Having geospatial foresight

At a surveying industry convention several years ago, I overheard a conversation between a surveyor and a representative from a major manufacturer. Seeking ideas and insights, the manufacturer’s rep asked, “What kind of tools will you need a few years from now?” The surveyor replied simply, “Whatever you are selling.” The answer was a jaw-dropper; the surveyor was willing to let new technology guide his business.

Today, the conversation is much different. The geospatial business is no longer steered by technological developments. Instead, rapidly changing needs and practices of geospatial professionals are driving the emergence of new technologies and solutions. If the question was asked again today, it would be, “Who are your clients and what are you doing for them?”

The answer to this question now involves providing geospatial information and analysis to people who often are far removed from the project site. It illustrates a shift in the industry that stems from the ever-widening cross sections of people who are becoming aware of the value of geospatial data.

The pervasive presence of geospatial information — Google Earth, vehicle navigation systems, smartphones and location-based services to name a few — is having a big effect. Today’s geospatial-savvy clients are requesting comprehensive data, sophisticated deliverables and rapid delivery. In order to provide the tools needed to meet these requirements, geospatial business is evolving and expanding to provide services that go far beyond the traditional role of basic positioning and measurement.

Adapting to economic realities

Much of the change in geospatial business is a result of external factors. Economic variability, driven by the big drop in prices of oil and natural gas, has changed the work profile for geospatial professionals who have long serviced those industries. Geospatial service providers that once focused on oil and gas may shift to working for clients such as utilities or transportation that have needs and processes similar to the energy producers.

As price pressure continues, firms are seeking new ways to do old tasks. As an example, consider the work required to collect as-built data on oil and gas pipelines. By using a Trimble V10 imaging rover prior to backfilling the pipe trench, crews can measure the location of welds and fixtures and simultaneously capture images of pipe markings and surrounding conditions. The process is faster and produces more complete data than previous methods that combined written inspection notes with GNSS or total stations.

Government actions also have an impact on geospatial business. Changes in regulatory environments affect transportation, utilities, energy and natural resources, and construction. In many cases, new laws can open opportunities for professionals. For example, numerous regions, including the U.S. and Europe, are mandating improvements for safety in highway and rail transportation. The new regulations will drive the creation of extensive databases on the location and condition of roads, track and supporting facilities. Onboard sensors for position and vehicle status will provide real-time information to support safe, efficient operation of trains and trucks. Other actions, including tightened environmental regulations at both the national and local level, can spur increased activity in GIS, mobile mapping, aerial photography and remote sensing, as well as image processing, photogrammetry and analysis.

These factors have led to transformational changes in the way work is done in the geospatial industry. And the rates of change are not slowing down. Advances in geospatial technologies have concentrated on two areas: (1) Increasing flexibility and productivity in collecting and utilising geospatial data; and (2) Deep integration of geospatial information throughout an organisation’s work processes.

Here are some examples:

Flexible solutions for changing needs

The effect of advances in computing and communication technologies on geospatial business cannot be overstated. Cloud-based services provide exceptional flexibility in data management, processing and sharing. These capabilities can be applied to services ranging from land and property surveys to transportation corridor planning, utility operations, energy, natural resources, municipal governments and many more. Geospatial field work is also impacted by wireless Internet access. In addition to supporting rapid information exchange, Internet technologies enable correction services such as Trimble RTX to provide precise positioning over large areas.

Other developments are enabling geospatial professionals to grow and diversify. This can be efficiently achieved by integrating new technologies into existing tools and workflows. For example, a firm that has focused on property and construction surveys might recognise an opportunity to use 3D scanning to provide more detailed information to its existing clients. Because the scanning process melds with other, already-familiar survey workflows and software, the firm can add scanning capabilities with minimal disruption to its existing practices. In addition, solutions such as Trimble Edgewise software provide semi-automated workflows that greatly enhance productivity in complex 3D modeling processes.

Advances in technologies have helped to reduce the distance between field and office, and between the geospatial professional and the end user. Information that once came with lead times of days or weeks can now be gathered and delivered in hours. For example, imaging via terrestrial rovers or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) collects comprehensive data that can be quickly processed using desktop software and merged with information from LiDAR and GNSS. Positioning data is complemented by rich attribute information that is captured using devices ranging from rugged, survey-grade field computers to employee-owned smartphones.

The methods of delivery are changing as well. Software for visualisation, modeling and analysis provides concise views of complex situations, enabling organisations to streamline their decision and management processes. By using cloud-based services, stakeholders can access, identify and extract information specific to their requirements. The cloud also presents new opportunities to manage and distribute geospatial information. Geospatial professionals can use online services such as the Trimble Data Marketplace to obtain data and store data for projects. They can also use the marketplace to produce revenue by offering their information to other users.

Integrating data for new clients and applications

Looking ahead, we can expect to see a broader application of geospatial technologies by non-traditional users. Sub-metre, decimetre and — yes — centimetre positioning is becoming widely available for use in vertical workflows executed by professionals with varied levels of geospatial expertise.

For example, many law enforcement agencies use specialists with well-developed skills in survey data collection. The specialist gathers detailed data on accident or crime scenes, typically using a total station, tapes and cameras to capture the scene. The work often requires lengthy closures to protect the scene until it can be fully documented.

By comparison, consider a simple image-based system that can be carried in the back of every police car. With minimal training, an officer can use a device such as the Trimble V10 imaging rover to gather the information about an accident scene, significantly reducing the duration of road closures while ensuring complete data collection with centimetre precision. Dedicated software guides the officer through the steps needed to collect comprehensive, reliable information.

There are many more examples of what can be accomplished by putting positioning and imaging technology into the hands of more people. In most cases, dedicated applications call for unique data and workflows. Specialised requirements can often be addressed by customising existing solutions. More and more, application developers will have access to tools, including positioning services, GNSS receivers and software development kits (SDK). They can take geospatial tools and combine them with their own domain knowledge to create effective solutions that serve a particular area or vertical segment.

Geospatial technologies are also moving into the Internet of Things. Positioning systems such as GNSS and inertial measurement units will be part of a broader hierarchy network of sensors, control devices and user interaction. Positioning and visualisation technologies, already a critical component in autonomous vehicles, will expand into other applications in transportation. Freight haulers, for example, can use Internet-connected sensors for position, temperature and other data to track the location and status of perishable cargo.

Beyond the data

Technological changes can alter the relationships between geospatial professionals and their clients. We should expect increased interaction with clients as geospatial data is delivered deeper into client organisations. While geospatial professionals are interested in the data collection process, our clients may not care about the technologies used to gather data. As long as the information is correct, on-time and in useable forms, they are satisfied.

The value of information that a geospatial professional delivers is directly related to its ability to inform and advance decision and operational processes. This value can best be realised through effective modeling, visualisation and analysis of geospatial data. By focusing on the end uses, geospatial professionals will be in a position to cultivate relationships with their clients built upon long-term satisfaction and mutual benefit.

Ron Bisio, Vice President at Trimble