Smartphones and tablets are driving new levels of productivity in GNSS positioning and data collection. 

Are you ready to interact with live maps, exchange data in real time with your office and complete drawings in the field? That’s where technology is headed, says Lonnie Sears, RLS, president of eGPS Solutions Inc. and principal of Champion Instruments, and it’s being driven by consumer trends in smartphones and tablets.

“The trend right now is to have a modem built into a data collector, where you just slide your SIM card into your data collector and it’s on the Internet,” Sears says. “With attributing capabilities and an onboard camera, you can snap a shot and it will be georeferenced automatically to that point in the field. It’s smartphone technology; we’re just getting all the features that are in a smartphone on a data collector platform.”

These developments are making it easier to use real-time networks (RTN). Where it was once an added step to get a network card and data plan that would provide an Internet connection specifically for the purpose of connecting to an RTN, such connectivity is now expected on every device for everyday surveying tasks. Surveyors are already going online in the field to send and receive emails and copy files to an FTP server. With the emergence of mobile hotspots, wireless connectivity is less expensive and more reliable. As a result, subscribing to an RTN has simply become a matter of course for many surveying firms.

“Throughout the recession, the companies that stayed in business kept their real time network subscription, even while they made other cuts to their budget,” Sears says. “That tells me it’s a power tool--a very valuable asset to a surveying business. It’s just too easy to get on datum, to set control and to do work. Without it, you have to hire someone to come out and set points every time.”

The constant connectivity also brings surveyors closer to working in real time between the office and the field. Sears says it’s not uncommon for survey crews to start downloading and processing their data in the truck as soon as they finish in the field, so that by the time they get back to the office, all they have to do is unload their equipment and put the batteries on chargers.

True real-time solutions also exist. Although Sears sees these workflows catching on faster in machine control and agriculture, he believes it’s inevitable in land surveying. “If you can collect and draw simultaneously, that’s a big productivity savings,” he says.

For most surveyors, getting to that point will require the right technology at the right price. While the concept of having a larger screen that is easier to read in direct sunlight is appealing, tablets built for field applications aren’t exactly cheap, and consumer tablets aren’t rugged enough to bring into the field. However, Sears is keeping a close eye on the market. He points to the developments in RTK GPS Android shareware software being pioneered by Stacey D. Lyle, PhD., RPLS, at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. The goal is to use an app on a mobile device to control a GNSS receiver for raw data collection and real-time solutions, bypassing DGPS and RTK corrections. The idea isn’t far-fetched.

The introduction of a Microsoft tablet that competes with Apple’s iPad and Android-based devices could also push tablets into the mainstream survey market. (Although Microsoft’s Surface Pro is due out in January, it’s too soon to tell what impact it will have on tablet market share.) “It’s only a matter of time before you’ll be able to put all the survey software on a tablet that you can buy for a few hundred bucks at a local retail store, and you’ll be up and running,” Sears predicts.

For now, handheld devices with powerful processors and integrated modems, high-accuracy GPS receivers, cameras and GIS software are providing solutions that are already so easy to use, it’s difficult to imagine how they could get easier--or what effect that might have on the surveying profession. Sears has his views. “Positioning and accuracy are getting simpler every day,” he says. “The processor speeds are so much faster. The math and algorithms are getting more complex, but the processors handle it with no problem. Everything is getting cheaper and simpler to do.

“The measurements are the easy part. But regardless of what happens with technology, the opinions of professional surveyors will continue to be valuable.”

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