Since the early days of satellite positioning, people have sought to use GNSS to achieve accurate positioning almost anywhere on the planet. The phrase “Centimeters for everyone, everywhere” became a sort of mantra among the engineers and scientists working to develop GNSS technology. It describes their vision of enabling people to work with high-precision positions whenever and wherever needed.

Today the vision is becoming reality. The traditional challenges of accurate positioning — cost, time and complex workflows — are quickly fading. Thanks to a bundle of new technologies, it’s possible to achieve accuracy of a few centimeters using a smartphone and familiar, even consumer-style apps.

The new approach, Trimble Catalyst, enables developers and users to operate at levels of precision and confidence previously attained only by highly skilled, well-equipped geospatial professionals. The Trimble technology is bringing high accuracy, flexibility and cost efficiency to applications including GIS, utilities, asset management and many more. With Catalyst, users can obtain positions with accuracy ranging from 1 meter down to a few centimeters.

The Catalyst solution consists of a small, lightweight antenna that connects to select Android tablets or smartphones, together with a subscription to the Catalyst positioning service. The palm-sized antenna feeds signals from GNSS satellites to software running behind the scenes on the tablet or smartphone. The software combines GNSS data with information from the Catalyst correction service that, depending on your location, comes from satellites or wireless Internet connections.

The solution produces precise positions in real time and feeds the information to Catalyst-enabled apps (more on that later in this article). The monthly subscriptions are based on accuracy — users pay only for accuracy they need and when they need it.

Esri Collector with Catalyst

Catalyst provides accurate positioning for Esri Collector software on Android devices.

As a further boost to cost efficiency, Catalyst enables organizations to leverage the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) concept and install task-specific apps onto employees’ smartphones or tablets. For example, an inspector can use a tablet to record information about road conditions such as potholes and pavement damage. With Catalyst, the location of the issue can be captured and recorded automatically. The inspector can focus on the pavement while the precise GNSS solution operates in the background.

Applications for Catalyst run the gamut from traditional GIS data collection (think park benches, road signs and wetlands) to higher accuracy work such as utility locations and facility/asset management. Trimble is implementing Catalyst support in TerraFlex software and Esri has announced plans to use Catalyst in its Collector application. Other applications include measuring ground control for UAV photography and mapping urban irrigation systems.

There’s even a tie to augmented reality. A company in New Zealand is using Catalyst to blend precise positioning with 3D modeling. Their product, Augview, produces views of underground utilities that enable technicians in the field to “see” the location of buried pipes and conduits in real time.

To encourage support for Catalyst, Trimble has opened the system to third-party solution providers. Application developers can use the free Trimble Precision Software Development Kit (SDK) to access Catalyst functionality. In addition to managing the GNSS solution, the SDK enables applications to use positioning metadata such as satellite status information and quality data. Because the SDK can link to any application running on the smartphone or tablet, developers can add accurate positioning to their existing apps. And the subscription approach lets users allocate positioning costs to specific projects — they buy only what they need.

Where will Catalyst go from here? The sky’s the limit: Catalyst’s total flexibility — low-cost, on-demand service and simple, customized applications running on widely available devices — is generating excitement across the geospatial industry and beyond. We should expect to see it in some unexpected places.