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Surveyors and GNSS in 2018 — A look ahead to 2019

January 9, 2019  - By

Calendar pages allows seem to fly by quickly, and 2018 was no different. While many of the items discussed in last year’s review continued to be topics of advancement, there are several new sources of technology, data collection and potential issues for surveyors going into the new year.

Let’s look back at the stories that affected the surveyor and their use of GNSS technology in 2018.

FCC broadband accuracy

The race across America to provide better broadband coverage hit a snag late in 2018 when critics of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voiced their displeasure with the accuracy of maps produced to depict the coverage of broadband access.

These critics are pressuring the FCC to verify internet coverage and speed of data availability in rural areas as reported by the broadband companies.

The FCC unveiled a new broadband map in February 2018. (Image: FCC)

The FCC unveiled a new broadband map in February 2018. (Image: FCC)

These broadband companies are only required to report on the advertised availability and data speeds and not the actual coverage/speed of the installed networks. Critics of the FCC have found that information used from the broadband providers overstates the available speeds and number of internet service providers, thus allowing the FCC to produce mapping of broadband that is not correct.

Because of this incorrect reporting, it is estimated that almost 40 percent of rural America doesn’t have access to broadband data with no formal plan of rectifying this situation. The FCC has stated that they will investigate these coverage maps in order to determine if monies distributed to broadband providers were not used in accordance with the promised delivery of coverage and data speed.

Why does this matter to surveyors? As previously discussed in past columns, the reliance on the real-time network capability of GNSS is one of the biggest time and production savers for the surveyor and for those working in rural America is no exception.

Not just in small towns but out in the open where large parcels are being surveyed for many different reasons, including pipelines, wind and solar installations and title conveyances. By having broadband available use by surveyors, these tasks can be accomplished with shorter timeframes and less steps to keep critical data in compliance with established coordinate systems.

Geospatial Data Act

On Oct. 5, 2018, the Geospatial Data Act (GDA) was signed into law as part of the FAA Reauthorization Act (see Geospatial Solutions, “Geospatial Data Act will bring huge changes to America, and the world“).

While this bill received lots of attention because of the FAA implications, the portion of the bill concentrating on geospatial oversight will have a lasting effect on the governance and development of the national mapping industry.

For many years, the ever-developing amount and sources of geospatial data has been growing within several different agencies of the United States government. This bill was established to help streamline the efforts and availability of geospatial data by assigning specific agencies to oversee the development and introduction of new technologies.

The biggest takeaway from this bill will be the reduction of agencies working on concurrent data sets for public and private use and therefore streamlining the opportunities to introduce newly acquired information into critical programs, (such as FEMA floodplain mapping, GAO asset management, etc.).

Part of the reason I wish to highlight this bill was the efforts of the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS) to keep the state professional licensing laws intact, the use of private sector businesses for providing surveying services, and to keep quality-based selection (QBS) as the primary tool for awarding contracts for procurement services.

Because of the actions and reasoning by NSPS, the authors of the bill withdrew the language that would allow “low bid” opportunities within these contract awards. This influence by NSPS is a prime example of how a profession can influence legislation through our democratic process.

Galileo implementation, Beidou installation, GPS Block III launches

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket orbited the first GPS III satellite on Dec. 23, 2018. (Photo: SpaceX)

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket orbited the first GPS III satellite on Dec. 23, 2018. (Photo: SpaceX)

In November 2018, the FCC opened a new chapter in GNSS observation by approving a waiver to allow GNSS receivers to utilize Galileo transmissions for location determination without a specific FCC license. Traditionally, the FCC would require licensing of public, receive-only GNSS equipment used with any foreign-based systems but worked with several US agencies to create a waiver to allow faster implementation to use the Galileo signals.

It should also be noted that the Chinese government has been rapidly building the latest stage of their own GNSS constellation, the BeiDou system. The United States and China have been promoting cooperation to allow each side to better understand the current workings of GPS and BeiDou, (GPS-BeiDou Statement). China is currently completing its third phase of the navigation system that potentially will surpass the United States GPS constellation in data availability and accuracy, (See GPS World “Directions 2019: BeiDou accelerates global deployment,” December 2018).

Not to be outdone, the U.S. has begun its implementation of their next wave of satellites, the GPS III containing the latest technology, the L1C civil signal, with improved accuracy and anti-jamming programming. On Dec. 23, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket delivered the GPS III SV01 into its intended orbit (SpaceX Launch) with more launches scheduled for additional satellite vehicles in 2019.

These efforts to increase satellite coverage and accuracy will only improve the use of GNSS receivers by surveyors. While I look forward to software and receiver upgrades to take advantage of the newer birds, we still need a backup plan in case of international conflicts and a reduction/discontinuation of GNSS service.

GPS and terrestrial backup

Image: @SENTEDCRUZThe Frank LoBiondo U.S. Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2018, which also included the National Timing Security and Resilience Act, was signed into law on Dec. 4 and directs the Secretary of Transportation to establish a terrestrial back system for the U.S. satellite navigation system within a two-year period (see  “GPS to get terrestrial backup system”).

The bill lays out specific conditions for the backup plan:

  • terrestrial
  • wireless
  • synchronized to UTC
  • difficult to disrupt
  • able to penetrate underground and inside buildings
  • capable of deployment to remote locations
  • expandable to provide position, navigation and timing (PNT), and
  • able to work in concert with similar systems such as eLoran.

However, this bill did not provide any funding for the creation of this system but now allows the introduction of appropriations in future bills and acts. As I have written in past columns (see “The day GPS went away,” September 2017), it won’t be a matter of if but when something happens to our current GNSS capabilities and we need to develop this backup plan yesterday.

Dual-band GNSS cellphones as the new norm

My last submission featured the latest in chipset for cellphones and utilizing dual-frequency GNSS signal reception. Xiaomi, based in Beijing, China, introduced the Mi 8 phone with a dual-frequency GNSS chip in the Spring of 2018 to rave reviews.

This chip frequency reception (E1/L1+E5/L5) is targeted to embrace the Galileo and GPS constellations for increased accuracies (within a decimeter) well beyond the current norm for smartphones (typically 1-3 meters +/-).

Since then, Xiaomi has released the Mi Mix 3 and Huawei has released the Mate 20, Mate 20 Pro and Mate 20 X, all with dual-frequency chipsets. However, all of these phones are not available in the U.S., and the security issues with Huawei has been well documented (CNBC Report, February 2018).

The reason I still bring these up for the surveyor is because soon we will have dual-frequency capability on the phone in our pockets here in the U.S. Such phones can greatly increase efficiencies, especially when used during reconnaissance efforts. I believe many more phone manufacturers will begin to incorporate dual-frequency chips in their future models to increase location accuracies for the users and take advantage of upcoming network enhancements (see GPS World “Dual-frequency GNSS smartphone hits the market,” June 2018.)

Surveyors vs. technology disruptors

The Mi 8 smartphone offers dual-frequency capability. (Image: Xiaomi)

The Mi 8 smartphone offers dual-frequency capability. (Image: Xiaomi)

One of the biggest stories in the surveying world made national headlines after a start-up “GEO-spatial” consultant created by retired bankers was sued by the Mississippi Board of Licensure for Professional Engineer and Surveyors for having “engaged, and continues to engage in the practice of surveying while not licensed by the Board.” (Madison County, Mississippi, Chancery Court.) While the initial suit remained under the national radar, the countersuit by the consultant and subsequent articles in national websites brought the situation to the front page.

The issue at hand is the creation of “plats” combining a legal description for a parcel with a high-resolution photo (captured by various means, including UAV) and depicting said legal description on the photo for use by banks and other financial institutions for risk evaluation. Their argument is that they have “First Amendment rights” to provide public information (the legal description) on a recent aerial photograph in order to provide an exhibit for lenders to review and make loan decisions. Banks are now paying much less in fees to this company for an exhibit instead of a Plat of Survey provided by a licensed surveyor, yet the exhibit provides no assurance (or certification) to its validity and/or any metadata for the represented information.

The subsequent articles by both Bloomberg and Ars Technica writers liken the situation to Airbnb versus hotels and Uber/Lyft versus taxi drivers as a new “disruption in technology” brings forth change to previously licensed professions. In fact, the author of the Bloomberg article stated, “the clients are sophisticated, and they’re not complaining.”

Using this mentality, we could apply it to any licensed profession and allow services normally regulated by laws to be administered by non-professionals, as long as the client “is sophisticated and not complaining.” This means anyone can provide accounting, medical, dental or even law services if the client is satisfied. As previously published here, (see GPS World “Accuracy, precision and boundary retracement in surveying” July 2017), a boundary survey is not simply a mathematical figure from a legal description. It takes a trained person to know how to properly relate a legal description to a physical parcel and professional licensing provides that assurance (and protection) to the public.

This situation falls squarely in the GNSS wheelhouse for surveyors, especially as technology advances and accuracies become smaller with progress, (i.e. GPS Block III, BeiDuo, Galileo, etc.) and the ability to measure with higher positional accuracy, (i.e. Xiaomi Mi 8 and other to follow).

The surveying profession has joked for years that when these technologies do come forward, many unlicensed “professionals” will come forward with their measuring devices (phones) and locate property lines as part of their service.

But for now, it isn’t just the physical location by GNSS measurement we should worry about; it is the high-resolution photo software, GIS data sources and those folks enterprising enough to put all this information together. The surveying profession will need to ramp up its message to public to help better define what the licensed surveyor provides versus the “we can do it much cheaper and faster” stories. More often than not, you get what you pay for.

Data collection advancements

Emlid Reach RS w/ iPad Photo: Tim Burch (SPACECO Inc

Emlid Reach RS with iPad. (Photo: Tim Burch)

While 2018 didn’t see any revolutionary changes to GNSS data collection, several small advances are noteworthy. Besides the previously mentioned dual-frequency cellphones, we are also seeing more integration with the cellphones themselves as data collectors in conjunction with stand-alone GNSS receivers (see GPS World “University research uses smartphones for precision GNSS,” September 2018).

Several of the major survey equipment manufacturers are joining a group of small GNSS start-ups by introducing single- and dual-frequency receivers to work with both Android- and iOS-based phones and tablets for more cost-effective positional solutions.

Another trend that is becoming very popular is the use of post-processing kinematic (PPK) solutions with many of the newest models of multi-rotor and fixed wing UAVs. The early (and expensive) trend of aerial vehicles produced by the major surveying equipment manufacturers insisted on installation of a dual-frequency RTK receiver in order to provide a more robust control system for the orthometric photo process. Because there is still a need to combine the still photos from the UAV flight via various “stitching” software, the need (and expense) of RTK within the receiver, while a nice feature, has become overkill for most aerial needs. However, there are times and applications when a fixed-RTK location could be useful, especially during emergency situations when needing to utilize the UAV for live streaming purposes.

Propeller Aeropoint w/ DJI Inspire 2. Photo: Brian Kravets (SPACECO Inc.)

Propeller Aeropoint w/ DJI Inspire 2. (Photo: Brian Kravets, SPACECO Inc.)

The last big trend to gain popularity comes from Propeller, a young tech company from Australia that provides both a control point product and data reduction/reporting service. Their revolutionary ground control point (GCP) target, the Aeropoint, is becoming a very popular item for UAV pilots worldwide. These 24-inch (61-CM) square foam targets contain a single-frequency GNSS receiver that collects RINEX data while performing your UAV flight. Spread these targets around your site, setup and perform your survey, then download the target data to the Propeller app on your phone/tablet. The app automatically uploads the data to the company’s site and processes the geographical location for each target into your chosen coordinate system. It truly is that simple and the Propeller folks have made it easy to use. Their online software, Propeller Platform, is also available for photo/data processing and site analysis/visualization/volume computations. They, too, are now teaming with DJI to offer PPK solutions combining Aeropoint data along with Phantom 4 RTK photo data in a convenient, streamlined process.

For 2018, our firm (SPACECO Inc) expanded our UAV program in several ways to take advantage of these trends. First, we been using the Emlid Reach RS single-frequency GNSS receiver utilizing a Bluetooth connection to an iOS-based tablet to GCP’s for our UAV program. The receiver’s low cost and ease of use with an RTN network has been a pleasant change from typical surveying equipment. We also use Propeller’s Aeropoints in locations where the RTN coverage is not readily available. For sites that are substantial (typically 300 acres+), we often send our data to the Propeller Platform for photo stitching and data reduction to take advantage of their computing power.

WingtraOne. Photo: Brian Kravets (SPACECO Inc.)

WingtraOne. (Photo: Brian Kravets, SPACECO Inc.)

Lastly, we wanted to expand our fleet of quad-rotor UAV’s to include a fixed wing model for larger sites. A visit with the Wingtra crew at InterGeo 2017 in Berlin convinced me that a vertical take-off and land (VTOL) model would be a great addition, so we took delivery of our WingtraOne this past summer. The ease of use and amount of project space the Wingtra can cover was already great but we’ve added the PPK module to reduce the amount of GCP’s necessary, especially in inaccessible areas. All these additions to our survey department (carefully vetted and purchased; no freebies from any of the manufacturers!) have provided new ways to expand our services to our clients and allows us the opportunity to enjoy what we do along the way. It is my pleasure to report from personal experience that these trends are solid and will continue to increase our abilities and productivity for days to come.

What’s next for 2019?

Some of the items I see gaining traction in 2019 will include additional sensors for UAV’s (LiDAR, hyperspectral, infrared), continued improvement in cost effectiveness of laser scanners and LiDAR, increased interest in SLAM (simultaneous localization and mapping) technology and, of course, more geolocation services tied into autonomous vehicles/delivery. Will 2019 be the year Amazon drops my packages by UAV at my front door? As fast as these technologies are developing, I wouldn’t bet against it.

About the Author: Tim Burch

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