Data Management Off the Grid
Surveyors across more and more sectors are replacing GPS handhelds with smartphones and tablets
Survey crews “car-camp” and hike as they inspect more than 100 miles of natural gas pipeline in rural Canada. An environmental engineer completes a subsistence survey in the most remote areas of Alaska, where the Arctic Circle is hundreds of miles to the south, the summer sun brings 24-hour days and winter means 24-hour nights. A biologist crouches down to bag root tissue samples for a habitat survey, deep in the forests of California. An engineering crew is dropped by helicopter to survey a remote location in Oregon that will soon be home to a massive wind farm.
- Pipeline Survey and Construction
- Geographic and Subsistence Surveys
- Environmental Engineering
- Time Has Come
The people, the places and the survey work itself couldn’t be more different. Yet, they all have one thing in common: They recently made the switch from GPS handhelds to smartphones and tablets, joining one of the geospatial sector’s hottest — and least talked about — technology revolutions.
All are singing the praises of the move. These are their stories.
Based in Calgary, Alberta, Enmapp provides field data collection services to some of the world’s largest energy companies. However, the tools of the trade used to capture the pipeline data and construction reports have been the same since anyone can remember. In addition to bloated binders of paper maps and forms, each crew would carry the GPS gear. Typically, GPS kits could cost up to $70,000 per crew. While the hardware costs were high, customers required submeter accuracy and the GPS kits provided the trusted tools to deliver that accuracy.
Like the gear, the workflow had always been the same. Each day, the crew collected the data, and then returned to the hotel to upload and post-process. The following day, office workers inspected the data for errors, sometimes dispatching crews to recapture data. Days later, static reports were delivered to the customers.
Over time, Enmapp became convinced there had to be a better way. The performance of the GPS devices paled in comparison to the worker’s own smartphones. There was also the high cost of data loss and rework when the standalone devices failed. And the time it took to deliver customer data, with all the post-field work processing and manual review, was yet another factor. Overall, the costs for the GPS gear appeared out of line compared to Apple and Android devices that offered superior performance and accuracy.
After researching options, Enmapp loaded a GPS surveying app, TerraGo Edge, on the crew’s iPads with a Bluetoothconnected, sub-meter GPS receiver, the Eos Arrow 100. The results were astounding. Not only did the Eos GPS receiver meet the historical accuracy requirements, in some cases it was much better. The efficiency of the crews proved far superior with the native iPad features of TerraGo Edge, versus the stylus and PDA screens of the legacy equipment. The labor costs were also reduced, since they were able to use real-time GPS from the Eos Arrow 100 and eliminate post-processing.
“The hardware savings are enormous with the new GPS kit — less than $10,000 compared to the old kit which was more than $70,000. However, the ongoing reduction of project labor costs is even more valuable over time,” says Lance Fugate, program manager at Enmapp. “The cost reductions and efficiency improvements are a game-changer for us. As our industry continues to look for innovation from its service providers, TerraGo Edge enables us to deliver more efficiently. We can pass these savings directly to our customers with each and every future project.”
Stephen R. Braund & Associates (SRB&A) is a leading anthropological survey and research firm based in Anchorage, Alaska. SRB&A employees combine anthropology and geographic expertise, along with a healthy passion for working in the beautiful but often harsh conditions of the Alaskan wilderness and its most remote communities.
Survey and research teams conduct studies of indigenous communities and subsistence practices that are often centuries old. For Alaska Natives, engaging in subsistence activities is integral to the preservation of indigenous cultural traditions and identity, and the activities of the SRB&A teams can be essential to their physical health and sustenance. Traditionally, SRB&A teams have traveled to the most remote regions of Alaska with their overstuffed, all-weather gear, along with the most essential survey tools of the trade — binders of paper maps, questionnaires and forms.
Over time, new technology started making its way into the backpack. Team members began carrying a mishmash of various devices, introducing digital cameras, handheld GPS devices and various software packages to help complete subsistence surveys and studies. Most recently, the introduction of GPS-enabled smartphones and tablets opened the door to utilizing these increasingly powerful multi-function devices to improve the accuracy, quality and efficiency of the field surveys.
Some of the most important subsistence surveys SRB&A conducts occur in remote regions, where network and cell connections are unreliable or quite often unavailable. Research teams must be able to collect data in these areas without relying on connectivity. The field teams also must be able to view U.S. Geological Survey quad maps and imagery offline while surveying and conducting field research. A mobile surveying solution that worked as well offline as online was needed.
While the field work was essential to subsistence surveys, the post-field research and analysis was equally important. In the past, great amounts of time and expense were associated with redundant manual entry and exporting data to various systems. The lack of an all-in-one solution that could provide offline maps, GPS capture and custom data forms meant that data needed to be entered multiple times across different systems. It also meant that data from areas located outside the boundaries of paper-based maps were not easily recorded.
SRB&A needed the ability to map natural resource areas in all parts of Alaska. A program that was not intimidating or difficult to use for staff unfamiliar with GIS applications was also a requirement, since many mapping programs were difficult to use given their complexity and extensive technical training requirements.
The lack of an all-in-one solution that could provide offline maps, GPS capture and custom data forms meant that data needed to be entered multiple times across different systems.
The geographic survey information was vital to the successful subsistence survey, but the anthropological perspective meant going beyond the map. Conducting interviews, gathering scientific data and researching available literature on a community were intrinsic to the findings. The ability to combine spatial data with structured and unstructured data elements is at the core of subsistence research.
SRB&A looked at several different surveying app solutions, and chose to deploy TerraGo Edge on iPads. The surveying app provided high-precision GPS support, offline mapping, custom forms and an open database. With the benefits of mobile technology, SRB&A field teams finally had an all-in-one solution at their fingertips. They were able to quickly and easily deploy custom apps to user iPads, replacing myriad paper maps and forms.
“TerraGo Edge helped to drastically simplify our data collection process,” says Paul Lawrence, research associate at SRB&A. “In the past, we were forced to use multiple approaches and manually combine the data later. Because this software has custom forms and maps, our field users could collect data all in one place. This saves us both time and money out in the field and back at the office, where we have to clean up the data. We also found it’s one of the best apps available for handling offline maps. In Alaska, we are often disconnected, and this was of utmost importance to us.”
Logan Simpson Design (LSD) provides landscape architecture and environmental planning services that care for the natural environment and selectively reimagine the built environment. LSD services span the environmental, planning and landscape architecture areas including National Environmental Policy Act compliance, permitting, biology resources, cultural resources, Clean Water Act compliance, environmental monitoring, visual resources, project management, site restoration, historic and archaeological preservation, tribal consultation and community planning.
LSD’s practice areas have very different customer requirements from project to project, but share a common need for accurate field survey data to support engineering, planning and design projects. LSD field teams have traditionally relied upon single-function GPS devices to perform survey and field data collection work, along with paper forms, tablets and manual data entry. However, the GPS devices were very expensive to purchase and deploy. Furthermore, when a device failed, not only was there a cost to replace the device, but the additional cost of lost data, disruption and inevitable rework. The GPS interfaces were also comparatively poor (with only black-andwhite screens and no zooming or scaling) versus the smartphones crews carried.
Field crews were using mobile apps on their personal devices to easily navigate to work areas and instantly view satellite imagery over the web. However many LSD projects took place in remote terrains, which required mapping, data collection and navigation that could work when they were off the grid. This meant most teams employed a combination of paper maps, handwritten forms, manual data entry, proprietary GPS devices and GPS-enabled cameras. LSD operations began researching mobile apps and solutions that would allow them to bring all these elements together for their field operations projects.
After researching the available solutions for mobile GPS data collection, LSD operations chose TerraGo Edge for its ability to combine the features of modern mobile devices with the required GPS accuracy, all while giving them custom forms able to meet the varied needs of different customers and projects.
“One of the great things about TerraGo Edge is the flexibility to customize the data collection processes for our wide variety of project types, which have drastically different input, precision and workflow requirements,” says Craig Johnson, environmental group manager at Logan Simpson. “TerraGo Edge opens up the possibility for our field teams to fully integrate data collection and mapping, while allowing us to navigate easily when working beyond the reach of cellular service. And because it’s an open cloud-based system, we can further reduce the risk of data loss due to potential device failure. TerraGo Edge also provides the level of precision that our teams need at a reasonable cost, with the added benefit of being able to monitor the safety of staff working in remote areas.”
The geospatial sector’s evolution from traditional GPS handhelds and binders of paper maps and forms to GPS-enabled smartphones and tablets has revolutionized the way field teams work, bringing greater efficiency and cost savings once unheard of. Off the grid or connected, today’s mobile GPS data collection combines the features of modern mobile devices with required GPS accuracy.
Whether it involves pipelines in Canada or the wilderness in Alaska, the tools surveyors use today have changed … and it’s a revolution whose time has finally come.