In Review: The DC50 by Precision Solutions LLC
August 1, 2007
Precision Solutions LLC
1684 N 1500 E
Provo, UT 84604
Suggested List Price: Base package starts at $1,495 and includes software installed, an assembled DC50 unit, a 1GB SD card, a 250-page printed manual and any accessories selected.
If you’re like me, your first reaction to a new calculator-based data collector might be skeptical due to the painfully slow processor speed of previous data collectors built on the venerable HP48 series calculators manufactured by Hewlett Packard. The HP48GX was specified at a blazing 4 MHz. Hey, don’t laugh; that was twice as fast as its predecessor, the HP48SX. Nonetheless, HP calculators as far back as the HP41 have enabled many surveyors to make the leap from recording observations in field books and reducing those observations manually with handheld calculators or personal computers to gathering data rapidly and reliably with reduction being an automatic byproduct.
But let’s face it, they were slow and at times could lose data if a card battery was neglected. It may be heresy, but I wasn’t a fan of the HP48, precisely because of its deficient speed and occasional data hiccups. There were times I was sure I could feel myself getting older waiting on a routine calculation, not to mention the frustration of a day’s work or two lost from a memory card failure.
After the HP48 was discontinued, the search was on for its successor. Excitement about the introduction of the HP49G+ was short-lived, as it was plagued with reports of poor quality keyboards in early production models. This, together with the lack of a serial port, seemed to all but end its potential as a data collector. Then a new company, Precision Surveying Solutions LLC of Provo, Utah, introduced the DC49, creatively working around the limitations of the HP49G+. The HP49G+ never became a production data collector because of the release of its successor, the HP50g. Precision postponed the release of the DC49 knowing that the HP50g was on the horizon, and released the DC50 at the same time HP officially announced the HP50g.
Not a RemakeMy involvement in the DC50 project began in July 2006 as a beta tester. By October I had a fully functioning demo model. My preliminary expectation was that the DC50 would be a remake of any one of the HP48 data collectors, perhaps faster, since the HP50g has a spec processor speed of 75 MHz (which is actually capable of 203 MHz). To my surprise and admittedly initial disappointment, the DC50 wasn’t anything like the data collectors I had used or tested in the past. (I say disappointment because with its radically different operation, I feared a difficult learning curve. I was, however, pleasantly surprised when I began pushing buttons.)
Focus on the Fundamentals
As the DC50 team has put it, “Surveyors primarily use a data collector for collecting data and staking points.” This focus on the fundamentals is visible in the keyboard layout itself. On the face of the DC50 are the blue labels STAKE over the G key and COLLECT over the P key. By simply pressing COLLECT, a measurement is taken and the shot is stored; pressing STAKE takes a shot and displays the directions to a specified point with no menus to navigate through.
The gray labels mark the keys requiring a left shift before actuating. So to access the OCCUPY menu, you would press left shift and the 1 key. There you can specify the instrument setup information. If you look carefully at which keys require the left shift, you will find that you can use any number key or operator key (÷ x - +) while in the DC50 program. This allows you to make a quick calculation between shots without exiting the program or accessing a hidden menu option. It’s amazing how many powerful data collectors neglect a surveyor’s simple needs such as adding two numbers.
Why press three keys when you can press two and get the same result? Many functions in the DC50 have been streamlined to reduce key strokes. In the office at a keyboard, pressing a dozen keys is unnoticed. In the field though, pressing two or three keys when only one or two would do becomes an aggravation. The OFFSET key is another good example of the DC50’s efficient interface. Pressing the OFFSET button immediately initiates a measurement. The user then is automatically directed to input an offset distance in, out, left or right, with each option only requiring the offset value and the press of a button. Further, the user can collect an offset angle, which requires only the press of a button to record the new angle. A very slick compass offset option is also provided. To work properly, before the offset is made, the rodman takes a compass reading to the instrument from the rod at any random location. Then the instrument takes a measurement to the rod. The compass is then calibrated to the job. This only has to be done once and all subsequent compass operations, such as compass search in robotics and compass offset, are adjusted to the job bearing relation with no more effort on the part of the user.
There are four helpful directional keys at the upper right side of the keyboard, particularly the MAP key and the HOME key. The MAP key accesses an impressive map view of your job. You really do have to see it to believe it. Thousands of points are plotted in a couple of seconds and literally instantaneously on smaller jobs. But it isn’t just a viewer. You can also pan and zoom, view points, turn point numbers on or off, plot line work from codes, turn layers on or off based on codes, inverse points, collect shots, view the current rod position without recording a shot, select points for stakeout or define the points for a new instrument setup. It won’t do CAD work per se, but given the option of doing drafting outside in the elements or at the office in my cushy office chair, I’ll take the latter. The extensive map functions available are utilitarian and make life easier in the field.
The HOME key accesses options less frequently used, such as configuration settings and file options. The Point COGO menu is also accessed by the HOME key. Here, common COGO operations such as intersections, point in direction, area calculation, inverses and an ingenious rotation/translation routine similar to the AutoCAD “Align” command are found.
The DC50 Assistant software performs all of the calculation and data storage operations of the DC50, with the exception of being able to directly communicate with survey instruments. Under the TOOLS menu are routines for curves, vertical and horizontal, triangle solutions and a geodetics routine that allows for conversion of latitude and longitude to State Plane Coordinates and allows for inverses of geodetic coordinates. There is also a routine for calculating the geoid separation at a geodetic coordinate using either Geoid99 or Geoid03.
Power to the PeopleI am regularly surprised by the programming experience of many surveyors. Whether in FORTRAN, BASIC, Pascal, Spreadsheets, C, Visual Basic or even with HP calculators, it seems that most of us have some basic programming skills. Furthermore, it seems that surveyors are always wishing they had some obscure routine that would shave precious minutes from their daily work.
This reduces most of us to begging the developers of our software to add features to the next release. Sometimes a benevolent developer will address the request and many times not. To the developer’s defense, it takes time to develop and produce new features, and the developer must weigh the added complexity of a new feature with the perceived need for that feature in the marketplace. Even those with programming experience are left unable to add features themselves because most of the modern platforms require additional software and extensive programming knowledge.
The DC50 user has some real customizing power with programmable access to many DC50 commands. And because the calculator allows for relatively easy programming, cavemen notwithstanding, you can likely write simple programs that fill small voids in your software. No more begging… well, less begging anyway.
Even if you aren’t a programmer, the DC50 still offers several custom options. Most of the right shift keys have been reserved for the user. Whether to access user-written routines or DC50 commands not readily accessible, the right shift keys are left for you to customize as you see fit. Custom keys are available for things such as switching your instrument from fine to coarse mode and a quick inverse routine that allows you to type the point numbers of two points and the custom key, and immediately view the inverse.
By Surveyors for SurveyorsI know you’ve heard this phrase before, but in this case it’s true. Some features just jump off the screen as being written by a surveyor. For instance, the READ key on the left side of the keyboard. You can press it and take a shot without storing a point. The shot data is then stored in the device’s temporary memory, which can be viewed and edited by pressing the MANUAL key. You can change the rod height and then hit STORE for those cases where you may have to adjust the rod height to finally find that small hole in the leaves to get the shot. You can also use the MANUAL key to enter a manual shot without changing your instrument settings. And for those who still need an eraser on their pencil, the REDO key allows you to repeat the last shot without taking another measurement. This is great for times where you put in the wrong rod height or code.
My main reason for getting the DC50 was for its robotics control, a purpose it is well suited for. Commands are carried out quickly, and routines such as the compass search make regaining lock almost painless. With the SEARCH, LOCK, CHECK IN and ROBOT keys, the DC50 team has given the robotics user some powerful features with the touch of a finger.
The battery life is great and since it runs on AA batteries, you can use the quick charge batteries that recharge in 15 minutes, or you can get an emergency backup set of alkalines at the local convenience store. With data being stored to an SD card, I don’t think I’ll ever run out of space (memory upgrades are available at your local discount store). The screen is easy on the eyes even in full sun. The optional lug on the side and tripod hook in the back make handy additions. The form factor is a little bulky, but has a durable feel and is impervious to rain and dust. The weight is comparable to other full keyboard data collectors on the market.
The DC50 is still young but not immature. Honestly, early versions of the software were lacking in some important COGO features. I suspect this had to do with the DC50 team placing an emphasis on an efficient data collection interface and reliable data storage in early development. I like being able to perform difficult calculations in the field, so I have personally made numerous requests for better COGO features. In thinking back to many of my requests for new features, I am surprised at how many have already been addressed. The COGO features are now pretty powerful, with new features being added regularly. The DC50 team seems to really want user input and has even taken on the perilous risk of having a message board for users to discuss the software, offer requests and report bugs at http://pssllc.com/mb/.
The DC50 might not suit every surveyor’s tastes or needs, but it’s already making waves in the surveying community. With Precision’s no-risk trial offer, you can give it a try for yourself and see what the buzz is about.