Leadership Talks: Interview with Gareth Gibson, Trimble

June 27, 2022  - By

Precision at Any Level

Business Model Enables Mass Adoption of Product with Service

In September 2021, Trimble released its DA2 GNSS receiver with Trimble Catalyst service. I asked Gareth Gibson, the company’s marketing director, Mapping & GIS Solutions, about the product and recent developments in GNSS-enabled mapping.

When I started in this business, more than 20 years ago, we used to divide GNSS receivers into three categories, broadly speaking: consumer grade, resource grade, and survey grade. Are those distinctions still useful?

The survey world and the mapping world have been coming together over the last 20 years or so. Probably Jack Dangermond was one of the first people to publicly acknowledge that. Surveying is an ancient profession whereas mapping and GIS, as an industry, has evolved much more recently. The techniques and the expectations of precision and the complexity of the workflow coming from the survey side has always been somewhat at odds with what the mapping world has been trying to achieve, so the products and the tools of these industries were quite different.

The Trimble DA2 receiver boosts the performance of the Trimble Catalyst GNSS positioning service. (Photo: Trimble)

The Trimble DA2 receiver boosts the performance of the Trimble Catalyst GNSS positioning service. (Photo: DroneWorks)

However, there has been a blurring of the lines. Today, the capabilities of mapping-grade GNSS systems are no different from those that can be used in the survey industry as well. Catalyst is an example of that. However, the focus is much more on ensuring that the technology gets out of the way. Let the technology vendor take care of the hard parts, to make it work in the environments where it needs to work, and to make sure it operates with the software that allows the mapping user to focus on the job, with less complexity. We’ve reached that point where it’s difficult to distinguish the capabilities of a survey-grade receiver from those of a mapping-grade receiver. Technically, there’s very little difference.

You can think of Catalyst as renting the performance of the receiver to enable the work to get done. The convergence of technology is enabling the business model transformation, and the business model transformation is aiming to better address the needs of the user. The types of services that these tools enable, the methods with which these tools communicate with homebase and with the vendors—licensing systems, platforms and so forth—have reached a point of enabling delivery of products as a service. That is a good thing because customers are not interested in owning a product as much as they are in getting to the solution that they need.

So, the focus switches from “How do we deliver this product?” to “How do we best deliver this service and the solution?” Catalyst attempts to do that by delivering, in effect, positioning as a service. You are not buying a piece of hardware; you are purchasing the capability to generate and use high accuracy within your workflow to get your job done. That shifts the focus from upfront expense to delivering positioning as an operational cost.

What does the DA2 with Trimble Catalyst service enable that was not previously possible?

It enables the mass deployment of precise GNSS across organizations with tens or hundreds or even thousands of workers. They can now benefit from adding GNSS technology to their work where it was previously prohibitively expensive, too complicated, or simply incompatible with their workflows. Catalyst and the DA2 is enabling that through the business model, which we have employed for the technology, and through the technical capabilities of the platform, which has reached a point of being much easier to be mass adopted across organizations.

The significant change that we’ve made with the DA2 was the addition of support for Apple-based devices. The norm now is to use the phone or the tablet that you have in your pocket, as opposed to purchasing dedicated equipment, especially as it relates to the group of workers we would describe as the location-enabled workforce. These are people typically who are not trained surveyors or GIS professionals but are performing a function with an organization and location-enabled workflows. Software applications are just part of their toolkit for their day-to-day work. It does not make sense to equip these teams with very expensive and complicated equipment, but the functionality that the equipment can provide can unlock some areas of productivity that would have otherwise been inaccessible to them.

What are the remaining technical challenges to mapping for GIS and asset management applications?

The nut that we’ve cracked is enabling precision at almost any practical level, using GNSS, anywhere around the world. We continue to strive towards having access to that level of precision in any environment. There’s a limit to what can be achieved with GNSS alone. So, we start to see more and more the use of combined technologies, different data and sensor fusion. People are leveraging different parts of the technology jigsaw — what is available on their phones, what is available from external sensors, and what they can do with the raw data they are capturing, either directly within a piece of software on their mobile device or somewhere in the cloud, to make better use of the raw information that has been captured.

The second major area is the merging and connecting of workflows, not just the types of data that these organizations are capturing. Organizations are working with field teams, all that data coming together and being able to be used in a toolbox to enable different types of work to get done. In the past, things have been a lot more siloed. Now, technology is enabling us to work together in more clever ways. It is easier to share information.

“The nut we’ve cracked is enabling precision at almost any practical level, using GNSS, anywhere around the world.”

Is accuracy the only difference between surveying and mapping?

For surveyors, the primary deliverable is location. The historical basis of that industry is all about being able to capture and work with information in the most precise way possible. In the mapping world the focus is more on the information that’s being captured about that position, and its precision is just another attribute. That has helped to change our perspective on the relative importance of precision as part of the workflow and has driven us more towards trying to simplify the way that location is captured in a mapping workflow.

Our goal is to capture the most accurate position and to simplify the process for the user. We’ve tried to automate such things as the choice of correction service so that it’s a much more approachable technology and the user can focus on their area of expertise, which is the collection and designation of the mapping attributes.

What are the components of the Trimble Catalyst solution?

There are two elements to Catalyst. One is positioning as a service, enabled through a subscription. The other is the GNSS antenna. The latest generation of that is the DA2. We have made some changes to the DA2 to enable some better functionality and broader applicability. Without a high-quality antenna, there’s only so much that you can do with GNSS. Our focus with DA2 was to make the antenna component of the solution as small and lightweight as possible, but as high performance as possible. We’ve enabled that through a combination of very clever engineering.

The physical structure of the antenna is quite different from that of any other antenna that we build within Trimble. The idea to make it simpler, lighter and lower cost influenced almost every design decision that went into how that antenna is built — from how it fits and mounts with varying carrying solutions to how it is powered. In the first version of Catalyst, we had this notion of running the GNSS receiver as software inside using a computer that was freely accessible and available to every user without needing to burden the antenna itself and create a smart antenna. We said, “Well, if we can deliver GNSS by software, let’s leverage the computing power of the user’s phone or tablet.” So, we took the Catalyst GNSS receiver engine and ran it as an app on a phone.

The Trimble DA2 receiver boosts the performance of the Trimble Catalyst GNSS positioning service. (Photo: Trimble)

The Trimble DA2 receiver at work. (Photo: Trimble)

There were some limitations with that approach. We needed to have a fully cabled solution between the antenna and the phone to enable the required bandwidth from the antenna to the software itself, which required a USB connection and put a fairly heavy computational burden on the phone. However, that enabled us to strip out a lot of the excess weight and complexity from the antenna design, which lowered the cost of the antenna. It was a trade-off decision.

With the DA2 we’re acknowledging those changes, plus the limitations that are imposed by wanting to be compatible with the Apple environment of devices. We can still create a very low cost and lightweight computing package to run this same engine in software, but just move that computing resource back into the antenna again. So, it’s still a software defined receiver—effectively a completely different technology from what you would find on a typical hardware receiver.

We have added a wireless radio to allow GNSS positions to be communicated back to your phone or your tablet via Bluetooth. So, DA2 is a lot more versatile because it enables iOS device usage and wireless transfer information from the antenna to the phone or tablet.

Now, how do you make that work as a package to deliver high-precision results? You need access to correction services and a definition of how you want the receiver to behave based on a business model of what consumers are charged. That’s where the subscription component of the Catalyst service comes in. With Catalyst, we want to simplify the way that customers choose what they want and how they get it.

So, rather than purchasing a specific hardware configuration, figuring out what correction services to use, and how to configure them, you simply subscribe to whatever your required performance level is, and Trimble handles the rest. Each subscription is time-based, so it could be annual, monthly, or even hourly. It is a completely managed system that works everywhere in the world.

What are the options for receiving the corrections?

The DA2 supports delivery of corrections over the internet or through the antenna itself — so, in an offline or an online environment. Catalyst uses Trimble’s dedicated correction services, so Trimble VRS Now, which is available in parts of North America and most of Western Europe, as well as Trimble RTX, which is available everywhere in the world and is also delivered by internet or by satellite L band. Globally or regionally available augmentation systems such as EGNOS and WAAS, and those smaller systems for DGPS-type positions, are also used where it’s necessary as a fallback option.

The receiver will choose what correction service it needs to use based on the user’s subscription level and the environment in which the receiver is currently operating. It knows where in the world it is and which license type the user has, so it will try to use the best available source without the user needing to really think about it. The user just specifies to which precision level they want to subscribe — such as one centimeter or 10 centimeters — and the receiver figures out the rest. Catalyst also supports those customers who have their own correction services and want to use it. In most cases, however, that’s not necessary.

Does the current version of Trimble Catalyst differ from the previous version in any other way?

With the latest generation of Catalyst you no longer need a high-end phone to run the service because we have removed the reliance on USB to deliver the data from the antenna to the controlling device. Now, you can effectively do all the computation in the antenna and use Bluetooth for data transfer, which makes it a bit more versatile. Additionally, we have introduced a handle that allows you to use the DA2 in a handheld format that also stores a battery pack.

The biggest leap was certainly the addition of iOS support. After releasing the DA1, we quickly realized that it was not addressing your needs if you were not an Android user it. In North America, more than 70% of business organizations prefer Apple to Android. So, this improvement has more than doubled our addressable customer base. It’s also for those mixed fleet organizations that did not adopt Catalyst because they did not want to have one solution for their Android users and a different one for their iOS users.

What markets and applications are you targeting with it?

We’ve been pleasantly surprised by the response to DA2 and the types of customers that we are seeing. We define our customers in four buckets. One consists of small, independent, non-geospatial businesses, which is a new area for us—the geospatially enabled workforce, people who are using applications that have a location component, who previously would not have been able to justify the purchase of dedicated and expensive equipment. In this bucket I would put landscape gardeners for example, or golf course designers or people who now can create a map much more easily and effectively.

Another consists of consultants and contractors. These are organizations small and large doing geospatial contract work. They are specialists who get sent out into the field to either do mass data collection projects or to consult and provide professional services with a geospatial bent. These are much more traditional customers; they know a little bit more about the technology and what they’re doing. For these customers, Catalyst is a new tool. It enables them to deploy GNSS more broadly across their organizations.

Then there are the sort of organizations and businesses that run their own teams and perhaps have their own GIS department and a field crew dedicated to operating and maintaining the GIS. But they also have the field operations groups, who aren’t geospatially savvy or aren’t geospatial professionals. They’re starting to deploy GNSS across their teams more effectively, as well, because Catalyst is the type of tool that you can keep in the glove box of your car and have available to use at a moment’s notice. So, utilities, municipalities, public works organizations and the like, large federal government agencies in the United States especially.

Finally, the owners of large infrastructure assets, privately owned organizations running ports or oil and gas operations. Again, this is an attractive solution for them. We’re finding that this solution will enable us to address the full range of the market much more effectively.

About the Author: Matteo Luccio

Matteo Luccio, GPS World’s Editor-in-Chief, possesses more than 20 years of experience as a writer and editor for GNSS and geospatial technology magazines. He began his career in the industry in 2000, serving as managing editor of GPS World and Galileo’s World, then as editor of Earth Observation Magazine and GIS Monitor. His technical articles have been published in more than 20 professional magazines, including Professional Surveyor Magazine, Apogeo Spatial and xyHt. Luccio holds a master’s degree in political science from MIT. He can be reached at mluccio@northcoastmedia.net or 541-543-0525.