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GNSS & Surveying 2017: The year in review

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.

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.

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.
s 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.

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.


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