Brunton Pocket Transit Brochure

Let’s continue our conversation about the Brunton Pocket Transit.  In the past we’ve talked about how useful the pocket transit is, some of the different models available, and I’ve touched on some Brunton-related web resources.

So today let’s take a look at a small brochure that William Ainsworth & Sons (the manufacturers of Brunton pocket transits for most of the 20th Century) used to make available to pocket transit customers.  This particular little booklet was published in 1929, but the illustrations look somewhat older than the late 20’s, so I’m guessing this is a reprint of an earlier brochure.  The brochure is small – just a bit larger than a 3″ x 5″ index card and it’s only 21 pages.

It’s an extremely useful little book, because it covers in some detail the different ways you can use the pocket transit, whether it’s shooting azimuths, reading horizontal or vertical angles, tracing a mineral vein or using the instrument as a clinometer or a plumb.

There’s even instruction on how to use the pocket transit in conjunction with the ‘Wilson Magnetometer Attachment’, a real Rube Goldberg device that is intended to be mounted to a plane table to measure large anomalies in magnetic intensity found in mineral bearing rock formations.  I’ve never seen a Wilson Magnetometer in person, but I’m keeping my eye out for one!

There’s a lot of useful info stuffed into these 21 pages and I thought it important to make the booklet available to the collector community.  You can click here to download the pamphlet as a PDF file (about 1.6 mb).  You can also access the individual pages as images by clicking here to access my Picasa site.

So you Brunton fans out there, enjoy!

Update!  Just today I was doing a Google search on a topic related to Brunton pocket transits and I ran across an interesting booklet titled “Enterprise & Innovation In The Pikes Peak Region” published in 2011 by the Pikes Peak Library District.  In the booklet is a very informative article about David W. Brunton, the inventor of the Brunton Pocket Transit.  There’s a very good discussion about the development of the pocket transit.


Mea Culpa

The Apple iPad.  It created an entire market.  Before the iPad there was nothing.  After the iPad there was true mobile computing, the freedom of the always on, always available device, the one-swipe window to the world wide web.  Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS, and the concept of ‘the app’ redefined functionality on computing devices – small, focused applications highly optimized to a tightly integrated hardware and operating system platform, a platform that brooked no abnormal behavior and assured a commonality of user experience across the software application spectrum. It didn’t matter if you were running Angry Birds or a medical diagnosis tool, the touches, taps, swipes and pinches accomplished the same basic end in all apps. That was the genius of the iPad – an extraordinarily high degree of consumer satisfaction via the enforcement of rigid standards.  It’s amazing that a borderline anarchist like Steve Jobs was able to convince legions of slavish fans and, more surprisingly, customers in whole new market segments, that the way to ‘be a rebel’ was to develop for, buy and use some of the most restrictive hardware and software ever brought to market.

Amazing indeed, and it worked!  The iPad and other iOS devices (iPhones, iPod Touches) have revolutionized how many companies operate and opened up new markets and business opportunities, some of which simply didn’t exist before the iPad arrived.  So it is with GIS.  Steve Jobs and Apple didn’t intentionally set out to create a geospatial hardware platform that is having a huge impact on my industry, they just created the development opportunity that permitted others such as ESRI to see the potential of the device and develop software to exploit that potential.  Beginning several years ago ESRI developed and steadily improved a small collection of applications that leveraged GIS data and services residing in their proprietary ‘cloud’.

Over the past few years whenever anyone in my organization came to us and asked what tablet they should buy for mobile GIS our reflexive answer was (and still is), “get an iPad”.  The choice made perfect sense.  While ESRI also develops apps for other mobile operating systems – Android, Windows Phone, even Blackberry and the old Windows Mobile (aka, Windows CE) – ESRI today first develops against Apple’s iOS.  The reasoning is simple – iOS has been stable for a long time and with it’s tight ties to a relatively small selection of Apple-only hardware it is fast and easy to build stable, well functioning apps.  No so with the other operating systems, which seem to change almost weekly and are deployed on a bewildering array of hardware platforms.

(Some time ago I queried one of ESRI’s developers about why they focus first on iOS and his comment was classic, “Brian you have to understand, iOS has been stable for about two years.   Android’s been stable for about two weeks.”)

But what about the other players in the same market segment, particularly Android?  When we first started testing GIS apps on tablets at TATSNBN (The Airport That Shall Not Be Named) we wanted to be as hardware and operating system agnostic as possible.  We really didn’t know what our IT department was thinking about selecting for use across the airport.  One week the rumor was Apple, then the smart money shifted to Galaxy Tabs, then it was (just shoot me now) HP tablets running their mobile OS, then later the meme shifted to the new Microsoft Surface running Windows RT.

Early on I managed to get my hands on a Samsung Galaxy Player 5 running Android 2.3.  The hardware was actually pretty good – a 5″ mini-tablet that seemed to offer a lot of potential.  The Player 5 was Samsung’s answer to the Apple iPod Touch and it came in at about half the price.  I really liked it.  Too bad Android sucked.

Samsung Galaxy Player 5
Sadly it’s no longer in Samsung’s lineup

By this time I had a lot of experience with the iPad and iOS.  I was using my personal iPad at work to test these GIS apps and my family members were heavy users of both iPads and iPhones.  I had a deep understanding of iOS and the user experience it delivered.  By comparison Android 2.3 was a kludge.  Now, Android 2.3 wasn’t a bad OS. Far from it.  I had a number of coworkers who were perfectly happy with their Android smart phones and tablets.  If iOS had never been developed I’d have been singing the praises of Android 2.3 with an exalted voice.  But iOS did exist, and by comparison Android 2.3 sucked. It was complex, counter-intuitive and difficult to learn and manage. It’s easy to see why Apple swept all before it.

Eventually a limited number of airport-owned iPads made it into the hands of employees in our business units, and life was good.  We only had to worry about supporting one platform.  But then something happened.  Android came a-calling once again.  As word got out about the usefulness of our mobile GIS services an increasing number of employees at began asking if we could recommend a specific Android device that they might buy themselves for use at work. We tried to steer them towards iPads but many balked at the premium prices Apple demands for their products.  They wanted to test a cheaper Android-based alternative.

My old observations about Android 2.3 resurfaced and I felt uneasy recommending any Android tablet. However, in the intervening two years Google had become more aggressive with Android and had even introduced their own line of mobile devices.  The specs on the Google Nexus 7 tablet released in 2013 looked particularly good. GPS/GLONASS, 5mp camera, digital compass, accelerometer, wi-fi, long battery life and a high resolution screen indicated that it would make a pretty good mobile GIS unit. Another bonus is that it was priced at less than half the cost of an equivalent iPad Mini.  But it was still an Android device.  The Nexus 7 tablet was running Android 4.3 (later updated to Android 4.4), the most current version of the OS.  Reviews on the web gave it high marks, but most of the reviewers were long established Android fanboys so I had to take their observations with a grain of salt.  Still, the capabilities vs. price comparison was compelling and many of the reviewers had a good point in that the Nexus line of tablets are Google’s own flagship devices and therefore will always be running the most up-to-date and stable version of Android.  I decided to give the Nexus 7 a try.

Well, four months into the evaluation I’m here to tell you that not only is the Nexus 7 running Android 4.4 good, in many ways it’s better than the iPad!  So good in fact that I recommend it over iOS devices to people with no other ties to the Apple ecosystem (for example, folks who don’t already have an iPhone or iPod and who might like to take advantage of cross-device syncing).

What makes it so good?  It comes down to the old car salesman’s pitch: price, performance and features.

  • Price – we’ve already covered this one.  The Nexus 7 comes in at about half the price of a comparable iPad.
  • Performance – fully as good as any of the iPad’s I’ve used.  There may be differences in processor speeds, camera features, touch screen responsiveness, battery life, etc. but in the world of real use testing I see no difference between the Nexus and the iPad.
  • Features – when you match the Nexus and iPad up feature for feature you realize that the Nexus matches the iPad in most areas and even beats it in a few others. The best example is GPS.  The Nexus 7 comes standard with integrated GPS/GLONASS.  If you want this same feature on an iPad you have to pay an additional $100 because only the more expensive data plan-ready iPads have integrated GPS.  This is my biggest complaint about the iPad because it makes the basic (non-GPS) units all but useless as geospatial data collectors.  Apple sees GPS integration as a ‘premium’ feature while the rest of the mobile world sees it for what it is – a commodity feature.
With Nexus 7 you get GPS.
Can’t always say that about the iPad!

I do have to give the nod to the iPad in a few areas.  First is build quality.  Apple’s build quality is always top-tier, and the build quality differences between the iPad and the Nexus 7 are obvious.  The Nexus is manufactured by ASUS and it feels exactly like what it is – a plastic bodied tablet.  While the ASUS build quality is very good it in no way matches the solid industry leading build quality and feel the iPads are known for.   But consider this – if I drop my iPad mini and break it I’ll stand there and cry, bemoaning the loss of my $530 jewel.  If I drop and break my Nexus 7 I’ll just go order a new one.

The Nexus 7 makes a pretty good Collector for ArcGIS platform

Next is screen resolution.  OK, the Nexus is no slouch.  In fact it’s pretty darned good – real good considering the price of the unit.  Google put a lot of time and effort into getting the screen right, and it shows.  But Apple’s current Retina display is the industry leader for a reason. It can’t be beat in terms of resolution, clarity, color fidelity and brightness.  Do you give anything up by going with the Nexus?  No, not in real use terms, but Apple has the clear lead here. The screen is just better.

But at the end of the day do these differences matter?  No, not really.  Because here’s the real deal maker – the current version of Android, version 4.4, is damned good. From a user experience perspective it has moved way beyond the clunky fanboy experience that was Android 2.3.  I’ll anger the legions of Apple fans in my family and state that Android 4.4 is as good as iOS 7.x.

After my Android 2.3 experience I was expecting to have to deal with an immature, techie focused operating system.  I was impressed to find instead a stable, mature, feature rich operating system that makes this a serious business tool.  A large part of the improvement is Android 4.4’s tight integration with Google’s cloud computing environment, including Google Drive, GMail and Google Docs.  In my opinion Google just has a far better implementation of these services and features than Apple does with its comparable products such as the iWorks suite.

Is the Nexus 7 a perfect device?  No, of course not.  It won’t fit everyone’s needs, but I do recommend you give it a hard look before making what would otherwise be a reflexive Apple purchase.


The State of Mobile GIS Software

Over the past six months or so I’ve been doing a lot of casual testing of the various mobile GIS platforms available on the market today.  Right now is an ideal time to discuss the offerings because just in the past week we’ve had an update to a key application in this arena (Collector for ArcGIS), we are on the verge of having an interesting new hardware player enter the market (Garmin’s soon to be released Monterra handheld GPS) and several vendors are dropping serious hints about where they see their products headed in 2014.

I was ramping up to do a lengthy blog post on this when I dropped by Alex Mahrou’s always interesting RockyMountainGeo GIS blog and was surprised to see he had already done all my work for me.  Back in October Alex did a great overview of the current offerings in a posting titled Enterprise Mobile GIS Software Functionality.  All I can do is add minor updates to some of his information and add a few of my own observations.
I like the switchboard analogy!
The single biggest update is the newest version of Collector for ArcGIS (version 10.2) that was released last week for the iOS and Android platforms.  This version addresses one of the two biggest complaints about earlier versions of Collector – polyline and polygon data collection.  It also offers an improved user interface and well thought out workflows.  While the Android version still has some rough edges, the iOS version is a polished, smoothly functioning app that reflects ESRI’s mature experience in developing for Apple’s mobile operating system.  It is a very good app.
Where ESRI seems to be unnecessarily holding back is off-line data collection and editing, and data synchronization.  As Alex notes, ESRI informally promised that this feature would ‘absolutely, positively’ be incorporated into Collector before the end of 2013.  It now looks like we’ll have to wait until sometime in early 2014, when ESRI plans for a significant overall upgrade to Collector, perhaps better positioning it within their enterprise software offerings.  In my opinion ESRI missed the ball on this one.  Incorporating off-line data storage and editing in the iOS and Android operating systems isn’t hard to do; Trimble had it available almost six months ago in their initial release of TerraFlex.  I understand there are other issues at play here – background map data caching and the incorporation of operational layers (both something Trimble’s offering lacks), but ESRI still could have incorporated basic off-line functionality in this new release and just built on it for the upcoming major release.
Trimble’s TerraFlex is an app I tested back in June and was initially very impressed.  Where most of ESRI’s mobile offerings (Collector, ArcGIS App, ArcGIS for Windows Mobile) require some expensive back-end infrastructure – ArcGIS Online, Portal or ArcGIS for Server – TerraFlex offers a far simpler mobile solution paradigm.  Everything is cloud based and single fee.  You pay your money and you get everything TerraFlex has to offer, and all for a relatively paltry price as compared to ESRI’s mobile solutions in the same marketplace.  Of course, this easier to use solution comes at a cost (pun intended) – what the initial release of TerraFlex didn’t offer was pretty extensive; no background map caching, no data editing either on the device or in the desktop interface, no operational layers, and some very limited data export options.  On the other hand, what TerraFlex does offer is pretty impressive given the price: off line data storage and sync, mature and stable apps not just on the iOS and Android platforms, but Trimble also had an app available for the Windows Embedded Handheld OS right out of the gate.  Trimble wasn’t about to leave out the thousands of Trimble customers running their Juno handhelds who are still stuck with a dying Windows OS.  Kudos to Trimble on this.
Trimble indicates many of these shortcomings will be addressed in 2014, and Trimble seems poised to leverage what they do best – allow TerraFlex to incorporate high precision GNSS positions (including RTK-based solutions) into the data collection stream.  This could turn TerraFlex from a mere mapping grade data collector into a serious high precision data collection tool.
In his blog post Alex discusses Fulcrum.  To be honest, this is an application I’ve known about but have not had a chance to test.  Looks like I’ll have to take it for a spin sometime soon.
So as 2013 draws to a close where are we at with mobile GIS solutions?  The best analogy I can think of is that of a ballplayer with a lot of potential who’s just been called up to the majors.  His batting stats are getting better with each game, but he still has problems connecting with the ball.  The potential is there, he just needs more time. So it is with mobile GIS apps.  Most are still somewhat of a ‘swing and a miss’, but they are getting close to smacking the ball out of the park.  Whether it’s off-line data collection with ESRI’s offerings or TerraFlex’s incorporation of cached maps, in-app editing or incorporation of high precision position feeds, 2014 is starting to look like the field will really mature and we’ll get closer to the full promise of mobile GIS.
It’ll be an interesting year!

William J. Hudson’s Pocket Transit History Site

Several times in this blog I’ve referenced an excellent pocket transit history site established by a gentleman by the name of William J. Hudson.  His site was the resource for historical information on the development of the pocket transit, its many variations and changes down through the years.  I considered it the best resource on pocket transits available anywhere on the web.

Unfortunately it looks like Mr. Hudson’s site went off-line well over a year ago.  I first noticed it about six months ago while doing some research on a pocket transit I had just added to my collection.  Over the last few months I’ve been contacted several times either directly or through this blog about Mr. Hudson’s site, asking if I knew when it might be available again.  Since I don’t know Mr. Hudson and I’ve never communicated with him I had no way of contacting him to see when or even if he intended to reestablish his website.  It seemed a great resource for those interested in pocket transits was gone from the web forever.

Well, things don’t really disappear from the web.  They just get archived.  I’m happy to report that I’ve stumbled upon an archive of the main page of Mr. Hudson’s site hidden away in a dark corner of the internet.  Unfortunately none of the linked pages such as his serial number breakdown page were archived, so that resource appears lost.  But the main page is still chock full of useful information about the pocket transit’s history, development and features.

I’ve linked to the internet archive for this page from the image below.  When you open the page you’ll have the option to download the page and graphics as a zip file.

Click here to access the site archive

I’m glad to have access again to at least a portion of this great resource.  Mr. Hudson, if you read this, can we have your site back please?  Hundreds a couple of diehard pocket transit collectors really miss the information your site provided!


A Tale of Two Trimbles

Earlier this year Trimble released its newest generation of the Juno data collectors to the market.  Unlike the previous generations of these devices (the original Juno S and the later Juno 3 series), the new Junos come in several different flavors depending on which business line within Trimble you purchase yours from.  Those purchased through Trimble Mapping & GIS distributors are labeled the Juno 5.  Those purchased through Trimble’s Mobile Computing Solutions distributors are known as the T41.  They are all based on the same hardware platform.

To confuse things even more, you can get either device running different operating systems, either Windows Embedded Handheld 6.5 (aka, Windows Mobile) or Android 4.1.

Back in May my organization got its hands on a loaner 5D unit and I was initially impressed with the hardware but thought the Windows OS was holding the whole package back.  At the time I viewed it as an outstanding piece of hardware saddled to an operating system that badly limits the unit’s performance and potential.  I was eager to get my hands on the T41, hoping that the current version of Android would unlock a lot of the performance potential of this device.  About a month ago my organization purchased one 5D and one T41 to test.  We were looking for an upgrade to our Juno 3D handhelds (very good devices, by the way) and were intrigued by the possibilities of the Android-based Juno T41; something we could run the ESRI ArcGIS and Collector apps on along with Trimble’s new TerraFlex app.

The 5D (left) and the T41 (right)

When we received the units and began to test them I made a number of quick observations.  As I initially wrote back in May, the hardware is first rate. From the smartphone form factor to processor speed to screen resolution and clarity under a wide variety of conditions to the GPS module performance.  This is a seriously good piece of hardware.  Back in May I complained that the 5D lacked the ability to receive signals from the Russian GLONASS system.  I still feel it’s a shortcoming of the unit, but in actual use it may not matter.  The overall performance of the GPS receiver in these new Trimbles is outstanding, with fast acquisition and the ability to hold signal lock under some very tough conditions like under full tree canopy cover.  The GPS performance is so good I’m not (too) bothered by the lack of GLONASS capability.

One feature we did not test, and probably never will, is the 5D and T41 performance as an actual cell phone. While a cell phone data plan would greatly enhance the usefulness of these devices our organization is not willing to pay the cost to get these units activated as cell phones.

Where the 5D and T41 stumble are the operating systems.  I’ve already touched on my issues with the Windows OS in my earlier posting, but let me expand a bit here.  I understand why developers like Trimble stick with Windows Embedded Handheld.  Trimble has over a decade of experience developing for the Windows Mobile environment.  Most of their field data collector and survey system software like TerraSync was developed specifically for the Windows Mobile environment.  I get it. Windows Embedded Handheld (WEHH) is stable and well understood and has proven itself in enterprise environments.  So has Windows XP, and like XP WEHH isn’t getting any better with age.

It must be a terrible time to be an enterprise mobile software developer working in the Windows environment.  Microsoft is starting to release Windows 8 for mobile devices similar to the Juno, but by necessity these devices must connect with a compatible desktop computer for data transfer and application updates. Windows 8 on the mobile device isn’t backwards compatible with earlier versions of Windows on the desktop, yet corporate America has yet to embrace Windows 8 and will likely be sticking with Windows 7 for several more years.  What’s a developer to do? In Trimble’s case they stick with what they know and what their customers seem to be demanding – don’t give me anything I can’t sync with Windows 7.  The problem with WEHH on the Juno 5D is that the software can’t seem to take full advantage of what the hardware offers.  It’s like putting square wheels on a Ferrari.  This comes to light when working with the 5D’s camera.  The camera is a very good 8 megapixel unit with dual flash.  It takes great pictures.  Too bad the WEHH camera control software sucks. It’s slow, difficult to configure and the controls are not intuitive.  It’s like working with an early Windows CE-based smartphone, which is essentially what you have with the 5D running WEHH.  The issue of hardware ‘throttling’ really comes to light when you compare this 5D camera experience with the camera on the T41 running on Android 4.1. The camera experience on tht T41 is entirely different and far more satisfying because Android does a much better job of interfacing with the camera.  It’s like you are working with an entirely different camera hardware module but it’s really an OS performance issue.

Before moving away from the discussion of WEHH I do have to add that the performance of enterprise apps like TerraSync and ArcPad is very good on the 5D.  Everything works as advertised, and the additional processing power of the 5D along with the larger screen size and improved resolution (over the Juno 3-series devices) makes for a great experience in the field.  The new Trimble SatViewer application is also a great improvement over the old GPS Controller module found on other Trimble WEHH devices.

Now on to the T41.  While the performance of the 5D was something of an expected disappointment, the performance of the T41, and Trimble’s vision of how the T41 fits into their overall product line, comes as an unanticipated and surprising disappointment.

I’ll leave aside any discussion of the T41 hardware – everything good I’ve discussed about the 5D hardware applies to the T41.  Bottom line – the hardware is great.

At first glance Trimble’s choice of operating system is also great.  The unit comes pre-loaded with Android 4.1.  I’m testing Android 4.2 on a Google Nexus 7 tablet and I’m about to admit that this version of Android is good enough to pull me away from my beloved iOS devices.  Android is not an ‘enterprise’ OS and can’t run applications like TerraSync or ArcPad, but there are a number of very good lightweight apps like ESRI’s ArcGIS and Collector apps and Trimble’s own TerraFlex app that uses a cloud data storage paradigm.

The problem is that the T41 comes with Trimble’s in-house version of Android 4.1.  It was developed using the open source version of Android and has not been certified under the Android Compatibility Program.  This means that the T41 can’t get access to the Google Play Store for installation of any one of the thousands of Android apps available through that environment.  This includes ESRI’s ArcGIS and Collector apps and even Trimble’s own TerraFlex app.  Not even Google’s own Google Maps, Google Earth or the GMail app can be installed on this device!  This is a serious oversight.  I know plenty of surveyors and GIS professionals who depend on Google Maps and Google Earth on smartphones to support things like work crew routing, initial survey reconnaissance, survey control recovery and other tasks, and use programs like Google Drive to access project documentation in the field.  There’s also no reason you shouldn’t be able to use GIS apps like ESRI’s ArcGIS and Collector apps on this device.

Trimble’s decision to not get this operating system certified is baffling.

No Android Compatibility
certification means
no Google Maps,
no Google Earth,
no native GMail support,
no Google Drive support,
no ESRI or Trimble app support
and the list goes on…

Worse yet, Trimble makes regular mention of the Trimble App Store in their product documentation and even includes the link to this app store on the T41 when they ship the unit.  The problem is, other than two crippled Trimble apps – the free versions of MyTopoMapViewer and Terrain Navigator Pro – there’s nothing else in this app store. You can download apps to this device from the Amazon app store, but most of the apps available there are either older versions of what’s available on Google’s app store or are formatted specifically for Amazon’s Kindle devices.

Trimble App Store icon
What’s in the Trimble App Store?
Not much

I honestly thought I was missing something here.  Surely Trimble has something better for the T41 that I just couldn’t get to.  Perhaps a real app store that I just needed the right permissions to access or a software upgrade that would allow me to link to the Google Play Store.  My local distributor put me in touch with Trimble’s Mobile Computing Solutions (MCS) tech support and I quickly found out that no, what I got is all there is.

Apparently Trimble views the T41 as an ‘enterprise only’ unit.  This means enterprises have to develop their own specific apps for it using the Trimble Android SDK.  This is an OK approach, but there is still no reason to not have the OS version certified by Google.  It’s just stunning to think that Trimble would ship an Android-based data collector that can’t access Google Maps, Google Earth or even run Trimble’s own Android-based data collection app!

I have heard rumors that Trimble is re-thinking this approach to the T41 and may be working to get its version of Android certified by Google.  If and when this will happen I don’t know – Trimble MCS hasn’t been very forthcoming on the topic.

So where does this leave us when considering the 5D and the T41?  Taking into account the unit cost (about $1,800 each) and the operating system issues shared by both of these devices I have to say that they are not worth the investment, particularly when you consider that Trimble still offers a very capable handheld unit – the Juno 3D – at about half the cost.

If Trimble releases a version of Android that allows access to the Google Play Store I’ll come back and do an updated review, but for now I simply can’t recommend either of these devices.


Thinking in 3D

This week at work, just for fun, I set up a stereoscope and slid some stereo photos underneath the mirrors. These photos are high resolution, large scale shots taken back in April when we had a new orthorectified aerial image of the airport developed.  I asked the contractor to send me a stereo pair from the project that I could play around with.  It’s been years since I spent any time peering though the optics of a stereoscope and it was fun to look over the images and realize just how much a stereo view adds to one’s ability to pick out details.

There was a time when analyzing stereo images was a critical skill in my field and other related fields.  But with the rise of commercial satellite imagery, the slow demise of wet process aerial film cameras and the development of digital imagery analysis systems like ERDAS Imagine and ESRI’s improved raster management routines in ArcGIS there has been less and less call for hard copy stereo image analysis. Software routines now handle most analysis tasks.  Of course photogrammetrists still process, manage and analyze stereo imagery, but it’s all done on high end digital systems these days.  The fields that used to derive benefit from hard copy stereo imagery – topography, geology, forestry, hydrology, even the US military – all seem to have lost their institutional ‘feel’ for the usefulness of stereo imagery analysis.

The issue was brought home to me this week when I invited a small group of GIS professionals and Engineering staff (both licensed civil engineers and engineering technicians) to drop by my desk to have a look at these stereo photos.  Most could not get the photos properly aligned underneath the stereoscope. Few recognized any real benefit from seeing the structures in stereo.  Most thought it was just a cute parlor trick. That’s a shame because the stereo photos permitted quick and easy identification of features that are not readily apparent in the same 2D images.  Things like antenna masts and raised utility piping on the roofs of concourses, raised concrete pads and curbing in the aircraft gate areas and even small assemblies like receiver domes on the tops of aircraft fuselages stood out in clear detail when viewed in stereo.
So how does one use stereo photos for analysis?  Check out this blog posting from a while back.

Conducting stereo analysis using hard copy photos should be much cheaper and easier these days.  Years ago in the era of wet process film cameras making copies of stereo photos was time consuming and expensive. Someone had to pull a roll of film negatives, go into a darkroom and make prints one by one. With today’s digital imagery systems all one has to do is download the image files from a server and print them out using relatively cheap but very high quality color ink jet printers.  The images I received from our contractor were full resolution TIFF files, each about 1.4 gigabytes.  I was able to subset just the areas I wanted to view and print them out at full resolution using only the image management software that comes with Windows 8.  Fast and cheap!

Federal and state governments are sitting on a gold mine of historical stereo aerial photos.  The Federal government (USGS, USC&GS, Soil Conservation Service, Department of Agriculture, Tennessee Valley Authority, Army Corps of Engineers, etc.) started using stereo aerial photography for mapping as early as the mid-1920s and over the course of the next 90 years proceeded to photograph virtually all of the United States in stereo.  Stereo aerial photography was the foundation of all of our topographic mapping activities through most of the 20th century and it remains so today.  Much of this photography is still held in individual agency archives or has been turned over to the National Archives. I’d love to see the National Archives digitize and post nationally significant stereo pairs of images online for downloading and viewing. Places like the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Yellowstone or historic events like the Mount St. Helens post-eruption photos or levee breaches along the Mississippi River during the spring floods.  Even historic shots of our cities and suburbs that will help students understand how topography impacts issues like urban sprawl.

Humans view and relate to their world in three dimensions.  It’s a shame that today we are relegated to investigating it via boring 2D computer displays.  I think it’s time to bring back 3D image analysis!

Garmin Gets Serious

I got a news release today that Garmin is about to release their first Android-based GPS receiver.  This is a move I long suspected one of the major GPS receiver manufacturers would make, and given Garmin’s market dominance and previous experience with Android I naturally assumed they would be first.

Garmin calls it the Monterra.  What is it?  Well, it’s essentially a smartphone without the phone.  An Android based GPS unit with a digital camera, LED flash, compass, barometer, gyro, accelerometer, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, MicroSD card slot, etc.  About the same features you’d expect to find on a mid-high range smartphone.  Ho-hum.

But the Monterra offers some key differences.  First, it started life as a GPS receiver, designed by the world’s leader in consumer GPS technology.  This means the GPS performance and antenna design should have received priority consideration.  Next, it’s IPX7 compliant, which means it’s highly water resistant and shock resistant.  Third, it has user replaceable batteries.  Limited battery life is perhaps the single biggest argument against using a regular smartphone as a back-country GPS receiver.  With user replaceable batteries, and the use of standard AA cells, Garmin makes this a serious off-the-beaten path unit.  And last, it uses Android.  What, you ask?  Why is that important?  The adoption of Android as the OS opens the device to a whole range of outstanding GPS and mapping applications.  In fact, I’d go out on a limb and say that most users will load this thing up with third party apps and pay little attention to the included Garmin apps and map package offerings.

But my interest in the device focuses on its potential as a serious GIS data collection tool.  For the first time we have a rugged, water resistant Android-based GPS unit that should be able to run ESRI’s ArcGIS and Collector apps and Trimble’s new Terra-Flex app.  It offers all the hardware capability those apps need to leverage for effective data collection – good GPS performance, high resolution digital camera, a responsive high resolution touch screen and good battery life.  Once ESRI gets its act together and introduces data caching with their Android apps the lack of full-time data connectivity via a cellular data plan won’t be so important.  ESRI may well be there by the time this device is released (and Terra-Flex is already there).

I only have three concerns.  First, the relatively small 8 gigabyte system memory.  Second, Garmin has not announced what version of Android this will ship with.  Here’s hoping it’s at least 4.1.  And last, the price.  Garmin has initially priced this thing at $650.  When you consider an unlocked top end smartphone like the iPhone 5 or the Samsung Galaxy S4 goes for just a bit more, and the very capable Google Nexus 4 goes for way less, you begin to think this thing is somewhat over priced.  I’m hoping the retail pricing comes in a bit less.

Still, it has the potential to be a very price competitive and capable field data collection unit.  Is it about time to retire the old Juno?  We’ll see…

Trimble TerraFlex

Trimble released their cloud based data collection solution called TerraFlex yesterday and I spent much of the day playing with it on both the iPhone and the Juno 3D.

Some observers (including me) thought TerraFlex would be a shot aimed at ESRI’s ArcGIS Online product. It is clear, however, that TerraFlex is a very different animal.  Whereas ArcGIS Online is a map-centric platform against which you collect data, TerraFlex is a forms-based data collection platform that uses simple maps only as a background.  TerraFlex is better described as ‘TerraSync lite’ and the focus is on simplified data collection tasks using a variety of handheld devices like iOS and Android smartphones and Windows Mobile devices like Trimble’s own Juno-series data collectors.

All projects start with forms, and TerraFlex provides an easy to use web interface for creating the data collection form.

The TerraFlex form creation page.  It is surprisingly simple to use.

Once you create a form you upload it to the TerraFlex ‘cloud’ (hosted on Amazon’s EC2 cloud servers) as part of a data collection project.

A data collection project consists of one or more data collection forms

Once you have the project uploaded to the TerraFlex cloud you can log into TerraFlex from your mobile device, download the project and its assigned data collection forms and start collecting data.

TerraFlex uses Google Maps/Earth as the map interface.
It’s your ONLY map option!
The forms interface on the data collector is
very easy to use.   The use of drop down selections
greatly simplifies the collection tasks

You can set your options on your data collector to sync the new data immediately over any available network connection (cellular data or wi-fi) or set it so sync only when the device is back under wi-fi coverage (this will reduce data plan usage on devices like the iPhone).

Once your data is synced with the TerraFlex cloud you can go back in to the desktop web interface and view the data, do basic edits and export it for use in other packages like ArcGIS or AutoCAD.

The TerraFlex desktop data management interface

Overall I was impressed with the ease of use of all components of the TerraFlex system – from the forms creation on the desktop to the data collection on my iPhone to the data management back in the desktop interface.  Part of the ease of use stems from the fact that there’s not a lot there!  Remember, this is not a complex web mapping package like ArcGIS Online.  TerraFlex is a simplified data collection tool and at that task it excels.

Trimble also got smart with the pricing.  TerraFlex is licensed by the individual user vs. a software license tied to a particular piece of hardware as with TerraSync.  A TerraFlex license cost is $250 per user per year.  The subscription is tied to the individual and Trimble doesn’t care what device(s) you use or how much data you collect.  Two hundred and fifty bucks may seem like a lot, but if you’ve ever priced other GIS data collection software like TerraSync (over $1,000/license) or ESRI’s ArcPad (about the same) or even an ESRI ArcGIS Online subscription (which starts at $2,000 and has much higher management overhead) suddenly the cost of a TerraFlex license looks downright reasonable.

Of course at this price the list of what you don’t get is pretty long.  There’s no data position correction capability either through the use of a virtual reference station or via post-processing.  The data import and export options are also very weak.  This area in particular needs a lot of work.  Your export options are either KML, .csv (spreadsheet) or the ESRI ArcGIS XML format.  The .csv format has some issues because the software concatenates the lat/long data into a single spreadsheet cell, making it tedious to parse the latitude and longitude data into separate columns for easy import into GIS and CAD.

But this is a first generation product and I’m sure things will improve.  Trimble provides support via their TerraFlex forums and their technical people were jumping right in yesterday and answering customer questions.  I’m sure they are compiling a list of future improvements, and the great thing about cloud-based services is that you don’t have to wait around for a service pack release.  Things get updated in the background and are immediately available across the entire user base.

Overall I like what Trimble has done here. We’ll keep an eye on this product as it moves forward!

Trimble Juno 5

I got a chance to spend a few days playing with one of the new Trimble Juno 5 handheld data collectors and thought I’d give some initial impressions.

I’ve been discussing the Juno 3 series handhelds a lot lately on this blog.  They are great devices that offer a lot of functionality at a reasonable price point.  I think Trimble would agree.  My sources tell me the Junos 3 series have become one of Trimble’s most popular selling data collectors.  But as good as they are, the Juno 3’s still have some limitations.  First is processor speed.  The Juno 3 uses a relatively low capacity 800 mhz Samsung processor and there’s a lot of overhead involved in just running the operating system, Windows Mobile 6.5.  It shows.  The Juno moves like a turtle on a cold morning when executing some processor or graphics intensive processes.  Still, they have proven to be stable & reliable devices and we rarely have crashes or lock-ups.  Things may run slow, but they run.
The next drawback is the screen.  It has a measly 3.5″ QVGA screen that offers only 340 x 320 pixel resolution.  It’s ‘touch sensitive’ only in the sense that if you imagine your finger as a stylus and stab the screen pretty hard with it (and in the right place) the screen will react.  Virtually all functions require the use of a hard stylus.  There are two good points about the screen, though.  First is that it’s readable in sunlight.  Second is that the low resolution graphics put as little demand as possible on the already slow processor chip sets.  From that perspective I guess the screen functionality is acceptable.
Last year Trimble announced the new Juno 5 series of data collectors.  While the Juno 5 doesn’t replace the Juno 3, it offers a new ‘smart phone’ form factor.  When I first read about the new Juno I dismissed it as a gimmick, a repackaged Juno 3 designed to appeal to the GenX crowd that can’t work with anything that doesn’t look like an iPhone.  But a few weeks ago at the ESRI Southeast Users Conference I got the chance to handle one and was initially impressed.  First, this thing is BIG, and it’s HEAVY.  Think a Samsung Galaxy S4 on steroids (though it’s not made by Samsung).  This Juno is heavy as in solid & rugged.  It impresses as a serious piece of hardware.  Next, the screen.  Lots of screen real estate and sharp as a tack with great resolution and contrast.  As good as most current smartphones.  I was impressed and I left the conference determined to get my hands on one to test.
As luck would have it my friends at NEI were more than happy to oblige.  They loaned me a Juno 5D for a few days as part of a larger hardware test and I got to spend a few hours getting to better know this new beastie.
The hardware specs are available on Trimble’s website so I won’t regurgitate them all here, but we see improvements over the Juno 3D in two key areas – the CPU, which was switched to a 1 Ghz Texas Instruments processor, and the screen which is a WVGA TFT panel offering 480 x 800 pixel resolution.  I have to assume there’s an upgraded graphics processor too.
For those who have experience running either the original Juno S series or the Juno 3 series devices, the improved performance of the Juno 5 is an attention getter.  Finally, a device fast enough to make Windows Mobile so responsive you’d almost think it doesn’t suck.  The screen responds to finger gestures just like you’d expect a smart phone’s screen to respond.  No stylus needed.  Heck, the Juno 5 doesn’t eve come with a stylus!
The two Junos side-by-side.  The screen on the 5D
is not just larger, but the quality and resolution is
exponentially better.

Trimble also put a lot of thought into the case design.  The Juno 3 series devices are well built and water resistant, but the case integrity is highly dependent on a number of rubber plugs that cover all the little ports the thing has – power, USB & patch antenna.  The 5D cleverly reduces the number of ports needing covers by combining the USB and power connector and designing the connector as an uncovered but permanently sealed series of small contact pads.  The layout looks similar to the old serial port connection.  The charger/synch cable has a connector end with a number of small spring loaded contact pins that mate with the contact pads on the device, and the whole thing is secured by two tried and true thumb screws.  I first ran into a similar arrangement with my DeLorme PN-60 GPS.  It’s a design that eliminates the possibility of water intrusion and ensures the connection stays tight even under rough conditions like being bounced around in a car.  It works great.

The USB/power connector (on the left).  This ‘port’ is unprotected simply
because it’s weather sealed and doesn’t need any protection.

The Juno 5D is a smartphone with a big screen and it runs a number of power hungry applications (like Trimble’s TerraSync or ESRI’s ArcPad).  It needs a big battery, and the battery accounts for much of this unit’s weight.  The battery cover is screwed to the back of the case with 12 miniature Torx head screws, and I’m guessing the manner in which it’s attached plays a large part in the Juno’s overall ruggedness and water resistance.  Reports are that the 5D has a shorter usable battery life than the 3D.  I believe it.  It’s just the nature of the technology.  The 5D is just a more power hungry device.  Based on my limited testing I think you can expect to get at least 4 continuous hours of field data collection out of one of these handhelds before having to go for a recharge.  By the way, Trimble reports that the battery is replaceable, but it must be done by an authorized Trimble repair center.

Rear of the 5D case showing the battery cover
and 8 mp camera with flash

Trimble also gave the 5D an 8 megapixel digital camera with flash.  Compared to the somewhat muddy, low contrast pictures the Juno 3D’s 5 megapixel camera delivers this one is pretty good.  Not iPhone good, but still not bad.

So how did it perform in the field?  I ran some simple point feature collection jobs around my office building using ArcPad.  Uncorrected accuracy was as expected – about 5 ft. for those points under open sky.  Running ArcPad on the larger, brighter screen was pretty interesting.  The high screen resolution renders the normally fuzzy low-res ArcPad icons in sharp detail, but they were pretty small as presented on the display.  It took a bit of practice to figure out just where to tap to get them to react.  But once I got that figured out I was off and running.  The 1000 mhz processor allows ArcPad to run pretty snappy, and there was no system lag when choosing to collect a point or move to a different screen. The digital camera is still slow to launch when collecting a photo point, but not anywhere near as slow as on the 3D (which is glacially slow).  Since ArcPad passes the photo collection process over to the Windows Mobile slow, clunky camera interface I don’t think we can expect much more of a performance improvement here.

Based on my limited testing I really like this new unit.  It’s a clear step up from the Juno 3 series in performance and features.  But it’s not perfect…

First, price.  This thing retails for a whopping $1,800.  That is about $700 more that the Juno 3D.  Ouch.  Is the improved form factor, screen size and resolution and faster processor worth an additional $700?  I’m not really sure considering that the Juno 3D is still a very capable device and can do everything the 5D can do, albeit just a bit slower.  Keep this price factor in mind as we move forward in the discussion.

Let’s next consider GLONASS, or the lack of it.  Really Trimble?  Really?  Trimble seems to want to position their GLONASS-capable devices towards the premium end of their hardware line.  That may have been an OK marketing move a few years ago, but today just about every smartphone and new consumer GPS coming onto the market is GLONASS capable.  Heck, Garmin’s bottom-barrel low price leader, the eTrex 10 (currently selling for $103 on Amazon), has been GLONASS capable for over a year now!  The days of GLONASS receivers being a ‘premium’ product are long over.  Wake up Trimble.  At this price point I think it’s perfectly reasonable to expect the 5D be GLONASS capable.

Next, software.  You pay $1,800 for a very capable piece of GPS hardware but it comes with no native navigation package and the ability to add apps is very limited.  No mapping or navigation software, nothing to casually collect waypoints or GPS tracks with.  Now, I realize this is a ‘professional data collector’, but it would be nice if Trimble ported one of their consumer-grade iPhone or Android apps over to the Windows Mobile OS and included it free on the device.  TerraSync and ArcPad are great data collection tools, but lousy street navigation tools.  As a geospatial project manager I expect a device with this capability to offer more software features.  There simply is no reason why I shouldn’t be able to use it for things like work party navigation and jobsite familiarization, job check-in/check-out, have an eReader for portable document management, etc.

Last, I experienced a few lock-ups on the device while running ArcPad 10, mainly when trying to collect photos.  All of these lock-ups required a system reset, and all collected data was lost.  It seems to me that a firmware or OS upgrade may be in order.  I’d be hesitant to put this device into the hands of work crews until this issue is corrected.

So, is the Juno 5D worth the investment?  Certainly you can get all the functionality of the 5D in the much less expensive 3D.  However, the new smartphone-like form factor of the 5D is very compelling, and the performance improvements it brings to the Juno line mean something in the real world of field data collection: a better form factor, better screen, faster overall performance.  But the shortcomings are glaring and could have been easily addressed by Trimble before they released this device to market.

At the $1,800 price point I think the 5D is worth the investment only if your organization needs the improved performance this Juno provides.

But let’s look into the future.  I think the 5D shows us where Trimble intends to take this very successful line of handheld data collectors.   We will never see a new Juno that looks like the 3D.  The smartphone ‘experience’ is where the field is headed.  From that perspective the Juno 5D is a good first effort.  It’s going to be very interesting to see what future versions bring.


I was testing the camera on my new iPhone this morning and decided to take some gratuitous cheesecake shots of one of my newest acquisitions:

K&E Pocket Transit

It’s essentially a new-old stock (NOS) pocket transit made by K&E sometime in the early 60’s (judging by the dates in the instructional brochure).

Unlike Ainsworth or Brunton, K&E never serial numbered their pocket transits so there’s no way to firmly establish manufacturing dates.  It may be possible to determine an age range based on features, but the one source that discussed K&E pocket transit manufacturing date ranges, the outstanding William J. Hudson pages on the history of the pocket transit, have gone off line.  Let’s hope this great resource will soon be back up and available.

This particular pocket transit pretty much follows the Ainsworth model feature for feature.  It uses an un-dampened needle setup with luminous points and offers the standard long level on the clinometer and bubble level for general leveling.  It uses the 360 degree ‘reversed’ compass ring that is adjustable for declination. It’s immaculate inside and outside, and I doubt it had been handled much before I acquired it.

How well does it compare to an Ainsworth or Brunton product of the same age?  Pretty damned well!  K&E was a premiere American manufacturer of surveying and engineering equipment from the late 1800s right up into the early 1980s, and they knew how to make a quality product.  This pocket transit is equal to, and in some cases surpasses, the quality put out by either Ainsworth or Brunton.

All-in-all an excellent example of an American pocket transit.