GNSS & Surveying 2017: The year in review

January 2, 2018  - By
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Another year gone by

As another holiday season passes us by, it is customary to look back at the year and recall the trends, new products and services, and breakthroughs we experienced with the GNSS environment and its effect on the professional surveyor. While 2017 was not filled with groundbreaking instruments and programming, it did provide a good look at what are going to be trends and gamechangers for the near future. From new innovations on GNSS receivers, new UAV platforms, and geospatial advances, it was also a year that saw location spoofing of shipping vessels, trade relations among super powers being tested, and more opportunities to put satellites into orbit from the private sector. Let us look back at what the surveying community experienced with the GNSS industry:

The constellation scorecard

GNSS continued to expand to all reaches of the globe with enlargement of existing constellations along with introductions of several new ones, (see GPS World magazine “The Almanac,” December 2017). The European satellite system, Galileo, has led the expansion with four (4) new vehicles. This joint venture of the European Commission and the European Space Agency was declared operational at the end of 2016 and looks to keep increasing its coverage in the coming years. For surveyors, this means additional redundancy for our positional data. More confirming redundancy translates into increased confidence in our work product.

Next in numbers of vehicles being sent to space is the Japanese effort named Quasi-Zenith Satellite System (QZSS) and operated by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). While their first bird was sent up in 2010, this was the breakout year with three (3) more satellites installed this past year. It is anticipated that the constellation will be operation in 2018 and we can expect most of the GNSS manufacturers to include the positional data from QZSS if they haven’t already built in this capability.

Coming in next are the Chinese with their regional-based system called BeiDou with two (2) more satellites installed in 2017. Their current program is scheduled to have several more vehicles included in the constellation and provide worldwide positional coverage by 2020. With the rapid expansion of China as a world leader, we can anticipate more GNSS developers to work closely with BeiDou as the system becomes more effective on the global stage.

The other world leader, Russia, continues their expansion of GLONASS with the installation of one (1) new satellite in 2017 with plans to upgrade several existing vehicles in the coming years. The inclusion of GLONASS signal reception by survey-grade GNSS receivers has greatly increased the redundancy of data collection, (as mentioned with Galileo). It has also expanded our timeframes in which we can work with reliable positional solutions, thus keeping our downtime to a minimum.

The United States is by no means bringing up the rear in GNSS constellation development but 2017 was a transitional year for the program. A new government administration has led to revisiting our national budget, with the Department of Defense looking to prosper under preliminary plans. While the schedule for constellation expansion have been in place for several years, the installation of Block III satellites has become a higher priority. These satellites will provide higher positional accuracy than previously experienced without any correction signal utilized. This will help the surveyor with better positional accuracies in shorter timeframes and looking forward to its expanded capability.

Once these constellations are operational (with more to come), the ability to record positional locations and attribute data will be greater than ever. A potential challenge to these satellite constellations, however, is the ever-growing fear of potential conflicts between the United States and several countries, including North Korea, Syria, Iran, and Russia. The threat of nuclear war with North Korea could result in our GPS network being shut down to civilians or blocked by an electromagnetic pulse weapon. Cold War tactics with Russia could lead to spoofing or blocking of GLONASS signals that many of our GNSS receivers have become reliant upon. There are alternatives being developed in case our GPS goes away (see “The Day GPS Went Away,” September 2017) but we are several years from having a true secondary option. We will need to keep our fingers crossed we can maintain peace across the globe but do not look forward when something happens and takes our GNSS ability away.

Data mining and the surveyor

One thing that has emerged from 2017 has been the importance of data; where it is housed, how we use it, and what it can tell us about our future endeavors. GNSS has revolutionized the data mining industry with the surveying industry being right in the middle of the fray. Prior articles were published about geolocation (see Geolocation and the surveyor: Looking back to the future) so the rapid expansion of the data collection into most business environments shouldn’t surprise most readers, especially if one reads technical sources like GPS World magazine. The surveying community has watched and experienced the astronomical growth of this data collection in various arenas, none of which was more obvious than the “Geospatial 4.0” initiative at Intergeo 2017 in Berlin, Germany. While summarizing to readers on a trip through the annual conference in the last article (Intergeo 2017: A surveyor’s perspective), it was also here that a bigger picture was coming into focus regarding data and its effect on our world.

While doing homework for this article, the term “Geospatial 4.0” was coined for the 2015 Intergeo conference in Stuttgart, Germany. This term was developed by the conference team regarding the advancing developments in the data world that incorporate geolocation, time, and unlimited information attributes, all while stored in a central location “in the cloud.” This environmental condition exists for most us already, as it is estimated there are three to four billion smartphone users worldwide. The data that is being collected every day is a small part of how our lives and relative actions have become digital snapshots to assist those charged with forecasting and planning of our future cities and environments. Much of this data is being used to advance the places where we live through an initiative called “Smart Cities.” Installation of data collection sensors and control systems in various applications monitor and store information to help make necessary changes to the existing systems. The organizations and municipalities behind this effort are attempting to create better work and home environments with increased efficiency and sustainability.

The professional surveying community plays a big part in the continuing development of geospatial world around us. Our job is not only to collect data for a boundary survey, topographical information for an engineering design, or provide layout assistance for construction; we are also historians in establishing the current positions of required information at a specific point in time. The world around us can move quickly, so providing the precise moment in time when data is collected is sometimes just as important as the location itself. Our role as surveyors becomes even more important as the increased development and implementation of geographical information systems (GIS) emerges within more public and private entities. Where the surveyor previously shunned being included within the collection process and framework of GIS, our profession has become quite efficient at the data acquisition and database maintenance necessary for geospatial success.

The surveyor’s friend in the technical world of geodesy, the geodesist, has not always been an accepted member of the GIS world, either. Once seen as mathematicians stuck in laboratories calculating “perfect world geometric solutions,” the geodesist carries a significant amount of beneficial information to the realm of geospatial data. It has been through their data collection and research that has brought our shifting continents to light and the simple fact our land-based coordinate systems must be modified to change positions as time rolls along. The common theme here is that spatial data comes down to several distinct factors: position, navigation, and time.

PNT (not just another dull government acronym…)

Another big step forward taken in 2017 was the continued implementation of positioning, navigation, and timing, otherwise known as PNT. These three bits of information provide the geographic basis of collected data for any GIS or other environmental study. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation website, here is the definition of PNT:

“…a combination of three distinct, constituent capabilities:

Positioning, the ability to accurately and precisely determine one’s location and orientation two-dimensionally (or three-dimensionally when required) referenced to a standard geodetic system (such as World Geodetic System 1984, or WGS84);

Navigation, the ability to determine current and desired position (relative or absolute) and apply corrections to course, orientation, and speed to attain a desired position anywhere around the world, from sub-surface to surface and from surface to space; and

Timing, the ability to acquire and maintain accurate and precise time from a standard (Coordinated Universal Time, or UTC), anywhere in the world and within user-defined timeliness parameters. Timing also includes time transfer.”

(Source: https://www.transportation.gov/pnt/what-positioning-navigation-and-timing-pnt)

The basis for PNT can be used for any data collection. From fixed monuments utilized by surveyors to any municipal utility installation, the use of PNT now becomes an important part of the GIS database, if not for anything more than simple tracking. By establishing the location of any entity at any given time and comparing its position to an earlier collection, we can determine the navigation of that entity. A good example of PNT and our daily interaction is the satellite navigation systems installed in our phones and vehicles. When we utilize our favorite mapping program on our phone or in our car, we are implementing a PNT system to show us where we are, how fast we are going and help determine how soon we will be getting where we are going. This wonderful practice is being made possible by GNSS data collection and computer processors turning the positional data into useful information.

Surveyors are doing the same thing by the data collection they are performing every day. Any data that is collected by a modern survey instrument is being tagged with two of the main components of PNT; position and time. When the same entity is collected again later, its navigational information can be determined if needed as well. This type of data collection is becoming more apparent with laser scanning and lidar point clouds, as this data can be revisited to determine how much entities within the project area has changed. I foresee a time in the not-to-distant future where much of the Earth is scanned for historical purposes and can be analyzed by future generations for changes. A surveyor could benefit greatly by knowing where a water feature (rivers, creeks, streams, and lake and ocean shores) existed at a specific point in time and how much it has changed over time. Many land boundaries are based upon these water features as natural delineators, so knowing how much title area has changed with the natural movement of a waterway would be very beneficial to the surveyor and how land boundary disputes are handles. Same could be said of buildings and other improvements within developed areas, too. By establishing geospatial data on physical improvements, it could greatly help the surveyor determine historical and future land boundaries by their known location.

The simple fact is that our ability to collect, analyze and retain geospatial information has never been greater than now and only gets better over time. The surveyor now has similar tools to other sciences and technologies, so now is an appropriate time as any to truly embrace geospatial data collection.

UAV’s continuing growth

One market that continues growing at rapid pace is the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) sector. 2017 brought more aircraft innovations and expansion of sensors available for a multitude of data collection purposes. This greatly expanding segment of specialized equipment was quite evident at Intergeo 2017, where over 150 UAV vendors were provided their own space solely for the exhibiting as well as an outside arena for demonstrations. While there are other UAV trade shows that rival in the size, the Intergeo show brings the best vehicles, software and ideas for geospatial data collection and imagery directly to the surveyor’s hands.

Other innovations that are taking shape in the UAV world include larger multi-rotor aircraft with increased payloads, vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) platforms, and a plethora of sensors designed specifically for UAV use. These modules include various methods of lidar for high accuracy scanning, hyperspectral cameras for analyzing plant characteristics, infrared scanners for heat detection, along with camera possibilities that are endless. The main reason to highlight these high-tech applications is simple; these technologies consist of location-based data collection. The surveyor, known professionally as the expert measurer, should make themselves more aware of the rapidly expanding ability to collect data of varying types new to the land surveying field but still relies heavily on accurate and precise measurement methods. The UAV, while still new to many surveyors, is becoming a standard measuring tool in our world. These latest sensors are a result of applying emerging technology for non-traditional surveying clients directly into our wheelhouse. The professional surveyor successfully adapted to new methods and instruments when electronic distance meters, GNSS receivers and laser scanners were introduced, so our profession needs to step up again and take note of what data collection methods and challenges are out there.

Wingtra One in the air. (Photo: Wingtra)

Staying on the subject of surveyors and the UAV, one of the next breakthroughs will be the introduction of affordable aircraft with RTK capability. There are currently several manufacturers of survey-grade UAV aircraft but these are sold at higher price point that is considered out of reach for the typical surveyor. Many have relied on less expensive models in conjunction with their existing RTK receivers to collect physical points or features for use with post-processing software. While not resulting in immediate data for project review, the end product of the post-processed method is quite good and at much lower cost of entry. However, there are times and places where ground control is not available or accessible so flights with photos or scans are not possible. The mainstream UAV manufacturers are taking note of the need for RTK capability and beginning to introduce models with this positional feature, so maybe the tide is turning to lowering the price point for this technology as well. Here is another place the surveyor will need to enter the UAV arena as the long-time RTK expert and utilize the latest technology for expanded data collection purposes. To my fellow surveyors: you’ve been warned, so be ready to get your checkbook out in order to stay competitive.

Survey-grade GNSS receivers

While 2017 wasn’t a breakout year for radically new GNSS technology, it did see its share of minor yet significant improvements. Along with the expansion of existing constellations and preparation for new ones, the technology behind the microprocessor within the GNSS receiver continues to allow for miniaturization and increased speed and accuracy. Several manufacturers are producing survey-grade receivers capable of acquiring hundreds of GNSS signals yet fit in the palm of your hand. Batteries, like most technologies using it, continues to decrease in size yet gain in power-up time. This rapidly shrinking footprint of the GNSS receiver is allowing for placement in more devices and places so the surveyor will need to take advantage of these gains to assist with providing positional and data collection expertise.

A sector of the positioning market that will see rapid increases is the smartphone division. Coupled with the growing GNSS constellations with increasing accuracy signals and more sophisticated computing power programmed specifically for positioning, we will see more smartphones being used for data collection purposes. Google has made significant strides in the customization of the Android operating system to allow for the processing of raw GNSS data to provide positional accuracies beyond the normal smartphone capability. It is safe to say that Apple is likely working on the same type of application for the iOS operating system, so we could see another battle for smartphone supremacy be waged on a highly technical front that surveyors can readily use for their profession.

Another advancement in GNSS technology that will see more in 2018 and beyond will be the use of the inertial measurement unit (IMU) in conjunction with receivers and sensors. Several manufacturers have incorporated IMU’s into their measuring devices to augment the data being collected. The application that has surveyor’s attention is a GNSS receiver with an IMU to record the measurement correlation of the pole tip to the center of the antenna. The IMU has also been configured on various vehicles built for mobile data collection to measure velocities and acceleration to assist with reducing errors within the GNSS measurements by environmental factors. As GNSS receivers continue to evolve and reduce in size, it will also allow for further inclusion of an IMU to help with reduce data errors. Surveyors should take note of these advancements and be prepared to upgrade their equipment and knowledge to stay current with emerging technology and data collection accuracies.

VectorNav’s new Tactical Series includes the VN-110 IMU/AHRS, the VN-210 GPS/INS and the VN-310 dual-antenna GPS/INS.

Into 2018 and beyond…

Some of the items worth watching in the immediate future include:

Autonomous travel

From Elon Musk’s Tesla projects to the Uber/Volvo collaboration with driverless vehicles, autonomous travel will dominate tech news for the next few years. Because these vehicles rely heavily on GNSS positioning in conjunction with road-reading sensors, the focus on the GNSS constellations will stay very much in front of the tech and political worlds. Another portion of the driverless equation is the effective mapping of the roadway system, which come right back into the realm of the surveyor. While we see various mapping vehicles (Google, Apple, and others) out and about digitizing our roadways, the surveyor is the professional entity that is relied upon for the location establishment for existing and future rights-of-way. Our inclusion in mapping these byways is critical to minimizing harm to the public for potential accidents and disasters.

Lightsquared 2.0

The battle over bandwidth several years ago seemed to end with the FCC denying the implementation of ground-based signal amplification by an upstart firm known as Lightsquared. Now with the new administration at the FCC and an atmosphere of deregulation, the firm has rebranded itself as Ligado and is back to try again. Hopefully the same coalition that helped defeat the prior attempt will be back, but with the new ideology running the FCC, all bets are off. The surveyor without GNSS capability (as previous discussed) will mostly be rendered lifeless without it.

Internet of Things (IoT)

Also fighting for bandwidth is a new generation of sensors and monitors being used for a multitude of products and procedures. This movement toward automation is proving to be useful in many environments but is beginning to tax an already overworked data stream. These components are more appropriate in mostly urban areas where broadband coverage is most effective but their implementation in rural America is starting to drive a greater need for more data availability in harder to get places. This push to get more broadband into rural areas will be a wonderful opportunity for those surveyors to complete their projects with similar effectiveness their counterparts in the urban areas already utilize. But the move by the FCC to repeal net neutrality poses a significant threat to that opportunity and equality, so we must wait and see how this plays out as well.

Final thoughts…

While covering a lot of ground here, the main thread is to emphasize the important link between the professional surveyor and the use of GNSS equipment and procedures. Prior to most of the emerging technology, the surveyor was relied solely for boundary determination and not much else. As engineering design became more reliant on detailed topographic surveys, the surveyor increased their responsibility to provide that vital information. As measuring and positional determination has become more complex, the surveyor has adapted to technology and provided that expertise in their duty to protect the public’s interest. Our world is getting more complex every day and we rely on specialized professions for a multitude of tasks. The surveyor can and should be relied upon for tasks discussed herein but making sure both the surveyor and the public knows that is a big key to success. Accurate positioning and reliable measurements requires someone with the knowledge of the subject and technology and the professional surveyor is that someone. To my fellow practitioners; stay involved, advance your education, and continue to be professional.

About the Author:


Tim Burch, GPS World’s co-contributing editor for survey, is director of Surveying at SPACECO Inc. in Rosemont, Illinois. He has been working as a professional land surveyor since 1985, and is the secretary, Board of Directors, National Society of Professional Surveyors.

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