Saturday, December 21, 2013

A Little Plane Table Work

A week ago I picked up some old photographs that are claimed to be of Army surveyors doing some plane table survey work on Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

The notations on the back of each photo gives each Soldier's name and the date - November 1959.  While the location is supposed to be Fort Belvoir there's no written indication that is the actual location. However, having been assigned to Fort Belvoir a number of times I'll say that the vegetation certainly has that 'northern Virginia in the fall' look about it, so I'll accept the fact that we are looking at a location on or near Fort Belvoir.

Another clue is the Soldiers, and more specifically their uniforms.  There's no sleeve rank on any of their field jackets or shirts, indicating to me they are trainees attending advanced individual training at either the Engineer School or the Army Map Service school on Fort Belvoir.  These are most likely young men - probably draftees - who are learning the trade of surveying after graduating from Army basic training.  They simply haven't been in the Army long enough to earn rank beyond that of Private.

Plane table surveying was once the primary method of developing detailed sketches and surveys of small areas.  The geodetic and topographic surveys would establish he broad framework of survey control and elevation for large areas or regions.  The plane table surveyors would follow behind filling in the details - roads, buildings, fence lines, monuments, prominent topology and geology, etc.  Plane table work was a close meld of surveying and cartography, and plane table sketches done by talented surveyors are true works of art.

Alas, plane table surveying is also a lost art.  It died off back in the 1980s with the introduction of electronic surveying systems - total stations - that can collect data much faster and much more accurately than a surveyor standing at a plane table.  While the output of a total station lacks any sense of artistic composition, the data tends to be more accurate and precise.

But back to our young men.  They had to have scored fairly high on their Army entrance tests to qualify for training as a surveyor, so this was a smart group of guys.  Odds are they all had very good math skills.

My guess is these young fellows all did their two year military obligations, left the service and went on to enjoy life in the civilian world.  A few probably went to college using the generous VA education benefits still in place in the 1950s, a few probably moved on to employment in blue collar jobs.  Odds are none of them stuck with surveying in the civilian world - that's just the way things went.  However, I'm hoping that their exposure to surveying and mapping enticed at least one of them to pursue a civil engineering-related field once they left the service.

So let's introduce our hale and hearty young surveyors!

Jim Heichel

Gustafson (no first name given)

McNeely & Robinson (again, no first names)

Robinson (sitting, recording), Gustafson (left)
and McNeeley (right)

These fine fellows are all in their 70s now and hopefully are looking back on long, successful and happy lives. I hope they view their time in the Army with great fondness and the memories of the this beautiful fall day spent in the field learning plane table work brings a smile to their faces.


Sunday, December 8, 2013

Patton's Prayer

In early December 1944 General George S. Patton's 3rd Army was stalled in front of the Siegfried Line along the French - German border.  Patton was a master of combined arms operations and he knew he needed tactical air support from the Army Air Forces before he could breach the Siegfried Line and push on towards the Rhine River.

But the weather was not cooperating.  The winter of 1944 was one of the worst on record for central Europe.  Thick cloud decks and heavy fog were keeping Allied aircraft grounded all across France and the Low Countries.  Patton was frustrated, impatient and angry.  He saw German resistance crumbling before him yet he knew he couldn't push forward into the German homeland without adequate air cover.  The 3rd Army and its supporting Air Force ground attack squadrons were a deadly team.  Ground-based artillery often had trouble keeping up with the 3rd Army's advanced forces, but the Air Force's growing fleet of attack aircraft like the rugged and deadly P-47 Thurderbolt could range ahead of the forward ground forces, striking military strong points, attacking enemy convoys and in general wreaking havoc and helping to open lines of advance for Pattons armored formations.

In the second week of December Patton's frustration hit a boiling point.  Patton was a man of deep religious faith and he absolutely believed that God was on the side of the Allies.  The General decided it was time to remind the Good Lord just who's side he was supporting.  On December 8th Patton put out an order directing all 3rd Army chaplains to pray for good weather.  At the same time he called for his staff chaplain, Colonel James O'Neill.

I quote from Patton's published diary of WWII, 'War As I Knew It':

General Patton: "Chaplain, I want you to publish a prayer for good weather.  I'm tired of these soldiers having to fight mud and floods as well as the Germans.  See if we can't get God to work on our side."

Chaplain O'Neill:  "Sir, it's going to take a pretty thick rug for that kind of praying."

General Patton:  "I don't care if it takes the flying carpet, I want the praying done."

Chaplain O'Neill:  "Yes, sir.  May I say, General, that it usually isn't a customary thing among men of my profession to pray for clear weather to kill fellow men."

General Patton:  "Chaplain, are you teaching me theology or are you the Chaplain of the Third Army?  I want a prayer."

Chaplain O'Neill:  "Yes, sir."

What Chaplain O'Neill came up with is one of the classic military prayers:

"Almighty and most merciful Father, we humbly beseech Thee, of Thy great goodness, to restrain these immoderate rains with which we have had to contend.  Grand us fair weather for Battle. Graciously hearken to us as soldiers who call upon Thee that, armed with thy power, we may advance from victory to victory, and crush the oppression and wickedness of our enemies, and establish Thy justice among men and nations. Amen".

After the war the chaplain, Monsignor James O'Neill (by that time a retired Brigadier General) wrote down his version of the story.  It helps clarify some of the dates surrounding the event.  In the classic movie 'Patton' starring George C. Scott we are led to believe that Patton orders the prayer in reaction to 3rd Army's difficulty reaching the Ardennes as they advanced to relieve American forces trapped during the Battle of the Bulge.  The truth is that Patton ordered this prayer at least a week before the Germans launched their offensive into the Ardennes.

Patton directed that the prayer, along with his Christmas greeting to the Soldiers of the 3rd Army, be printed and distributed just before Christmas.  The printing job was immense.  Virtually every Soldier in the 3rd Army was to receive a copy so hundreds of thousands of copies needed to be printed, and printed fast.  The job was beyond the capability of the printing services available within the 3rd Army Adjutant General's office.  Chaplain O'Neill discussed the requirement with the 3rd Army Engineer and the decision was made to have the 664th Engineer Topographic Battalion, with its multiple large format offset presses, execute the print mission.

Patton's prayer, printed on the back side of his Christmas
greeting to the Soldiers of 3rd Army

Patton's Christmas greeting (front side)

By December 14th 1944 the prayer was distributed throughout 3rd Army.  On December 16th the German Army launched operation 'Wacht am Rhein' ('Watch on the Rhine') or as we refer to it today, the Battle of the Bulge.  Hitler's plan was to attack west through the Ardennes region in Belgium, capture the port of Antwerp, split the Allied armies in two and force the Americans and British to accept a separate peace. Within 24 hours of being notified of the German offensive Patton turned the entire 3rd Army 90 degrees and raced north to relieve the trapped forces.  Patton smelled blood; the Germans had stuck their neck out and he intended to cut it off.  But he still had to contend with the weather.

For seven days the American forces trapped in the Ardennes pocket struggled to hold back the German onslaught, but were denied close air support due to the foul weather. Then suddenly, unexpectedly, on December 23rd the weather cleared.  Allied aircraft could range freely over the Ardennes and they extracted a fearsome toll on the Germans.  At the same time 3rd Army forces smashed into the southern flank of the German pocket, shattering and all but destroying the enemy forces before it.  The German Army never recovered from the Battle of the Bulge and 'Wacht am Rhein' was the last offensive ever mounted by Hitler's military.

Patton was convinced that the prayer, as applied by all the 3rd Army Soldiers who received a copy, was instrumental in changing the weather in the Allies favor.  In Patton's mind it was confirmation that God was on his side and on the side of the 3rd US Army.  For his part in composing the prayer Chaplain O'Neill was personally awarded the Bronze Star medal by Patton.

The story of Patton's prayer is important to me for two reasons.  First, the images of the card you see above are those of an original card issued to my uncle, Captain Andy Harbison.  Andy was a battery commander in the 176th Field Artillery Battalion which was operating in General Support of 3rd Army.  He signed the card and sent it home to my aunt, Dorothy (Dottie) Harbison in Buffalo, NY.

This extract from the 176th's field log highlights the battalion's involvement in the Battle of the Bulge.

The second reason is the 664th Engineer Topographic Battalion's involvement in the printing of Patton's 1944 Christmas greeting and prayer.  While not a 'mapping' mission, it still represents a fascinating piece of US Army WWII topographic history.  Almost 39 years to the day after General Patton ordered these cards printed I reported for duty with the indirect successor of the 644th Engineer Topographic Battalion.  As a young Engineer captain I found myself assigned to the 649th Engineer Battalion (Topographic) in Schwetzingen, Germany.  The 649th provided topographic support - mapping, survey, terrain analysis and map distribution - to all US Army forces in the European theater. A tenuous connection perhaps, but I like to think that I am part of the legacy of units that helped the US Army achieve victory in WWII.

So, like General Patton, let me wish you all a holiday greeting in the firm belief that the Good Lord is on our side.

Merry Christmas!


Friday, December 6, 2013

GPS Proves Einstein!

Well, it verifies Einstein's Theory of General Relativity.

Here's a very interesting video of the 2012 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate on whether neutrinos can travel faster than the speed of light.  One of my favorite scientists, Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson (the fellow whom Sheldon Cooper blamed for having Pluto downgraded from a planet to a mere ball of ice) does a great job of moderating and keeps the discussion both lively and understandable for public school graduates like me.

Part of the discussion focuses on Einstein's Theories of Relativity, both Special and General.  The General Theory of Relativity states that time moves faster in low gravitational fields.  This is known as gravitational time dilation.  Starting about the 30 minute mark the discussion turns to how the atomic clocks on board the US Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites are intentionally 'slowed' to compensate for the changes in the progression of time in lowered gravitational fields. One of the panel members, Dr. Christopher Hegarty of the MITRE corporation, comments on how tests have shown that if the clocks on the GPS satellites are not intentionally slowed then the signal accuracy based on the uncompensated clock will drop from a few dozen feet to about 11 kilometers in just one day!

Dr. Hegarty also comments about how some of the time compensation computations are actually handled by the GPS receiver software.

So remember folks, every time you fire up your GPS (or even just use your smartphone to find the nearest Starbucks) you are helping to verify the Theory of General Relativity.  Go Einstein!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Harriman Geographic Index System

A few months back I picked up a packet of US Army training regulations and manuals that were published in the 1920s and deal with mapping and aerial photography.  Army publications from this era don't often appear on eBay, and those dealing specifically with mapping, surveying and related topographic sciences are even rarer.  In fact, after years of hunting on eBay for historical publications dealing with these topics this was the first time I'd ever seen any from the inter-war period.  My guess is that virtually all outdated documents got heaved into the garbage can in the late 1930s as the Army was ramping up for war and new publications covering map production and map reading were introduced.

I was surprised to find myself in a small bidding war for these documents.  I'm sure it wasn't against anyone with a specific interest in Army topographic history.  The other bidder(s) were more likely motivated by the relative rarity of the documents.  In the end I paid about $30 for the packet and at the time I thought I'd bid too high.  As it turns out I think I made a good investment.

The packet included five Army Corps of Engineers publications:

  • Training Regulation 190-7, Topography and Surveying, Map Reading - The Harriman Geographic Index System (July 15, 1927)
  • Training Regulation 190-25, Topography and Surveying, Topographic Drafting (June 21, 1923)
  • Training Regulation 190-27, Topography and Surveying, Aerial Photographic Mapping (January 23, 1925)
  • Training Manual 2180-35, Topography and Surveying, Special Methods of Relief Representation (January 3, 1928)
  • Training Manual 2180-45, Topography and Surveying, Meridian Determination (April 16, 1928)

As a group these manuals represent an interesting view into the evolution of Army mapping activities that incorporate the lessons learned and the new technologies that emerged from our experience in WWI, particularly the use of aerial photographs as map substitutes and as base data for topographic map compilation.  In these documents you get the sense that the Corps of Engineers is starting to realize that it now has significant responsibility for providing standard map products to a modern Army with a potential world-wide mission.

Most of these publications cover topics I'm well familiar with, but the Harriman Geographic Index System is something I'd never heard of before.

Click on the photo to enlarge

Once I read through the document I realized that the Harriman system is designed to allow a Soldier to accurately locate himself or any feature on a map to within a few hundred feet anywhere in the world.  In essence it is an early worldwide grid reference system (although it bears no resemblance to the current Military Grid Reference System).

It is also very complex.  While the mechanics of the system were fairly easy for me to figure out, I can't imagine myself standing in front of a classroom of Soldiers trying to teach this system.  It might have been a useful tool for well educated officers working in the relative comfort and calm of a rear-area command post, but for a tired, cold and scared draftee with a 9th grade education who is sitting in a muddy foxhole trying to call for artillery fire support this system is all but unusable.

The Harriman system uses the South Pole as the origin point and the International Date Line as the meridian.  It successively divides up the Earth into smaller and smaller rectangles based on latitude and longitude.  Each of these rectangles get an index number in the Harriman unit system that, when combined, permit locating features to within about half an acre.

Harriman 'units'

Since the Harriman system is based on latitude and longitude it is projected onto a spheroid.  This means the land areas defined in this system vary with latitude.  The further away from the equator the smaller the land area encompassed by a Harriman system rectangle.  This also means the Harriman system is not a point identification system like the Military Grid Reference System, but is an area reference system that defines smaller and smaller rectangles on the face of the earth.  The smallest area that can be defined in the Harriman System, the Position Unit, is 2 seconds in latitude and 1 second in longitude.  This equates to about a 4,875 sq. ft. 'box' at 49 degrees latitude, or about a 70 ft x 70 ft area on the ground.  The Harriman system has the potential to identify a point feature such as a road intersection with a positional accuracy that is well within the map accuracy standard for a 1:50,000 topographic line map.  From a practical perspective Harriman's system is accurate enough.

Harriman Index Geograph

But it's the identification of these units that can get confusing.  The Harriman system requires the user to concatenate an ever longer string of numbers, separated by colons, semicolons and slashes, to identify locations.  The smaller the area the longer and more confusing the string.  For example, according to the manual the Harriman system ID for Battery Byrne at West Point would be designated as 2665:4515; 7792. Users of the Military Grid Reference System (MGRS) could argue that this system can be just as confusing. However, I'd counter that the MGRS use of the grid zone designation (ex: 18T) and the 100,000 meter grid zone ID (ex: WL) alpanumeric system takes a lot of confusion out of sending and receiving coordinate locations.  For example, the MGRS coordinate identifier for the same Battery Byrne location is 18T WL 8726 8316.  Perhaps it's my 30+ years of using MGRS that has me jaded, but I just think MGRS is less confusing.

Now the Harriman system isn't a bad system.  In fact, it's quite logical and it works well within its known limitations.  And I have to be honest, before the Harriman system there was... nothing.  The Chief of Engineers was quite clear about what the Harriman system is and is not:

"It should be realized that the Harriman index system is in no sense a method of map making or of chart building; still less is it a new system of projections.  It is merely a simplified system of using an established arrangement.  It may be used on any map or chart, regardless of projection or scale, provided the longitude and latitude of the southwest and northeast corners are available or can be determined by scaling on the map.  Since only arabic numerals are employed in location designation, this system is capable of use in any language."

In the late 1920s the federal government seemed quite enamored with the system and there are indications that a number of federal agencies had adopted it.  In 1928 Congress actually held hearings to decide whether to purchase an unlimited use license from its developer, George C. Harriman. But other than a few tangential references on the web I can't find any more discussion about it.  This training regulation is the only full reference I've found.  Even more interesting, when reviewing Army topographic references - training and field manuals - published beginning in the late 1930s as the US Army ramped up for war, I find no references to the Harriman system.

It appears Mr. Harriman's system was a flash in the pan, dropped by the Army in the 1930's as the Corps of Engineers realized it needed a better map coordinate system to address the exploding world-wide mapping requirements.  The Army needed a coordinate system that was logical, consistent, accurate and easy to teach to the millions of draftees about to be deployed to battlefields around the world.  It was out of this requirement that we got the Military Grid Reference System, a system stood the test of time and war.


Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The State of Mobile GIS Software

Over the past six months or so I've been doing a lot of casual testing of the various mobile GIS platforms available on the market today.  Right now is an ideal time to discuss the offerings because just in the past week we've had an update to a key application in this arena (Collector for ArcGIS), we are on the verge of having an interesting new hardware player enter the market (Garmin's soon to be released Monterra handheld GPS) and several vendors are dropping serious hints about where they see their products headed in 2014.

I was ramping up to do a lengthy blog post on this when I dropped by Alex Mahrou's always interesting RockyMountainGeo GIS blog and was surprised to see he had already done all my work for me.  Back in October Alex did a great overview of the current offerings in a posting titled Enterprise Mobile GIS Software Functionality.  All I can do is add minor updates to some of his information and add a few of my own observations.

I like the switchboard analogy!

The single biggest update is the newest version of Collector for ArcGIS (version 10.2) that was released last week for the iOS and Android platforms.  This version addresses one of the two biggest complaints about earlier versions of Collector - polyline and polygon data collection.  It also offers an improved user interface and well thought out workflows.  While the Android version still has some rough edges, the iOS version is a polished, smoothly functioning app that reflects ESRI's mature experience in developing for Apple's mobile operating system.  It is a very good app.

Where ESRI seems to be unnecessarily holding back is off-line data collection and editing, and data synchronization.  As Alex notes, ESRI informally promised that this feature would 'absolutely, positively' be incorporated into Collector before the end of 2013.  It now looks like we'll have to wait until sometime in early 2014, when ESRI plans for a significant overall upgrade to Collector, perhaps better positioning it within their enterprise software offerings.  In my opinion ESRI missed the ball on this one.  Incorporating off-line data storage and editing in the iOS and Android operating systems isn't hard to do; Trimble had it available almost six months ago in their initial release of TerraFlex.  I understand there are other issues at play here - background map data caching and the incorporation of operational layers (both something Trimble's offering lacks), but ESRI still could have incorporated basic off-line functionality in this new release and just built on it for the upcoming major release.

Trimble's TerraFlex is an app I tested back in June and was initially very impressed.  Where most of ESRI's mobile offerings (Collector, ArcGIS App, ArcGIS for Windows Mobile) require some expensive back-end infrastructure - ArcGIS Online, Portal or ArcGIS for Server - TerraFlex offers a far simpler mobile solution paradigm.  Everything is cloud based and single fee.  You pay your money and you get everything TerraFlex has to offer, and all for a relatively paltry price as compared to ESRI's mobile solutions in the same marketplace.  Of course, this easier to use solution comes at a cost (pun intended) - what the initial release of TerraFlex didn't offer was pretty extensive; no background map caching, no data editing either on the device or in the desktop interface, no operational layers, and some very limited data export options.  On the other hand, what TerraFlex does offer is pretty impressive given the price: off line data storage and sync, mature and stable apps not just on the iOS and Android platforms, but Trimble also had an app available for the Windows Embedded Handheld OS right out of the gate.  Trimble wasn't about to leave out the thousands of Trimble customers running their Juno handhelds who are still stuck with a dying Windows OS.  Kudos to Trimble on this.

Trimble indicates many of these shortcomings will be addressed in 2014, and Trimble seems poised to leverage what they do best - allow TerraFlex to incorporate high precision GNSS positions (including RTK-based solutions) into the data collection stream.  This could turn TerraFlex from a mere mapping grade data collector into a serious high precision data collection tool.

In his blog post Alex discusses Fulcrum.  To be honest, this is an application I've known about but have not had a chance to test.  Looks like I'll have to take it for a spin sometime soon.

So as 2013 draws to a close where are we at with mobile GIS solutions?  The best analogy I can think of is that of a ballplayer with a lot of potential who's just been called up to the majors.  His batting stats are getting better with each game, but he still has problems connecting with the ball.  The potential is there, he just needs more time. So it is with mobile GIS apps.  Most are still somewhat of a 'swing and a miss', but they are getting close to smacking the ball out of the park.  Whether it's off-line data collection with ESRI's offerings or TerraFlex's incorporation of cached maps, in-app editing or incorporation of high precision position feeds, 2014 is starting to look like the field will really mature and we'll get closer to the full promise of mobile GIS.

It'll be an interesting year!



Saturday, November 2, 2013

William J. Hudson's Pocket Transit History Site

Several times in this blog I've referenced an excellent pocket transit history site established by a gentleman by the name of William J. Hudson.  His site was the resource for historical information on the development of the pocket transit, its many variations and changes down through the years.  I considered it the best resource on pocket transits available anywhere on the web.

Unfortunately it looks like Mr. Hudson's site went off-line well over a year ago.  I first noticed it about six months ago while doing some research on a pocket transit I had just added to my collection.  Over the last few months I've been contacted several times either directly or through this blog about Mr. Hudson's site, asking if I knew when it might be available again.  Since I don't know Mr. Hudson and I've never communicated with him I had no way of contacting him to see when or even if he intended to reestablish his website.  It seemed a great resource for those interested in pocket transits was gone from the web forever.

Well, things don't really disappear from the web.  They just get archived.  I'm happy to report that I've stumbled upon an archive of the main page of Mr. Hudson's site hidden away in a dark corner of the internet.  Unfortunately none of the linked pages such as his serial number breakdown page were archived, so that resource appears lost.  But the main page is still chock full of useful information about the pocket transit's history, development and features.

I've linked to the internet archive for this page from the image below.  When you open the page you'll have the option to download the page and graphics as a zip file.

Click here to access the site archive

I'm glad to have access again to at least a portion of this great resource.  Mr. Hudson, if you read this, can we have your site back please?  Hundreds a couple of diehard pocket transit collectors really miss the information your site provided!


Thursday, October 31, 2013

Lies, Damned Lies, and Cartography

If you are a cartographer or geographer this is just too funny.

We do occasionally get wrapped up in discussions like this.  Seems lots of politicians and leaders want their town, precinct, district, state, country or continent to have pride of place.  Along the way things will get distorted.  That's the challenge of trying to depict curved surfaces (the earth) on flat paper, or on a computer screen.

Yes, there really is such a thing as a Peters Projection map, and here's a great discussion about why those with political agendas shouldn't be allowed to design things like map projections.

Want to know what your piece of ground really looks like in relation to the rest of the world?  Get a good old fashioned globe.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

A Tale of Two Trimbles

Earlier this year Trimble released its newest generation of the Juno data collectors to the market.  Unlike the previous generations of these devices (the original Juno S and the later Juno 3 series), the new Junos come in several different flavors depending on which business line within Trimble you purchase yours from.  Those purchased through Trimble Mapping & GIS distributors are labeled the Juno 5.  Those purchased through Trimble's Mobile Computing Solutions distributors are known as the T41.  They are all based on the same hardware platform.

To confuse things even more, you can get either device running different operating systems, either Windows Embedded Handheld 6.5 (aka, Windows Mobile) or Android 4.1.

Back in May my organization got its hands on a loaner 5D unit and I was initially impressed with the hardware but thought the Windows OS was holding the whole package back.  At the time I viewed it as an outstanding piece of hardware saddled to an operating system that badly limits the unit's performance and potential.  I was eager to get my hands on the T41, hoping that the current version of Android would unlock a lot of the performance potential of this device.  About a month ago my organization purchased one 5D and one T41 to test.  We were looking for an upgrade to our Juno 3D handhelds (very good devices, by the way) and were intrigued by the possibilities of the Android-based Juno T41; something we could run the ESRI ArcGIS and Collector apps on along with Trimble's new TerraFlex app.

The 5D (left) and the T41 (right)

When we received the units and began to test them I made a number of quick observations.  As I initially wrote back in May, the hardware is first rate. From the smartphone form factor to processor speed to screen resolution and clarity under a wide variety of conditions to the GPS module performance.  This is a seriously good piece of hardware.  Back in May I complained that the 5D lacked the ability to receive signals from the Russian GLONASS system.  I still feel it's a shortcoming of the unit, but in actual use it may not matter.  The overall performance of the GPS receiver in these new Trimbles is outstanding, with fast acquisition and the ability to hold signal lock under some very tough conditions like under full tree canopy cover.  The GPS performance is so good I'm not (too) bothered by the lack of GLONASS capability.

One feature we did not test, and probably never will, is the 5D and T41 performance as an actual cell phone. While a cell phone data plan would greatly enhance the usefulness of these devices our organization is not willing to pay the cost to get these units activated as cell phones.

Where the 5D and T41 stumble are the operating systems.  I've already touched on my issues with the Windows OS in my earlier posting, but let me expand a bit here.  I understand why developers like Trimble stick with Windows Embedded Handheld.  Trimble has over a decade of experience developing for the Windows Mobile environment.  Most of their field data collector and survey system software like TerraSync was developed specifically for the Windows Mobile environment.  I get it. Windows Embedded Handheld (WEHH) is stable and well understood and has proven itself in enterprise environments.  So has Windows XP, and like XP WEHH isn't getting any better with age.

It must be a terrible time to be an enterprise mobile software developer working in the Windows environment.  Microsoft is starting to release Windows 8 for mobile devices similar to the Juno, but by necessity these devices must connect with a compatible desktop computer for data transfer and application updates. Windows 8 on the mobile device isn't backwards compatible with earlier versions of Windows on the desktop, yet corporate America has yet to embrace Windows 8 and will likely be sticking with Windows 7 for several more years.  What's a developer to do? In Trimble's case they stick with what they know and what their customers seem to be demanding - don't give me anything I can't sync with Windows 7.  The problem with WEHH on the Juno 5D is that the software can't seem to take full advantage of what the hardware offers.  It's like putting square wheels on a Ferrari.  This comes to light when working with the 5D's camera.  The camera is a very good 8 megapixel unit with dual flash.  It takes great pictures.  Too bad the WEHH camera control software sucks. It's slow, difficult to configure and the controls are not intuitive.  It's like working with an early Windows CE-based smartphone, which is essentially what you have with the 5D running WEHH.  The issue of hardware 'throttling' really comes to light when you compare this 5D camera experience with the camera on the T41 running on Android 4.1. The camera experience on tht T41 is entirely different and far more satisfying because Android does a much better job of interfacing with the camera.  It's like you are working with an entirely different camera hardware module but it's really an OS performance issue.

Before moving away from the discussion of WEHH I do have to add that the performance of enterprise apps like TerraSync and ArcPad is very good on the 5D.  Everything works as advertised, and the additional processing power of the 5D along with the larger screen size and improved resolution (over the Juno 3-series devices) makes for a great experience in the field.  The new Trimble SatViewer application is also a great improvement over the old GPS Controller module found on other Trimble WEHH devices.

Now on to the T41.  While the performance of the 5D was something of an expected disappointment, the performance of the T41, and Trimble's vision of how the T41 fits into their overall product line, comes as an unanticipated and surprising disappointment.

I'll leave aside any discussion of the T41 hardware - everything good I've discussed about the 5D hardware applies to the T41.  Bottom line - the hardware is great.

At first glance Trimble's choice of operating system is also great.  The unit comes pre-loaded with Android 4.1.  I'm testing Android 4.2 on a Google Nexus 7 tablet and I'm about to admit that this version of Android is good enough to pull me away from my beloved iOS devices.  Android is not an 'enterprise' OS and can't run applications like TerraSync or ArcPad, but there are a number of very good lightweight apps like ESRI's ArcGIS and Collector apps and Trimble's own TerraFlex app that uses a cloud data storage paradigm.

The problem is that the T41 comes with Trimble's in-house version of Android 4.1.  It was developed using the open source version of Android and has not been certified under the Android Compatibility Program.  This means that the T41 can't get access to the Google Play Store for installation of any one of the thousands of Android apps available through that environment.  This includes ESRI's ArcGIS and Collector apps and even Trimble's own TerraFlex app.  Not even Google's own Google Maps, Google Earth or the GMail app can be installed on this device!  This is a serious oversight.  I know plenty of surveyors and GIS professionals who depend on Google Maps and Google Earth on smartphones to support things like work crew routing, initial survey reconnaissance, survey control recovery and other tasks, and use programs like Google Drive to access project documentation in the field.  There's also no reason you shouldn't be able to use GIS apps like ESRI's ArcGIS and Collector apps on this device.

Trimble's decision to not get this operating system certified is baffling.

No Android Compatibility
certification means
 no Google Maps,
no Google Earth,
no native GMail support,
no Google Drive support,
no ESRI or Trimble app support
and the list goes on...

Worse yet, Trimble makes regular mention of the Trimble App Store in their product documentation and even includes the link to this app store on the T41 when they ship the unit.  The problem is, other than two crippled Trimble apps - the free versions of MyTopoMapViewer and Terrain Navigator Pro - there's nothing else in this app store. You can download apps to this device from the Amazon app store, but most of the apps available there are either older versions of what's available on Google's app store or are formatted specifically for Amazon's Kindle devices.

Trimble App Store icon

What's in the Trimble App Store?
Not much

I honestly thought I was missing something here.  Surely Trimble has something better for the T41 that I just couldn't get to.  Perhaps a real app store that I just needed the right permissions to access or a software upgrade that would allow me to link to the Google Play Store.  My local distributor put me in touch with Trimble's Mobile Computing Solutions (MCS) tech support and I quickly found out that no, what I got is all there is.

Apparently Trimble views the T41 as an 'enterprise only' unit.  This means enterprises have to develop their own specific apps for it using the Trimble Android SDK.  This is an OK approach, but there is still no reason to not have the OS version certified by Google.  It's just stunning to think that Trimble would ship an Android-based data collector that can't access Google Maps, Google Earth or even run Trimble's own Android-based data collection app!

I have heard rumors that Trimble is re-thinking this approach to the T41 and may be working to get its version of Android certified by Google.  If and when this will happen I don't know - Trimble MCS hasn't been very forthcoming on the topic.

So where does this leave us when considering the 5D and the T41?  Taking into account the unit cost (about $1,800 each) and the operating system issues shared by both of these devices I have to say that they are not worth the investment, particularly when you consider that Trimble still offers a very capable handheld unit - the Juno 3D - at about half the cost.

If Trimble releases a version of Android that allows access to the Google Play Store I'll come back and do an updated review, but for now I simply can't recommend either of these devices.


Monday, October 14, 2013

Well Darn

What's an old topographer to do when he needs a few PDFs of historic topo sheets?

If this foolishness continues I may have to expand the Map Room to start stocking (more) paper maps.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

It's New! It's Revolutionary! It's...

Aerial photo scanning!

Damn, what's next?  Televisions that get programs from space?  Phones you can carry in your pocket? Computers that can talk to each other?

Why, I'll bet that by 2013 we'll even have cars that fly, just like George Jetson's!

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Thinking in 3D

This week at work, just for fun, I set up a stereoscope and slid some stereo photos underneath the mirrors. These photos are high resolution, large scale shots taken back in April when we had a new orthorectified aerial image of the airport developed.  I asked the contractor to send me a stereo pair from the project that I could play around with.  It's been years since I spent any time peering though the optics of a stereoscope and it was fun to look over the images and realize just how much a stereo view adds to one's ability to pick out details.

There was a time when analyzing stereo images was a critical skill in my field and other related fields.  But with the rise of commercial satellite imagery, the slow demise of wet process aerial film cameras and the development of digital imagery analysis systems like ERDAS Imagine and ESRI's improved raster management routines in ArcGIS there has been less and less call for hard copy stereo image analysis. Software routines now handle most analysis tasks.  Of course photogrammetrists still process, manage and analyze stereo imagery, but it's all done on high end digital systems these days.  The fields that used to derive benefit from hard copy stereo imagery - topography, geology, forestry, hydrology, even the US military - all seem to have lost their institutional 'feel' for the usefulness of stereo imagery analysis.

The issue was brought home to me this week when I invited a small group of GIS professionals and Engineering staff (both licensed civil engineers and engineering technicians) to drop by my desk to have a look at these stereo photos.  Most could not get the photos properly aligned underneath the stereoscope. Few recognized any real benefit from seeing the structures in stereo.  Most thought it was just a cute parlor trick. That's a shame because the stereo photos permitted quick and easy identification of features that are not readily apparent in the same 2D images.  Things like antenna masts and raised utility piping on the roofs of concourses, raised concrete pads and curbing in the aircraft gate areas and even small assemblies like receiver domes on the tops of aircraft fuselages stood out in clear detail when viewed in stereo.
So how does one use stereo photos for analysis?  Check out this blog posting from a while back.

Conducting stereo analysis using hard copy photos should be much cheaper and easier these days.  Years ago in the era of wet process film cameras making copies of stereo photos was time consuming and expensive. Someone had to pull a roll of film negatives, go into a darkroom and make prints one by one. With today's digital imagery systems all one has to do is download the image files from a server and print them out using relatively cheap but very high quality color ink jet printers.  The images I received from our contractor were full resolution TIFF files, each about 1.4 gigabytes.  I was able to subset just the areas I wanted to view and print them out at full resolution using only the image management software that comes with Windows 8.  Fast and cheap!

Federal and state governments are sitting on a gold mine of historical stereo aerial photos.  The Federal government (USGS, USC&GS, Soil Conservation Service, Department of Agriculture, Tennessee Valley Authority, Army Corps of Engineers, etc.) started using stereo aerial photography for mapping as early as the mid-1920s and over the course of the next 90 years proceeded to photograph virtually all of the United States in stereo.  Stereo aerial photography was the foundation of all of our topographic mapping activities through most of the 20th century and it remains so today.  Much of this photography is still held in individual agency archives or has been turned over to the National Archives. I'd love to see the National Archives digitize and post nationally significant stereo pairs of images online for downloading and viewing. Places like the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Yellowstone or historic events like the Mount St. Helens post-eruption photos or levee breaches along the Mississippi River during the spring floods.  Even historic shots of our cities and suburbs that will help students understand how topography impacts issues like urban sprawl.

Humans view and relate to their world in three dimensions.  It's a shame that today we are relegated to investigating it via boring 2D computer displays.  I think it's time to bring back 3D image analysis!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Garmin Gets Serious

I got a news release today that Garmin is about to release their first Android-based GPS receiver.  This is a move I long suspected one of the major GPS receiver manufacturers would make, and given Garmin's market dominance and previous experience with Android I naturally assumed they would be first.

Garmin calls it the Monterra.  What is it?  Well, it's essentially a smartphone without the phone.  An Android based GPS unit with a digital camera, LED flash, compass, barometer, gyro, accelerometer, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, MicroSD card slot, etc.  About the same features you'd expect to find on a mid-high range smartphone.  Ho-hum.

But the Monterra offers some key differences.  First, it started life as a GPS receiver, designed by the world's leader in consumer GPS technology.  This means the GPS performance and antenna design should have received priority consideration.  Next, it's IPX7 compliant, which means it's highly water resistant and shock resistant.  Third, it has user replaceable batteries.  Limited battery life is perhaps the single biggest argument against using a regular smartphone as a back-country GPS receiver.  With user replaceable batteries, and the use of standard AA cells, Garmin makes this a serious off-the-beaten path unit.  And last, it uses Android.  What, you ask?  Why is that important?  The adoption of Android as the OS opens the device to a whole range of outstanding GPS and mapping applications.  In fact, I'd go out on a limb and say that most users will load this thing up with third party apps and pay little attention to the included Garmin apps and map package offerings.

But my interest in the device focuses on its potential as a serious GIS data collection tool.  For the first time we have a rugged, water resistant Android-based GPS unit that should be able to run ESRI's ArcGIS and Collector apps and Trimble's new Terra-Flex app.  It offers all the hardware capability those apps need to leverage for effective data collection - good GPS performance, high resolution digital camera, a responsive high resolution touch screen and good battery life.  Once ESRI gets its act together and introduces data caching with their Android apps the lack of full-time data connectivity via a cellular data plan won't be so important.  ESRI may well be there by the time this device is released (and Terra-Flex is already there).

I only have three concerns.  First, the relatively small 8 gigabyte system memory.  Second, Garmin has not announced what version of Android this will ship with.  Here's hoping it's at least 4.1.  And last, the price.  Garmin has initially priced this thing at $650.  When you consider an unlocked top end smartphone like the iPhone 5 or the Samsung Galaxy S4 goes for just a bit more, and the very capable Google Nexus 4 goes for way less, you begin to think this thing is somewhat over priced.  I'm hoping the retail pricing comes in a bit less.

Still, it has the potential to be a very price competitive and capable field data collection unit.  Is it about time to retire the old Juno?  We'll see...

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Trimble TerraFlex

Trimble released their cloud based data collection solution called TerraFlex yesterday and I spent much of the day playing with it on both the iPhone and the Juno 3D.

Some observers (including me) thought TerraFlex would be a shot aimed at ESRI's ArcGIS Online product. It is clear, however, that TerraFlex is a very different animal.  Whereas ArcGIS Online is a map-centric platform against which you collect data, TerraFlex is a forms-based data collection platform that uses simple maps only as a background.  TerraFlex is better described as 'TerraSync lite' and the focus is on simplified data collection tasks using a variety of handheld devices like iOS and Android smartphones and Windows Mobile devices like Trimble's own Juno-series data collectors.

All projects start with forms, and TerraFlex provides an easy to use web interface for creating the data collection form.

The TerraFlex form creation page.  It is surprisingly simple to use.

Once you create a form you upload it to the TerraFlex 'cloud' (hosted on Amazon's EC2 cloud servers) as part of a data collection project.

A data collection project consists of one or more data collection forms

Once you have the project uploaded to the TerraFlex cloud you can log into TerraFlex from your mobile device, download the project and its assigned data collection forms and start collecting data.

TerraFlex uses Google Maps/Earth as the map interface.
It's your ONLY map option!

The forms interface on the data collector is
very easy to use.   The use of drop down selections
greatly simplifies the collection tasks

You can set your options on your data collector to sync the new data immediately over any available network connection (cellular data or wi-fi) or set it so sync only when the device is back under wi-fi coverage (this will reduce data plan usage on devices like the iPhone).

Once your data is synced with the TerraFlex cloud you can go back in to the desktop web interface and view the data, do basic edits and export it for use in other packages like ArcGIS or AutoCAD.

The TerraFlex desktop data management interface

Overall I was impressed with the ease of use of all components of the TerraFlex system - from the forms creation on the desktop to the data collection on my iPhone to the data management back in the desktop interface.  Part of the ease of use stems from the fact that there's not a lot there!  Remember, this is not a complex web mapping package like ArcGIS Online.  TerraFlex is a simplified data collection tool and at that task it excels.

Trimble also got smart with the pricing.  TerraFlex is licensed by the individual user vs. a software license tied to a particular piece of hardware as with TerraSync.  A TerraFlex license cost is $250 per user per year.  The subscription is tied to the individual and Trimble doesn't care what device(s) you use or how much data you collect.  Two hundred and fifty bucks may seem like a lot, but if you've ever priced other GIS data collection software like TerraSync (over $1,000/license) or ESRI's ArcPad (about the same) or even an ESRI ArcGIS Online subscription (which starts at $2,000 and has much higher management overhead) suddenly the cost of a TerraFlex license looks downright reasonable.

Of course at this price the list of what you don't get is pretty long.  There's no data position correction capability either through the use of a virtual reference station or via post-processing.  The data import and export options are also very weak.  This area in particular needs a lot of work.  Your export options are either KML, .csv (spreadsheet) or the ESRI ArcGIS XML format.  The .csv format has some issues because the software concatenates the lat/long data into a single spreadsheet cell, making it tedious to parse the latitude and longitude data into separate columns for easy import into GIS and CAD.

But this is a first generation product and I'm sure things will improve.  Trimble provides support via their TerraFlex forums and their technical people were jumping right in yesterday and answering customer questions.  I'm sure they are compiling a list of future improvements, and the great thing about cloud-based services is that you don't have to wait around for a service pack release.  Things get updated in the background and are immediately available across the entire user base.

Overall I like what Trimble has done here. We'll keep an eye on this product as it moves forward!

Friday, May 31, 2013

Where's The Line?

First Michigan picks on Ohio, now it's picking on Indiana:

Border Line Project Gets Funds

But any time you can have fun with a lawyer it's a good day:

Owens remembers a telephone call he got from an attorney representing the victim of a traffic accident along the state border.
“He asked me what state the accident was in,” Owens said.  “I said, ‘I can’t really tell you. We don’t really know where the state line is.’”

Yessir, a very good day!

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Some Changes Afoot

Don't panic!  Long time visitors to this blog will notice a dramatic change to the layout and color scheme.  I decided it was time to ditch the dark background and clean up some of the text and graphics on the blog, all in the interest of making it easier to read.

The template changes have messed with the picture layouts on some of my early posts, and I'll clean them up over time.  I decided long ago that blogging should be about content delivery, not gimmicky layouts, so I decided to stick with one of the simplest layout templates available on  It just makes it easier for me to write and post.

If you like the new layout and color scheme please let me know by posting a comment below.

If you don't like the new layout let me know, too.  But just don't complain, offer suggestions.

As always, thanks for your loyalty!


Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Trimble Juno 5

I got a chance to spend a few days playing with one of the new Trimble Juno 5 handheld data collectors and thought I'd give some initial impressions.

I've been discussing the Juno 3 series handhelds a lot lately on this blog.  They are great devices that offer a lot of functionality at a reasonable price point.  I think Trimble would agree.  My sources tell me the Junos 3 series have become one of Trimble's most popular selling data collectors.  But as good as they are, the Juno 3's still have some limitations.  First is processor speed.  The Juno 3 uses a relatively low capacity 800 mhz Samsung processor and there's a lot of overhead involved in just running the operating system, Windows Mobile 6.5.  It shows.  The Juno moves like a turtle on a cold morning when executing some processor or graphics intensive processes.  Still, they have proven to be stable & reliable devices and we rarely have crashes or lock-ups.  Things may run slow, but they run.

The next drawback is the screen.  It has a measly 3.5" QVGA screen that offers only 340 x 320 pixel resolution.  It's 'touch sensitive' only in the sense that if you imagine your finger as a stylus and stab the screen pretty hard with it (and in the right place) the screen will react.  Virtually all functions require the use of a hard stylus.  There are two good points about the screen, though.  First is that it's readable in sunlight.  Second is that the low resolution graphics put as little demand as possible on the already slow processor chip sets.  From that perspective I guess the screen functionality is acceptable.

Last year Trimble announced the new Juno 5 series of data collectors.  While the Juno 5 doesn't replace the Juno 3, it offers a new 'smart phone' form factor.  When I first read about the new Juno I dismissed it as a gimmick, a repackaged Juno 3 designed to appeal to the GenX crowd that can't work with anything that doesn't look like an iPhone.  But a few weeks ago at the ESRI Southeast Users Conference I got the chance to handle one and was initially impressed.  First, this thing is BIG, and it's HEAVY.  Think a Samsung Galaxy S4 on steroids (though it's not made by Samsung).  This Juno is heavy as in solid & rugged.  It impresses as a serious piece of hardware.  Next, the screen.  Lots of screen real estate and sharp as a tack with great resolution and contrast.  As good as most current smartphones.  I was impressed and I left the conference determined to get my hands on one to test.

As luck would have it my friends at NEI were more than happy to oblige.  They loaned me a Juno 5D for a few days as part of a larger hardware test and I got to spend a few hours getting to better know this new beastie.

The hardware specs are available on Trimble's website so I won't regurgitate them all here, but we see improvements over the Juno 3D in two key areas - the CPU, which was switched to a 1 Ghz Texas Instruments processor, and the screen which is a WVGA TFT panel offering 480 x 800 pixel resolution.  I have to assume there's an upgraded graphics processor too.

For those who have experience running either the original Juno S series or the Juno 3 series devices, the improved performance of the Juno 5 is an attention getter.  Finally, a device fast enough to make Windows Mobile so responsive you'd almost think it doesn't suck.  The screen responds to finger gestures just like you'd expect a smart phone's screen to respond.  No stylus needed.  Heck, the Juno 5 doesn't eve come with a stylus!

The two Junos side-by-side.  The screen on the 5D
is not just larger, but the quality and resolution is
exponentially better.

Trimble also put a lot of thought into the case design.  The Juno 3 series devices are well built and water resistant, but the case integrity is highly dependent on a number of rubber plugs that cover all the little ports the thing has - power, USB & patch antenna.  The 5D cleverly reduces the number of ports needing covers by combining the USB and power connector and designing the connector as an uncovered but permanently sealed series of small contact pads.  The layout looks similar to the old serial port connection.  The charger/synch cable has a connector end with a number of small spring loaded contact pins that mate with the contact pads on the device, and the whole thing is secured by two tried and true thumb screws.  I first ran into a similar arrangement with my DeLorme PN-60 GPS.  It's a design that eliminates the possibility of water intrusion and ensures the connection stays tight even under rough conditions like being bounced around in a car.  It works great.

The USB/power connector (on the left).  This 'port' is unprotected simply
because it's weather sealed and doesn't need any protection.

The Juno 5D is a smartphone with a big screen and it runs a number of power hungry applications (like Trimble's TerraSync or ESRI's ArcPad).  It needs a big battery, and the battery accounts for much of this unit's weight.  The battery cover is screwed to the back of the case with 12 miniature Torx head screws, and I'm guessing the manner in which it's attached plays a large part in the Juno's overall ruggedness and water resistance.  Reports are that the 5D has a shorter usable battery life than the 3D.  I believe it.  It's just the nature of the technology.  The 5D is just a more power hungry device.  Based on my limited testing I think you can expect to get at least 4 continuous hours of field data collection out of one of these handhelds before having to go for a recharge.  By the way, Trimble reports that the battery is replaceable, but it must be done by an authorized Trimble repair center.

Rear of the 5D case showing the battery cover
and 8 mp camera with flash

Trimble also gave the 5D an 8 megapixel digital camera with flash.  Compared to the somewhat muddy, low contrast pictures the Juno 3D's 5 megapixel camera delivers this one is pretty good.  Not iPhone good, but still not bad.

So how did it perform in the field?  I ran some simple point feature collection jobs around my office building using ArcPad.  Uncorrected accuracy was as expected - about 5 ft. for those points under open sky.  Running ArcPad on the larger, brighter screen was pretty interesting.  The high screen resolution renders the normally fuzzy low-res ArcPad icons in sharp detail, but they were pretty small as presented on the display.  It took a bit of practice to figure out just where to tap to get them to react.  But once I got that figured out I was off and running.  The 1000 mhz processor allows ArcPad to run pretty snappy, and there was no system lag when choosing to collect a point or move to a different screen. The digital camera is still slow to launch when collecting a photo point, but not anywhere near as slow as on the 3D (which is glacially slow).  Since ArcPad passes the photo collection process over to the Windows Mobile slow, clunky camera interface I don't think we can expect much more of a performance improvement here.

Based on my limited testing I really like this new unit.  It's a clear step up from the Juno 3 series in performance and features.  But it's not perfect...

First, price.  This thing retails for a whopping $1,800.  That is about $700 more that the Juno 3D.  Ouch.  Is the improved form factor, screen size and resolution and faster processor worth an additional $700?  I'm not really sure considering that the Juno 3D is still a very capable device and can do everything the 5D can do, albeit just a bit slower.  Keep this price factor in mind as we move forward in the discussion.

Let's next consider GLONASS, or the lack of it.  Really Trimble?  Really?  Trimble seems to want to position their GLONASS-capable devices towards the premium end of their hardware line.  That may have been an OK marketing move a few years ago, but today just about every smartphone and new consumer GPS coming onto the market is GLONASS capable.  Heck, Garmin's bottom-barrel low price leader, the eTrex 10 (currently selling for $103 on Amazon), has been GLONASS capable for over a year now!  The days of GLONASS receivers being a 'premium' product are long over.  Wake up Trimble.  At this price point I think it's perfectly reasonable to expect the 5D be GLONASS capable.

Next, software.  You pay $1,800 for a very capable piece of GPS hardware but it comes with no native navigation package and the ability to add apps is very limited.  No mapping or navigation software, nothing to casually collect waypoints or GPS tracks with.  Now, I realize this is a 'professional data collector', but it would be nice if Trimble ported one of their consumer-grade iPhone or Android apps over to the Windows Mobile OS and included it free on the device.  TerraSync and ArcPad are great data collection tools, but lousy street navigation tools.  As a geospatial project manager I expect a device with this capability to offer more software features.  There simply is no reason why I shouldn't be able to use it for things like work party navigation and jobsite familiarization, job check-in/check-out, have an eReader for portable document management, etc.

Last, I experienced a few lock-ups on the device while running ArcPad 10, mainly when trying to collect photos.  All of these lock-ups required a system reset, and all collected data was lost.  It seems to me that a firmware or OS upgrade may be in order.  I'd be hesitant to put this device into the hands of work crews until this issue is corrected.

So, is the Juno 5D worth the investment?  Certainly you can get all the functionality of the 5D in the much less expensive 3D.  However, the new smartphone-like form factor of the 5D is very compelling, and the performance improvements it brings to the Juno line mean something in the real world of field data collection: a better form factor, better screen, faster overall performance.  But the shortcomings are glaring and could have been easily addressed by Trimble before they released this device to market.

At the $1,800 price point I think the 5D is worth the investment only if your organization needs the improved performance this Juno provides.

But let's look into the future.  I think the 5D shows us where Trimble intends to take this very successful line of handheld data collectors.   We will never see a new Juno that looks like the 3D.  The smartphone 'experience' is where the field is headed.  From that perspective the Juno 5D is a good first effort.  It's going to be very interesting to see what future versions bring.

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Trimble Fairy Dropped By

And barfed on my desk again...

Actually the good folks at NEI in Atlanta are loaning us some equipment to test for a week or so.   For the past 6 years we've been running Trimble R8 receivers and TSC2 data collectors for GIS data collection (I know, I know, that's like hunting mosquitoes with a bazooka, but it's what we found when we hired on with this little operation).  This combo has been spectacularly successful at the airport and has revolutionized GIS and Civil Engineering data collection.

But these systems are getting long in the tooth and we want to move up to a GNSS capable receiver/data collector combo that offers more versatility.  Rather than go the survey equipment route we are taking a look at some of Trimble's centimeter grade GIS/Mapping systems.  I like the idea of a GIS/Mapping data collector that I can run TerraSync, ArcPad or ArcGIS for Windows Mobile on, picking the application based on project and accuracy requirements.

So today NEI dropped off a GeoExplorer 6000 XH, a Zephyr antenna and a one of the new Juno 5 handhelds for us to play with test.

I'll report back in a week or so on how things go.

(By the way, I really like the screen on the Juno 5.  Compared to the screen on the Juno 3D... well, there is no comparison.  And this sucker is fast and the touch screen is responsive.  Almost makes you forget it's running Windoze Embedded Something-or-other 6.5.)

Friday, May 17, 2013

Around The World On A Cup Of Coffee

My Grandmother was never one to let a good product promotion pass her by.  I think it was part of her fascination with her adopted country.  Where else but in America could you save up a few box tops or clip a few coupons, mail them off and the sponsoring company would send you something free in the mail.  Often these little give-aways would be handed down to one of her grandchildren.  It was always fun to visit Grandma - you never knew what she had waiting for you.  Usually it was just some small trinket from a cereal or soap company.  Occasionally it was something really neat.  One year she gave me and my brother miniature Civil War cannons she got from the Quaker Oats people - you know, the ones that shoot puffed rice out of a cannon.  Those cannons ended up shooting thousands of pretend cannon balls in hundreds of pretend battles we held on our living room floor.  Oh, the pretend carnage!  Even after I was all grown up and in the Army I'd still occasionally get an odd item or two from her.  Bless her heart, she never stopped thinking about us even long after we had left home and struck out on our own.

In the late 70's the Nestle company was running an advertising campaign highlighting the fact that their instant coffee, Nescafe, was the #1 selling coffee product world wide.  It was no idle boast.  Nescafe was (and still is) extremely popular in Europe, and Nescafe is commonly listed as a separate drink option on many restaurant menus.  A lot of Europeans prefer it over brewed coffee.  While I'm no fan of instant coffee I do have to admit that Nescafe is the least objectionable of the bunch.

As part of the promotion Nestle produced a series of small glass coffee mugs emblazoned with a world map.  Nothing fancy, just a highly simplified small scale map with a grid.  My Grandmother got a set and passed them on to my parents.  One day while home on leave my Mom passed along a couple of these mugs to me. At the time I was working as a topographer for the Army and maps were my business, so I thought it was a neat coincidence.  I kept one of the cups on my desk at work and even occasionally drank coffee out of it.  Over time the world map wore off and in a few years I was left with just a bare glass coffee mug so I pitched it.  Some where along the way I lost its twin.  It probably got chipped or broken during one of our many moves while I was in the Army.

Being a lover of all things topographic, even kitschy little glass coffee mugs with world map appliques, I always kept my eye open for replacements.  Last week I was cruising around eBay and decided to do a quick search for 'nestle coffee cup'.  I was surprised at the number of listings that came up for my long lost little mug.  Apparently Nestle had millions of them made and most are still available through eBay sellers.  I found a dealer who gave me a good price on a set of them and a few days later I was the proud owner of four gen-u-ine 1970s vintage cheap cast glass coffee mugs sporting world maps.

I love 'em!

So let's take a quick world tour courtesy of Nestle...

Eastern Hemisphere.  Hey, where's the British Isles?
Interestingly, they included Lake Baikal.

Western Hemisphere.  Florida's been squinched into a vestigial bump
but at least they included Puerto Rico.

Being a topographic geek I note that the far north and far south polar regions are cut off and the grid appears to be square, so I'm guessing it's a Universal Transverse Mercator projection.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

ESRI Southeast User Conference

I just got back from the 2013 ESRI Southeast User Conference in Jacksonville, FL.  Here's my overview of all the key topics presented or discussed at the conference:

ArcGIS Online, ArcGIS Online, ArcGIS Online, Cloud, ArcGIS Online, ArcGIS Online,ArcGIS Online, Hosted Services,ArcGIS Online, ArcGIS Online, Mobile with ArcGIS Online, Cloud, ArcGIS Online, ArcGIS for Desktop, ArcGIS Online, ArcGIS Online, ArcGIS Online, Cloud, Geoprocessing In the Cloud, ArcGIS Online, ArcGIS Online, ArcGIS for Server, ArcGIS Online.

And to wrap it all up: ArcGIS Online.

ESRI, you are sounding like a broken record.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Hands Off Data Collecting With Huey, Dewey and Louie

A few weeks ago I posted a blog discussing how my organization is testing the newest release of ArcGIS for Windows Mobile 10.1.1.  I've started to use the combination of the ArcGIS mobile software and my Trimble Juno to collect walking trail data on a fairly regular basis.  I call it 'development'.  My wife calls it 'playing around.'

Anyway there are three occupants of my house that think my only job in life is to take them outside and entertain them.  They shall rename nameless, but they each have four legs and a tail.  Whenever they see me putting on a jacket or lacing up my boots or tossing things into a backpack they go nuts jumping around, barking and causing general mayhem.  "It's walkie time!"

Now, I don't mind having them along on a walk or hike.  They are generally well behaved.  Unless they see a cat.  Or a deer, squirrel, rabbit, duck, goose, bird, grasshopper, snail, ant or, heaven forbid, another dog.  Other than that they're fine.  Great company.

But managing three dogs and a data collector is all but impossible unless you're an octopus.  I was in a quandary; how do I take these three amigos along on a data collection hike and get everything done?  Well today I had one of those 'duh' moments, as in 'duh, why didn't I think of this before?'  Just launch the collection job on the Juno, toss it into the zippered compartment in the lid of the rucksack (where it sits up high and the internal GPS receiver should have a fairly good 'view' of the sky), hitch up the dogs and start walking!

Launch the data collection job on the Juno and go!

When I started today's walk I wasn't 100% sure how this would work out.  I've carried other GPS receivers in pockets on the shoulder straps of rucksacks before, but I wasn't collecting data with those units.  As I walked the trail my mind was working, thinking up all sorts of configurations and contraptions I might use to improve signal reception.  By the end of the walk I had myself convinced that what I needed was some sort of pole mounted external antenna.  I had it all figured out in my mind - about 4' of quarter inch PVC with a metal plate epoxied to one end and a magnetic patch antenna (which Trimble makes for the Juno) stuck to that, with the antenna cord running down the tubing and connecting to the Juno inside my rucksack.  I could lash the PVC tubing to the side of the pack using the compression straps.  Absolutely, perfectly Rube Goldberg-esque!  Why it was so clever I'd be the envy of all the neighborhood GPS data collecting kids!

Rides nice and high in the pack where signal reception is pretty good!

At the end of the hike I pulled the Juno out of the bag and realized I didn't need all the fancy gadettry I was dreaming up.  The Juno did just fine collecting data while sitting snugly inside the rucksack lid.  It's not a perfect setup by any means; the GPS signal still has to penetrate the bag material and my big fat noggin' blocks a lot of the signals, and it's impossible to stop collecting streaming GPS data to collect point data.  But for hikes like these where I'm just after trail alignments it works fine.  The Juno isn't a survey-grade instrument anyway so some GPS track shift is to be expected, particularly under heavy tree canopy.

"Hey, we really like this data collection thing!"

So how did we do?  Not bad.  I need to clean the data up somewhat and I know that in the future if I'm set up for GPS data post processing I'll get better accuracies, but for now it'll work.  As was said in that classic movie about chronic over-achievement, "That'll do pig."