I’ve been expecting one (or more) of the major survey & GIS data collector manufacturers to come out with something like this for some time now. I’m not surprised that Trimble was first out the gate. It’s called the Trimble Leap.
If you understand what’s going on with this new product you realize it’s a fascinating concept. It’s not just a small GPS receiver mated to a smartphone via Bluetooth – that capability has been available for a few years now. What this receiver provides is more advanced GPS signal tracking and the integration of Trimble’s RTX GPS data correction service. Trimble’s RTX service is a virtual reference station (VRS) system that receives GPS data corrections using the smartphones’s cellular data connection. This allows the Leap receiver to provide on-the-fly GPS positional accuracies that are less than 1 meter. Remember sports fans, the best your smartphone or Garmin Nuvi can do is about 15 feet, and that’s on a good day, under open skies, with lots of GPS satellites available.
Keep in mind that the Leap is not a survey grade device. It’s a lower precision field data collection device. The kind of thing a utility company would send a work crew out with to collect manhole locations. For applications like utility data collection, sub-meter accuracy is just fine.
The Leap concept is the next evolutionary step to take smartphones into the high accuracy/precision GIS data collection role. Smarphones are really just small computers with built-in modems, so they are the ideal computing platform for applications like this. However, smartphones have one huge Achilles heel – battery life. An ‘always on’ Bluetooth connection and cellular data connection will suck a smartphone battery dry in just a few hours. This is not a Trimble issue, but something that must be taken into consideration when putting devices like these into the field to collect a day’s worth of data. Better make darned sure you’ve got that in-car phone charger along with you!
There are still a lot of unknowns with regards to the capabilities of this system. Is the Leap receiver GLONASS capable? Does it allow data collection without the RTX connection? What about cost? I’ve read reports that the Leap hardware will run just under $1,000 and the RTX data correction service will be an additional $400/year per device. If you have any understanding of how much RTK compatible GPS receivers cost, and how much a VRS data service costs you will realize that $1,000 for the hardware and $400/year for the data service is a bargain.
Where I think Trimble stumbles is that they have slaved the Leap to their Terrain Navigator Pro (TNP) software. My impression is that TNP is a moribund product and Trimble is trying to breath some life into it by slaving it to a very capable hardware package. My hope is that Trimble quickly migrates the Leap software interface to other products like its own TerraFlex cloud service and even develops a plug-in that allows Leap data streams to be read by products like ArcGIS Online mobile applications.