.

The Past and the Present

I initially started my career as a land surveyor licensed in Florida. Eight years ago, I changed direction and went to work for a local site work contractor. I guess this type of work is in my blood. My grandfather established and built a contracting business here in north central Florida that was a leader in the industry for many years. In August 2001, a year after founding SCI, my cousin Steven Counts asked me to work for him. Steve needed someone with knowledge in both surveying and earthwork operations; I fit that role.

It seems like only yesterday that Steve founded SCI. He learned the ropes in our family business, then set out to establish his own company. Today, only four and a half years later, SCI is the primary site work contractor in our part of north central Florida. We have acquired two asphalt plants, two lime rock/stone quarries and a ready-mix concrete plant. We own and operate fleets of dump trucks, concrete trucks and two asphalt milling machines, and run three paving crews and a fully equipped traffic control division. Steve has the ability to seize opportunity and multiply it. He seeks to provide customers with exactly what they want-quality, full-service products, produced in less time than other contractors'. His philosophy is to take maximum control of work that is often subbed out by most contractors.

Our primary business is site preparation for prominent residential developers. Because of the outstanding reputation Steve has created for SCI, most of our contracts are negotiated from repeat customers. One such client is a 30,000-acre retirement community called "The Villages," which extends into three counties in central Florida. This massive development has spawned two new town centers, schools and numerous commercial projects within its boundaries; SCI has completed many of the phases of this community.

My job responsibilities as survey manager at SCI include overseeing an office staff of six as well as six two-man field crews. I am also the conduit through which our clients, their engineers and our grading superintendents request their surveying needs. A lot of my time is spent in preconstruction meetings, project progress meetings and staff meetings.

Because of my technical knowledge and experience, I am directly involved in making purchase decisions about machine control systems and survey instruments. We are continously seeking products that will bring SCI to the next level of performance. We stay in regular communication with our suppliers, who keep us posted on new products and technologies. This strong communication, combined with our eagerness to possess the greatest instrumentation and software, led us to our recent acquisition of Millimeter GPS by Topcon (Livermore, Calif.). Millimeter GPS is a laser system that works with our GPS equipment and provides accuracy that was previously obtainable only with a total station. With a new year begun, we at SCI hope to reach a record level in our annual volume for 2005. It seems to be a very feasible goal considering the vast improvements and advancements we've experienced in just a few short years. And with our current inventory and the acquisition of our new instrumentation, we're looking confidently to the future.

Improved Performance from GPS

Looking for every opportunity to improve the productivity of SCI's field operations, Steve began looking into GPS technology about two and a half years ago. He immediately saw it as the key to taking full control of layout and grading operations. This technology has propelled our company into an upward spiral of rapid growth. We are now able to complete projects in 20 to 25 percent less time than with conventional methods. Our GPS-guided machine control systems enable us to speed up our grading like never before. Our Topcon System Five 3D-GPS+ machine control system on dozers and motor graders diminishes the amount of stakes we need to use. Tasks such as staking out curb, storm pipe and utilities can be performed by one-person survey crews using a GPS rover.

We establish GPS base stations on each of our project sites for our machine control systems. This also allows our survey crews to perform layout tasks at these sites by simply setting up a rover and data collector. Additionally, Topcon's GPS+ technology enables access to both GPS and GLONASS satellites, giving us 40 percent more satellites to use. We have a GPS base station using a Topcon PG-A1 antenna set up on most of our jobsites. Our job superintendents and foremen use site management packages in their work trucks, allowing them to check grades, shoot topos and check dirt quantities right from their pickups.

Roger Croft, Lengemann of Florida representative, helps Miller learn the setup procedure with Topcon's Pocket 3D software.

The Next Phase of Jobsite Evolution

Several months ago, Roger Croft, our Topcon construction product representative from Lengemann of Florida, told us about a new product in the works: Millimeter GPS. He explained that it was a simple add-on to any existing Topcon GPS system. To put the system in operation, a Lazer Zone transmitter is set up on a tripod within the operating range of a GPS base. A Lazer Zone receiver is mounted on the rover pole, directly beneath the GPS receiver. This system uses a special laser technology that provides a vertical range of 33 feet. When in operation, the vertical accuracy of the GPS system is improved from the typical tenth of a foot to a few millimeters.

As Roger explained the system to me, I immediately began to see the possibilities for its use. Generally, we run two-person field crews running conventional, optical instruments to lay out curb, storm pipe, inlets and utility features. With the Millimeter GPS system, one crew member can be sent to a jobsite to set up the Lazer Zone system and perform layout tasks.

Topcon also makes Lazer Zone sensors that will work with our System Five machine control equipment. These will enable us to perform fine grading of road base, building pads and athletic fields to the same millimeter tolerance without having to set up our conventional laser grading equipment. The same transmitter can be used simultaneously for survey rovers and machine control. These advantages are the reason we purchased a Millimeter GPS system.

Setting Up for Success

Roger brought the new equipment to "Fore Ranch" in Ocala, a residential project of ours that includes a mix of single family homes and townhouses. There are five large detention basins on the site, and common areas like soccer fields. It was the perfect site for Millimeter GPS-there is only about 8 ft of grade change over 90 percent of the 500-acre site. This means minimally flat grades on roads and storm drainage-as low as four-tenths of a percent.

With Topcon's GPS+ system, which gives us access to more available satellites and, from our experience, much greater accuracy than GPS-only systems, our localization on the project was near perfect-one hundredth of a foot horizontal and one hundredth of a foot vertical. These accuracies are typical on most of our job localizations.

To get started with our Millimeter GPS system, Roger upgraded Topcon's Pocket 3D software in our FC-100 field controller. He explained that this new version contained the module that would enable us to control the Millimeter GPS system. The upgrade only took a few minutes; he downloaded it directly from his notebook computer.

We then set up the Lazer Zone transmitter. We went to a known control point and set a fixed height tripod, then mounted the PZL-1, the laser transmitter unit, on top. It's similar in size, appearance and weight to Topcon's conventional rotating laser transmitter. The battery pack can be removed from the unit for charging. The PZL-1 will also run on conventional D-cell batteries.

Next, we set up the rover. Mounting the PZS-1 sensor on the pole and connecting it to our HiPer+ rover was the only thing we had to do different from a normal setup. Since we had located the transmitter on a known control point, we simply entered the northing, easting and elevation data in our FC-100 through a simple dialogue screen in Pocket 3D. This information was then downloaded to the PZL-1 transmitter, and we were ready to survey!

The results from the setup were astounding. We spent the rest of the day checking some reference points and doing some grade staking in areas where we would be working. Our typical vertical accuracy was one to two hundredths of a foot.

Miller's first task with Topcon's Millimeter GPS-staking Miami curb with a nearly flat slope.

Millimeter GPS Goes to Work

The road geometry at Fore Ranch is sophisticated; the designer used roundabouts at road junctions instead of conventional tee or cross intersections. We have completed the four-lane main boulevard leading to the center of Fore Ranch, and have moved on to the secondary roads. Laying out grade stakes for string line setters on these very flat grades was originally a time-consuming task for our survey crews using our conventional methods.

I met Larry Miller, our field supervisor, at the site on the morning following our orientation of the Millimeter GPS. He needed to set more grade stakes for the Miami curb (curbing that some call "valley gutter") on a new section of road we are working toward completing. Larry had the Millimeter GPS equipment-with all components fit nicely into one weatherproof case-with him. The only additional item necessary to set the system up was a tripod. (We prefer a fixed-height model because it reduces the chance for operator error.)

We had the system up and running in about 15 minutes. I wanted to see if we would consistently achieve the same accuracies as those at our training session. Our horizontal accuracy was four hundredths of a foot, and vertical was one hundredth. Larry and I worked together to set layout stakes for the Miami curb. The Millimeter GPS worked great. The only thing we had to remember was to aim the eye of the sensor at the transmitter. GPS helped to get the stakes in quickly.

Advancing Toward the Future

We started Fore Ranch residential development last October. It includes moving 1.5 million cubic yards of dirt and building six miles of roads. Today we've completed about 65 percent of the project and expect to finish one-and-a-half to two months ahead of schedule due to the advantages of GPS+ technology and the Millimeter GPS. We at SCI realize that we are just beginning to see how smart our investment in technology is and how it will pay off. If 2005 is anything like the past six months, it should be our best year ever.