Review benefits of GNSS rover accuracy

February 22, 2023  - By
Douglas County Public Works needed a GNSS rover to support its UAS operations. The pay-as-you-go option was appealing as they only needed high-precision a few times per month. (Image: Jason Schilling)

Douglas County Public Works needed a GNSS rover to support its UAS operations. The pay-as-you-go option was appealing as they only needed high-precision a few times per month. (Image: Jason Schilling)

This is part II of our III part feature story. Check out part I, Minnesota company develops new system for mapping underground utilities and part III, Robotic total stations add scanning capabilities.

High precision GNSS rovers play a vital role in a broad variety of field surveying and mapping applications. Different users have different value propositions in mind when choosing field hardware and software: expected precision, sources of corrections, configurations for specific workflows, and, of course, cost. Weighing these many considerations, GNSS manufacturers have come up with portfolios of multiple models to fill these varied needs.

That said, GNSS manufacturer Bad Elf took a different approach when it designed its flagship rover, the Bad Elf Flex. The Flex is designed to meet the cost-precision-workflow needs of everyone, from asset mappers to surveyors. (Hence the name “Flex.”) To inform the design of the Flex, Bad Elf listened to field users who wished for a scalable solution in a single rover, rather than having to buy multiple different models, and without breaking the bank.

Options for the Infrequent User

“I had one of the little Bad Elf GNSS surveyor handhelds for many years,” said Jason Schilling, wildlife biologist with Douglas County Public Utility District in central Washington State. “That worked great for rough mapping, between a foot and a meter of precision, and I could connect it via Bluetooth to mapping software on my mobile.”

But this all changed when Schilling began an unmanned aerial system (UAS) program for the utility several years ago.

“I really needed survey-level precision for ground control points to geolocate the images from the UAS,” said Schilling.

He was aware of the high cost of centimeter-precision-capable surveying rovers and it was too big of an investment, considering that he only did UAS mapping a few times a month. As an existing Bad Elf customer on the company mailing list, Schilling learned about the new Flex rover, which offered multiple options, and he found one that seemed quite enticing for the needs of his utility.

Schilling purchased a Flex Standard bundle at a low base price, about $3,000, with the pay-as-you-go plan for high precision. In the standard configuration, the Flex is capable of autonomous positioning (1–5 m), and mapping grade (sub-meter precisions) via free satellite-based augmentation services (SBAS), such as WAAS. But when the user activates a pre-purchased “token,” the full centimeter-precision capability, using external corrections, is enabled.

“On the day of a UAS survey, we turn it on, activate a token from our account, and then we have 24 hours of high precision,” Schilling said. “It costs us $25 per day.”

For two to three UAS surveys a month, this works out to far less over many years than the cost of buying a typical surveying rover.

Correction Sources

For real-time kinematic (RTK) corrections, Schilling connects via NTRIP to the statewide cooperative real-time network (RTN); sometimes in a network RTK mode (such as VRS) or single-base RTK to a nearby reference station on the same network. The Flex accommodates NTRIP connections to RTN or IP-enabled reference stations, but Bad Elf has added even more flexibility for corrections.

In some scenarios there is no access to an RTN or no cell service (needed for NTRIP access). One option in these cases is to add a second Flex, set it up as an RTK base, and connect the base and rover via radios that Bad Elf offers.

Bad Elf has added other options for corrections: the Bad Elf RTK service taps into a nationwide real-time network operated by Point One Navigation. This is accessible via NTRIP in the same manner as regional, state or local RTN, and is offered for a monthly fee. In addition, for situations where there is no RTN or cell service, a global precise point positioning (PPP) service (Atlas) can be enabled on the Flex.

PPP differs from RTK/RTN in that it does not need the dense arrays of reference stations, or cell service to access. Instead, PPP derives very precise clock and orbit data from a global array of tracking stations and delivers this to the Flex via geostationary satellites. After a short convergence time, PPP from the Atlas service will yield 5 –10 cm precision over most of the globe.

The Full Boat

full configuration. Brian Cortese works for the City of Ellensburg, where he uses the FLEX Extreme Bundle for multiple field applications. (Image: Brian Cortese)

Full Configuration. Brian Cortese works for the City of Ellensburg, where he uses the FLEX Extreme Bundle for multiple field applications. (Image: Brian Cortese)

The City of Ellensburg, a college town and farming community in central Washington State, chose the Flex Extreme bundle for about $6,000 — the “full boat” configuration. The Extreme bundle enables all the add-on services all the time, eliminating the need for tokens. In their case, the frequency of use made the higher initial investment worthwhile.

“We have big plans for our rovers,” said Brian Cortese, Engineering Tech/Inspector for the City of Ellensburg Public Works & Utilities.

Ellensburg is a vibrant town that is attracting a lot of new development and it is being proactive in surveying and mapping assets as they are added or replaced.

“We’re recording manholes and valves, sewer systems, storm water systems, irrigation, hydrants — everything that gets built in the city gets as-built surveyed,” Cortese said. “Precise, real-time positioning, it’s been a benefit to us already. We can go out before they work on the subgrade for new developments and take measurements, and then when they finish the subgrade and pave it, we can go back and locate those exact positions.”

Ellensburg uses corrections from the statewide cooperative RTN. In fact, one of the RTN reference stations —also part of the NOAA National CORS Network — is right in the center of town atop the science building of Central Washington University. While the city does a wide variety of surveying and mapping, with the Flex and RTN corrections surveyors get the same centimeter-precision for everything they measure in the field.

“We’ve done design projects with it,” Cortese said. “For instance, we recently took measurements in an area of downtown for a proposal by recording positions and elevations to develop a new park and entertainment area for the community. We are also marking Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) ramps to meet federal specs out in the field — it’s been really handy for so many things.”

Survey-Grade Rover

To serve the full range of precision needs, the Flex had to be designed as a survey-grade rover. It has a full-constellation GNSS and RTK engine: GPS, GLONASS, Galileo, BeiDou, and support for other regional constellations. With more satellites in view, it can perform in sky-view-challenged locations, such as around buildings and under tree canopy.

“Ellensburg is on the Tree City, USA list; our streets are very well lined with a variety of trees, which is also where a lot of our utilities are and development is going on,” Cortese said. “We have been able to get good precisions in and around those trees. Actually, someone on our staff is taking an inventory of the trees with the Flex and loading the data directly into ArcGIS.”

Even in the more rural areas of Grant County that enjoy a lot of open sky, Schilling said, some areas planned for mapping are along upper tributaries and in the hills with a lot of tree coverage. He said the Flex has performed well in those areas.


The Flex offers these options and combinations:

  • Flex Extreme. Full survey-grade rover that can use a variety of correction types.
  • Base-Rover RTK. Two Flex Extreme units connected via radio.
  • External RTN/RTK corrections via NTRIP.
  • Bad Elf RTK Service. Single-tap access to a nationwide RTK corrections service.
  • PPP service. Atlas PPP corrections via L-band geostationary satellites.
  • Flex Standard. Pay-as-you-go high-precision-enabled service using tokens.
  • Static Logging. Observation file logging for post-processing (supported by Flex Extreme).
  • Compatibility with multiple field-mapping software applications.

While many modern GNSS rover systems support one or more options similar to those listed above, Bad Elf’s Flex supports all of them, making it capable of a wide variety of applications.

About the Author: Gavin Schrock

Gavin Schrock is a practicing surveyor, technology writer and operator of a cooperative GNSS network.