An Android Rant

I’m a big Android fan and have been for about two years.

android bot

For almost eight years I’ve used Apple’s iOS mobile devices at work and at home. I understand and respect the high level of software and hardware integration that Apple brings to its ‘ecosystem’. It makes managing and troubleshooting the devices dead simple, particularly if, like me, you serve as tech support for a large pool of family and friends, many of whom live hundreds of miles away.

A number of years ago, on a whim, I picked up a Samsung Galaxy Player 5. This now defunct product was Samsung’s answer to the iPod Touch. It was (and still is) a great idea – a phone-sized tablet that offered everything except the phone. It ran an early version of Android 2.x (Gingerbread). I found the hardware compelling but the Android operating system somewhat limited, particularly when contrasted against the then current version of iOS.  I concluded at the time that the Apple devices were just the better option and I pushed my family and my employer towards iPhones and iPads.


Samsung Galaxy Player. Good idea. Good hardware. Too bad the OS wasn’t quite ready for prime time

I always kept track of what was happening in the Android market and at the same time I personally adopted Google’s cloud services for data storage and desktop apps like Google Docs. I became increasingly impressed with Google’s moves to provide a seamless user experience across a variety of devices, from desktop to tablet to phone. At the same time my frustration with iOS started to build, particularly with those devices we used at work. In an enterprise environment with an overbearing IT department the need to manage each device via individual iTunes accounts became a real PITA (that would be, pain-in-the-a**). It got real old real fast trying to educate new iPhone and iPad users on the very clumsy iTunes interface. It also got tiresome justifying time and again to our IT department why we had to spend an extra $100 per iPad just to get GPS capability. But we pressed on because at the time the apps we wanted to run – ESRI’s ArcGIS and Collector apps – either weren’t available for Android or ran much better on iOS devices.

A few years ago a co-worker brought in a Google Nexus 5 phone running Android 4.1 (Jellybean) and he let me play with it for a few hours. I quickly realized that Jellybean ain’t Gingerbread. I knew it was time to give Android another look. Soon after I picked up a Google Nexus 7 tablet and immediately got hooked on both the device and Android 4.x. Within 3 months I gave my iPad to my daughter and never looked back. Since this is a discussion about operating systems the only thing I’ll say about the Nexus 7 is that it is the best tablet I have ever used, period. I’m still upset that Google killed it off in favor of a larger form factor tablet and I’ll nurse my Nexus 7 along until the the last electron leaks from the battery and it can no longer take a charge. But as I found with the Samsung Player, good hardware isn’t worth much if the operating system is lousy. What pulled me towards the Nexus 7 was the much improved quality of the Jellybean operating system. While the earlier Gingerbread OS seemed to be one step removed from a hacker’s toy, Jellybean (despite the silly name) was a mature, well integrated OS. Even better, the GIS apps I wanted to run – ESRI’s ArcGIS and Collector – were now available in mature, stable versions for Android.

The Google Nexus 7 (2013 version), perhaps the best small tablet ever made. It makes an excellent field data collector – a large, crisp screen and lots of processing power yet still small enough to slip easily into a cargo pocket.

Shame on you Google for killing it off

While the Nexus 7 turned out to be great I still needed to test an Android smartphone to see if the operating system was ‘enterprise ready’. I talked to the telecom manager where I worked and convinced him to let me trade my company issue iPhone for a Samsung Galaxy S4. He thought I was nuts asking to trade a ‘presitge’ device like an iPhone for a pedestrian piece of hardware like the Galaxy S4. When I told him that I want to be able to recommend a GIS-ready device for the general workforce that is much cheaper than an iPhone (on Verizon’s corporate plan) he smiled. Keeping your telecom manager happy is always a good thing.

Testing soon revealed the good and bad of the Galaxy S4 and Android 4.4 as it’s implemented on the device. Overall the Galaxy S4 is a very good piece of hardware. Certainly it’s better than the iPhone 5 that I was evaluating it against – larger, brighter screen and a faster processor. The size is right. You get more screen real-estate but it’s not too big to use with one hand. But there were issues, both hardware and software related.

The Galaxy S4. Good hardware but inferior build quality considering it’s price and competition (the iPhone 5). This phone sits in a waterproof case made by Seidio – a great case that brings some badly needed field ruggedness to the phone and turns it into a viable all weather data collector

The hardware gripes fall into two categories – cheap build quality and limited system memory. Let’s talk build quality first. I’m sorry to say that the Samsung Galaxy phones just feel cheap. Plastic-y, flimsy, unserious. Coming from Apple’s iPhone products I was surprised at how cheap the Galaxy S4 feels in the hand. The single advantage the Galaxy build format has over the iPhone in this arena is the fact that the user can easily open the back of the Galaxy and replace the battery. If you are going to use the Galaxy S4 as a data collector you will need a good protective case (I use the waterproof case made by Seidio).

The next issue is memory. Samsung only sells Galaxy S4’s (and the newer S5’s) with 16 GB of system memory in the US market, and 16 GB has been far too small for several years. Samsung dismisses the complaints about this by saying that you can easily add a microSD card to bump up memory, but as we’ll see Android doesn’t always play well with ‘external’ memory beyond letting you store photos. And that’s how we’ve slow walked our way to this topic – for applications that have large data storage requirements like ESRI’s Collector app,16 GB of system storage ain’t gonna’ get it and Android won’t let you safely store data or image tiles on SD cards (without rooting the device, which no enterprise telecom manager will allow).

S4 Screenshot

I first became aware of the issue after loading Nathan Mellor’s excellent Back Country Navigator (CritterMap Software). I had installed a 32 GB SD card in the Galaxy S4 and figured I’d be able to stuff all sorts of map cache data into it. Then I happened to catch Nathan’s long dissertation on why Android 4.4 won’t or can’t allow applications to access data folders on SD cards without all kinds of backflips and tricks and always with the lingering threat of data loss.

So what’s the practical impact here, if any? Well, Nathan has developed a work-around, that has Back Country Navigator (BCN) placing map cache data on the SD card in a directory that is tied to the BCN application. Android apparently requires this as a security measure, to keep rogue apps from messing with data associated with other apps. The problem with this arrangement is that while it works (and seems to work well), there is the serious risk that whenever you delete or just update the app the associated file system is also deleted (or renamed) and the data is gone. OK, this isn’t really a big issue with individuals managing their own devices, but if I’m an enterprise GIS program manager with perhaps dozens of Android devices to support with cached map or imagery data this Android limitation will get real cumbersome real fast.

In addition, ESRI requires storing map caches you create for use in Collector for ArcGIS in system memory on Android devices. On-device map caches are required if you want your workforce to be able to collect data while disconnected from wi-fi or a cellular data service. Unfortunately Collector will not work if you place the map cache on the SD card. This isn’t a limitation of Collector, it’s a limitation put in place by Android.

Of course these issues go away if you store all of your data in system memory, but with only 16 GB on the Galaxy S4 this is really not an option. System overhead gobbles up more than 10 GB of memory, and I can quickly fill up most of the remaining memory with one high resolution aerial imagery cache and a project database. That leaves no room for photos, PDF documents or any of the other stuff a GIS professional may want to park on his or her phone/data collector. In today’s world 16 GB of system memory is simply too measly, and Samsung should have known better when they introduced the S4.

The last issue gets back to the nature of the Android OS. Here I’m speaking as an Android end user and device manager, not as an Android developer or savant. First, Google needs to do a better job of policing the Android app ecosystem and put better security measures into their application development tools. People gripe about the restrictive nature of Apple’s iOS app development and approval environment, but you get far less ‘app crap’ on the iTunes App Store than you do on Google Play. Second, Google needs to build better external file management functionality into Android. Google keeps making noises about wanting to move Android out of the phone and tablet market and into a more robust desktop operating system. To do that, and move away from the app-centric design of Android, Google will need to build in robust file system management capabilities.

So is it back to the Apple ecosystem for me? No, I’m sticking with Android for the time being. I have a wider range of hardware to choose from, the operating system has matured nicely (storage issues aside) and the apps I want to run all work just fine on Android. I’m excited by some of the hardware products that have emerged in the Android world, like ruggedized smartphones and data collectors. Plus all of the mobile device development that interests me seems to be taking place in the Android world.

The Android universe will likely always lack the smooth polish and tight integration found in the Apple ecosystem, but for a tech geek that’s part of the fun. Today Android is polished enough to compete head-to-head with iOS, but still has enough rough edges and open doors to keep things interesting.

So what’s up next? How about the Samsung Galaxy S5 Active as a data collector? Stay tuned!

– Brian


This video has been on YouTube for a few years now, but I just discovered it and I’m fascinated by it.

I’m a child of the 1960’s. No, not a dope smoking hippie, but one of the millions of boys and young men who were absolutely fascinated and inspired by America’s early manned space program and the space race. I credit the space program with triggering my fascination with technology and science.  Everything associated with the space program and NASA – space flight, rockets, engineering, the astronauts (most of whom were highly qualified military pilots and engineers – the best of the best), mission control, navigation, discipline, overcoming insurmountable challenges – it all served to inspire me as a child. I badly wanted to be a part of all of that and I knew one of the ways to get there was to focus hard on math and science.

While I was an underachieving math student and a lot of science came hard to me (particularly chemistry – I never could balance an equation), I never lost my fascination with the idea of the subjects and today I’m more an evangelist for the role of math, science and engineering than a practitioner of it.

This video demonstrates the wonderful meld of historical data and modern analysis and visualization techniques to answer a unique question – what were the circumstances that caused the ‘earthrise’ to appear in the Apollo 8 Command Module windows? Given the mission profile and the orientation of the Command Module (pointed straight down towards the lunar surface) the view should not have been available. It was the ‘aerial’ photos taken by the fixed reconnaissance camera that provided the clue. One of the things I like about the topographic sciences is that we often get to play history detective, using our unique skills to combine old data with new data to uncover new or unique perspectives. That’s precisely what happened here.

The video shows it was the Command Module rotation, indicated by the shift in photo coverage, that allowed the rising earth to come into view. But where over the Moon did that rotation take place? I was only after scientists at NASA were able to correlate (georeference) the Apollo 8 photos with current Lunar Reconaissance Orbiter (LRO) mapping data that they could precisely pinpoint the Command Module’s position over the Moon when the rotation occurred and the Earth came into view.

‘Earthrise’ taken 24 December 1968 by Astronaut Bill Anders aboard Apollo 8

What we get from this exercise is the ability to recreate the precise circumstances that allowed one of history’s most iconic photos to be taken. While this discovery won’t solve world hunger or bring warring factions to the peace table, it is a fascinating example of how we can meld old and new geospatial data to answer unique questions and open the door to our history.

– Brian

A First Look At ArcGIS Pro

For the past week I’ve been playing with the pre-release version of ESRI’s ArcGIS Pro. The operative word is ‘playing’, because this software application is just one heck of a lot of fun to play with.

Arcgis Pro

If you are a user of ESRI’s GIS software you’ve likely heard of ArcGIS Pro. ESRI first announced it at the 2012 International User Conference. I was there and watched the software development team lead run through a quick demo. It looked interesting, but at the time I thought it would be little more than a re-packaging of the current version 10.x desktop software – something like a new skin that would sit on top of ArcGIS for Desktop 10.x.

With the release of ArcGIS 10.3 in the latter half of 2014 ESRI started to seed out the pre-release version of ArcGIS Pro. Because of other attention grabbing issues I didn’t get the chance to install the software until early last week.

So what is ArcGIS Pro? Well here’s what it’s not – it is not a re-packaging of ArcGIS 10.3. ArcGIS Pro is (as far as I can tell) a completely new application. If ESRI were to hang a numeric tag on the release I imagine they’d label it something like ArcGIS 11. It is a generational leap in features and capabilities. Without getting into details let’s look at some of the things ArcGIS Pro brings to the desktop:

  • ArcGIS Pro is a native 64 bit application. This means the application takes full advantage of all the multi-threaded processing horsepower available in 64 bit desktop systems. ArcGIS for Desktop 10.3 is a mostly 32 bit application and just loafs along on 64 bit hardware. ArcGIS Pro unlocks all the available processor capability (but there’s a price to pay – see ‘issues to be aware of’ below).
  • ArcGIS Pro ‘lives’ in 3D. The new 3D visualization and analysis tools in ArcGIS Pro are what make it fun to play with. If you have 3D data (z-enabled) then ArcGIS Pro relates to the data in 3D. If you have simple 2D data (say, building footprints) then it’s easy to turn it into 3D data using the Extrusion toolset.
  • The new ribbon menu interface is context sensitive and works well. Yes, I know ribbon menus have been out for years and are generally well implemented (Microsoft Office), but they can also be poorly done (<cough> AutoCAD <cough>). The default ArcGIS Pro ribbon menu is very well done. It’s clear ESRI spent a lot of time getting this right.
  • ESRI manages to keep most of the workflow options and commands where experienced ArcGIS for Desktop are used to finding them. While there is a learning curve it is fairly short for most common tasks.
  • The 3D navigation tools are well implemented using mouse commands. This functionality is a core part of ArcGIS Pro – it’s there when you open the application. Even if all your data is 2D, you still have immediate access to 3D tools.
  • ArcGIS Pro moves beyond the .mxd map file and introduces the concept of the GIS ‘project’. Think of a project as a collection of map files, data links, configuration files, rules and settings that define a particular GIS project. Projects can be shared across individuals and work groups to help standardize workflows and other processes.

Arcgis Pro Projects

  • Licensing. This is a huge paradigm shift for ESRI. ArcGIS Pro is authorized via ArcGIS Online. The two are tightly linked and can’t be separated. Your ArcGIS Online administrator now authorizes you to use ArcGIS Pro from the new ‘Manage Licenses’ interface in ArcGIS Online. It looks like no more separate license manager, authorization codes and provisioning files!

ArcGIS Pro License Manager

  • It appears as though you get one ArcGIS Pro license for every ArcGIS for Desktop 10.3 Advanced license you have. This includes those who have a Home Use license.

Some questions I can’t answer yet include:

  • What is the relationship between ArcGIS for Desktop 10.3 and ArcGIS Pro? Can ArcGIS Pro stand alone, or does the application have dependencies on 10.3?
  • What about ArcCatalog? There appears to be no ArcGIS Pro equivalent to Catalog.

Some issues to be aware of:

  • Keep in mind this is pre-release (beta) software. There are still some rough edges. While everything seems to work well I have experienced some crashes. If you do decide to test it, don’t use it for production purposes!
  • There seem to be some issues publishing a 3D scene from ArcGIS Pro to ArcGIS Online (the new 3D Scene functionality). So far neither I or any of the GIS team at work have successfully moved a scene from the desktop to the web. Again, this is pre-release software…
  • This is perhaps the #1 issue to be aware of – ArcGIS Pro is a workstation-class desktop application. Some would classify it as a resource hog, but more accurately it is a fully 64 bit application that makes full use of all available resources. You can forget about running it on your dual core Pentium 4 box running Windows XP.
  • ArcGIS Pro is heavily graphics intensive and demands a fairly robust graphics card. When I first installed ArcGIS Pro on my home computer it quickly brought my cheap 512 MB gaming card to its knees – the card was literally crying for mercy. ESRI recommends at least a 1 GB OpenGL compliant card. I ended up buying a 2 GB NVIDIA Quadro K620 card and that vastly improved performance.

Before we close, let’s take a look at a short video that highlights some of the ArcGIS Pro features I discussed above.

That’s it for now. As ArcGIS Pro moves out of pre-release and we get more experience with it I’ll come back with updates. But for now, this seems to be a great update and I’m really quite excited about it.

– Brian

Lying With Maps

A few days ago word came out that the publisher Harper Collins and their map-focused subsidiary Collins Bartholomew released a map atlas for sale in the Middle East that completely eliminates any mention of the State of Israel.

Talk about academic, intellectual and geographic dishonesty.

Harper Collins has tried to pin the blame on market forces; seems folks in the Middle East prefer their maps of the Eastern Mediterranean to be void of any reference to the State of Israel.  Guess what? I don’t much like North Korea, and I really don’t like Alabama, but I sure don’t want them erased from my maps, at least not by some moronic map editor who is willing to toss his or her cartographic integrity into the wastebasket merely to please local prejudices.

Folks, it doesn’t matter if you like a country or not. If it has legitimate, recognized borders then it belongs on the map. The State of Israel is recognized by virtually every nation on earth and has a seat at the United Nations. Hoping it goes away by erasing its borders on a map is a silly, immature and ridiculous exercise in geopolitical wishful thinking.

The map editor that approved this map needs to surrender his/her cartographic license and leave the business of map making to those of us who have integrity and intellectual honesty.

– Brian

Merry Christmas 2014



On 14 December 1944 General George S. Patton, commander of the Third US Army, released his Christmas greeting to his troops. It’s a classic greeting and military prayer that was made famous in the movie ‘Patton’, but there’s much more to the story and it has a wonderful topographic and, for me, personal connection.

Click here to read more.

And a very blessed and merry Christmas to you and your family!

– Brian

Fort Meigs

I spent my teenage years growing up in Maumee, Ohio, on the banks of the Maumee River just south of Toledo. Maumee is a lovely little town that has changed little since my family moved there in the early 1970s. The northwest Ohio region and the Maumee River played an important role in the early history of the United States. The river’s direct connection to the west end of Lake Erie made it a key transportation and trade route into what at the time was referred to as the Northwest Territories.  The British had long considered the territory as Indian land and only maintained military and small trading outposts in the region. White settlement was strongly discouraged. However, at the close of the American Revolution the British ceded control of the region to the Americans (although they took their sweet time getting out of town) and European settlers lost no time spilling over the Appalachians and on into the new territories.

In 1787 Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 that formally opened the region to settlement (and not coincidentally established the concept of public land sales as a way for the cash starved federal government to generate some revenue). Very quickly Lake Erie and it’s major tributaries became critical territory and conflicts frequently flared up as American, British and Indian interests intersected and collided in what was effectively the new American frontier. For thousands of years the Native Americans had used the Maumee River as a major trade route. The European powers and the new American republic recognized the river as the western gateway to the rich lands of the Ohio Country interior (today’s western Ohio, Indiana and lower Michigan). All sides considered control of the waterway a strategic necessity.

The Maumee River basin drains regions of three states

After the close of the American Revolution the British never really vacated the region. They maintained a number of outposts in places such as Detroit (yes, that Detroit) and Fort Miami near the city of Maumee, conducted a regular business of illegal trade with the local Indians and did a lucrative side business in fomenting anti-American sentiment among the tribes of the Western Confederacy.

Sadly, today all that’s left of Fort Miami are some low triangular mounds that trace the outline of the stockade

This all erupted into the Northwest Indian War, culminating in 1794 with the Battle of Fallen Timbers just a few miles away from Fort Miami. The American general, ‘Mad’ Anthony Wayne decisively defeated the tribes of the Western Confederacy on a piece of terrain marked by a tangle of trees that had been blown down during a violent storm. The Indians retreated towards what they thought would be refuge with the British garrison at Fort Miami, but the British commander refused to open the stockade. The surviving Indians scattered and the war was over. Not long after the British abandoned the fort and marched north into Canada.

Nineteen years later the British are back. It’s 1813 and the War of 1812 is raging. The Lake Erie basin is a critical theater of operations. The Americans have decided to invade lower Canada and move to establish a fort and supply depot on the Maumee River to support the invasion. The commander, General William Henry Harrison, selects a spot on a bluff on the south side of the river that overlooks the first set of rapids. These rapids serve as a natural choke point for any boats, barges, canoes or naval vessels trying to move upstream from Lake Erie. It is an ideally situated fort, and whoever controls it also controls all movement on the river. The British want it, and want it bad.

The fort was named Fort Meigs after Ohio governor Return J. Meigs. The fort was originally garrisoned with a few Regular Army troops and Ohio militia. Construction started in February 1813 and just two months later the fort was placed under siege by British forces that had marched down out of Canada and re-occupied the old Fort Miami stockade. Forts Meigs and Miami were located a mere two miles from each other, on opposite sides of the river.

Fort Meigs has been rebuilt and is now an active historical museum site

The siege was broken when 1,200 Kentucky militia moved up from Cincinnati and followed the Maumee River to the fort. In May of 1813 a series of short, sharp ground skirmishes resulted in the defeat of the British and their Indian allies, and the British abandoned Fort Miami. It’s this first siege, and the Kentucky militia’s involvement, that bring us to the real point of this post. (Took me a while to get here, didn’t it?)

Part of the record of the siege is a vividly detailed battle map drawn up by an officer of the Kentucky Militia, Captain William Sebree. Seabree was the commander of a company of infantry that drew most members from around Campbell County, Kentucky. The company was designated the 8th Company of the 10th Regiment, Kentucky Light Infantry that was commanded by Lt. Col. William Boswell. Indications are that Sebree compiled his map after returning to Kentucky at the end of the war. However, the amount of detail in the map – both the cartographic representation of natural and man made features and the written depictions of the flow of the skirmishes and battles – makes it clear that Captain Sebree was working from a rich collection of original material. Certainly he kept a detailed journal while in command and also had copies of his company’s daily logs and reports. He likely also had access to the regimental papers and solicited input from other unit commanders and common soldiers. What emerged was less an authoritative battle map and more a piece of patriotic folk art that still manages to convey in some detail the ebb and flow of battle.

FT Meigs

 Captain William Sebree’s ‘Plan of Fort Meigs’ and It’s Environs’ (click to enlarge)

The map shows that Sebree had an eye for hard military detail, such as the detailed depiction of the Fort Meigs stockade area:

FT Meigs Stockade

 (Click to enlarge)

Or the details of the British artillery positions just across the river from the fort:

FT Meigs - British Artillery Positions

 (Click to enlarge)

But he couldn’t resist a bit of patriotic sentimentality:

FT Meigs - Burying Place

 (Click to enlarge)

And a good bit of artistic embellishment – mounted Indians, boats on the river, trees bending in the breeze, and dogs (dogs?):

FT Meigs - Artistic Elements

 (Click to enlarge)

It’s clear Captain Sebree was not a trained topographer. Many topographic details are badly out of proportion and he makes use of different scales:

FT Meigs - Scales

There is no north arrow or compass rose (on this map, north is to the right). But there is perhaps the more important (to Sebree) ‘all seeing eye’ with the phrase annuit coeptis (Providence favors this endeavor). This symbol is taken from the Great Seal of the United States, adopted around 1782, and was in common use in the early 19th century. However, it may also indicate that Captain Sebree was a Mason, and the first authorized Masonic Lodge in northwestern Ohio was organized by the American officers stationed at Fort Meigs in 1813. It is highly likely that Captain Sebree was a Mason (as were many officers of his time) and a member of this lodge. This is all speculation on my part, but I think the threads are there.

FT Meigs All Seeing Eye

The map appears to be a commercial product. It’s a mix of set type and what looks to be woodcut printing. My guess is that Captain Sebree had these printed for commercial sale to a public eager for a memento of America’s glorious victory over the British and their Indian allies, or he sold copies by subscription. However, I know of only one existing copy that is in the Library of Congress map collection.

It seems Captain Sebree was an adventurous fellow. He was born in Virginia in 1776, migrated to Kentucky and settled in Boone County, studied law after the war and eventually moved to Pensacola, Florida where he was appointed the federal marshall for the territory of West Florida. He died in 1827 of yellow fever and is buried in Saint Michael’s Cemetery in Pensacola.

Dan Wilkins runs a great blog about the War of 1812 and has a section devoted to Fort Meigs and the events that took place there. I lived in Maumee for almost 10 years and have a deep interest in the history of the fort and the battles that took place around it. But until I read Dan’s blog I had no idea that remnants of the original British canon pits dug during the first siege were still visible in the old Fort Meigs Cemetery just east of the fort. If you have any interest in the War of 1812, and in particular the events that took place in the Northwest Territory, I recommend you spend some time taking a look at Dan’s writings.

– Brian

Army Geospatial

My good friend Bill Farr sent me this YouTube link yesterday showing US Army Geospatial Engineers in what appears to be a planning exercise in preparation for deploying to Africa as part of the Ebola relief effort. The video was filmed at the Army Geospatial Center on Fort Belvoir, VA (the old Topographic Engineering Center) and it shows enlisted geospatial analysts running through different scenarios.

I post the video mainly for comparison. A lot of my civilian GIS colleagues really have no idea just what geospatial engineers in the US military do. This is a short but good snapshot of the kinds of projects Army geospatial engineers work on day-to-day.

– Brian

Something Interesting From Trimble

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.

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.

– Brian

Stonewall Jackson’s Topographer

A few days ago my old friend Jim, unreconstructed Southerner (from South Jersey) and full-time VMI (Virginia Military Institute) alumni, let me know that there’s a new book out on VMI’s most well known professor, Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson.  It’s titled ‘Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson’ by S. C. Gwynne.  Jim read an on-line review of the book and commented on how the article mentions Jackson’s keen ability to ‘read the battlefield’.

In previous blog posts I’ve discussed how great military tacticians and strategists have what seems like a God-given ability to read the ground. The ability to look at a particular battle space and know intuitively how forces will array either in the attack or the defense is the mark of a great battlefield commander.  Patton had that ability.  So did Napoleon, Robert E. Lee and Erwin Rommel. Stonewall Jackson was a master of the art, and perhaps one of the best operational-level commanders ever to take to the battlefield.  Jackson was like a mighty sword in Robert E. Lee’s right hand, and the best thing to happen to the Union Army was Jackson’s death on May 10th, 1863.  Had Jackson still been alive and in command of his Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia in July of 1863 Gettysburg would likely have turned out very differently.

As an operational commander Jackson realized he couldn’t take it all in from the saddle of his horse.  He understood that he needed good terrain intelligence in the form of accurate and detailed maps. Jackson was fortunate to gain the services of a talented topographer named Jedediah ‘Jed’ Hotchkiss.  Hotchkiss was a transplanted New Yorker who was running a school in the Shenadoah Valley when the Civil War broke out. He was also a self-taught topographer, geologist and engineer.  Hotchkiss offered his services to the Confederate Army and soon found himself serving on Jackson’s staff as his chief topographer and reaching the rank of Major.


 A post-Civil War photo of Jedediah Hotchkiss

Hotchkiss had a deep knowledge the Shenandoah Valley and used that knowledge to produce extremely detailed and comprehensive maps to support Jackson’s movements. But Hotckiss didn’t just make maps. Jackson so trusted his topographer’s knowledge of the ground and tactical abilities that he often had Hotchkiss lead columns to their objectives. Hotchkiss’ mapping and leadership skills quickly came to the attention of Robert E. Lee and copies of his maps were used extensively by Lee’s headquarters staff. In fact, it was Hotchkiss who reported the news of General Jackson’s wounding at Chancellorsville to Lee.  While Hotchkiss remained with the Second Corps staff until the end of the war he was often called upon by Lee to conduct specialized mapping and reconnaissance missions in support of larger Army of Northern Virginia operations.

At the war’s end Hotchkiss reputation was so well known that General Grant allowed him to keep possession of his maps. After the war Hotckiss’ maps were used extensively by the Federal Government when preparing the Official Record of the Civil War.

The Library of Congress acquired most of Hotchkiss’ map collection in 1948 and it is now one of the centerpieces of the Library’s Civil War map collection. In 1948 the Library published an excellent short biography of Hotckiss’ wartime mapping activities. His maps are true works of art and represent some of the finest battlefield cartography to emerge from the Civil War.


 Enlarged section of a small scale (≈ 1:250,000) map showing the terrain between Harper’s Ferry and Martinsburg

Hotchkiss2Part of a series of maps Hotchkiss prepared detailing the disposition of forces during the Battle of the Wilderness

Hotchkiss Notebook

Detail from Hotchkiss’ notebook while working on maps showing positions of Second Corps engagements, 1864 – 65. This sketch was most likely done while on horseback and shows the incredible detail Hotchkiss put into his initial field sketches. Also note the place names with varying orientations, some appearing upside down. This is because the sketchbook would be rotated so the direction of travel is always ‘up’. Hotchkiss penciled in the place names so they appeared in the proper orientation based on his direction of travel while on horseback. When this field information was transferred to a larger compilation map the cartographers would place all place name data in the proper orientation

After the war Hotchkiss returned to his beloved Shenandoah Valley and continued his teaching and engineering professions. He became a successful businessman and an honored member of the Staunton, Virginia community. He died in Staunton in 1899. On his death his Civil War map collection was donated to the Handley Regional Library in Winchester, Virginia and in 1948 was moved to the Library of Congress.

The Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress has made most of the Hotchkiss collection available for viewing on-line (just click this link). Spending some time on the site will give you an appreciation for the talent and contributions of this important wartime topographer.

– Brian

Terrain Models

WWII Terrain Model Making

Models.  No, not the gal.  What she’s working on.  This is a shot of a WWII defense worker creating a 3D terrain model based on the aerial photo she’s holding in her hand.

The US Army (and, I suspect, the Marine Corps) loves terrain models, and the use of terrain models for operational and tactical planning, from Army corps all the way down to squad level, has been part of our doctrine since before WWII.

Utah Beach Terrain Model

 US Army officers and NCOs studying a terrain model of Utah Beach before the D-Day landings in June, 1944

A terrain model is nothing more than a 3D representation of a portion of the earth’s surface. For the US military it serves as an adjunct to the topographic map and helps Soldiers better visualize the steps or phases of the operation they are about to execute.

A terrain model can be something as simple as an impromptu sand table scratched out on the desert floor by a squad leader somewhere in Iraq, or a highly accurate, scaled and detail correct product built by modeling experts.

Impromptu sand table

 An impromptu ‘sand table’ set up by a small unit leader to walk his Soldiers through a tactical operation. The white tape represents roads and the boxes and ammo can represent the various buildings. Crude, but effective

One of the best examples of a professionally done military terrain model is the prison camp model code named ‘Barbara’ that was built to support the US Special Operations raid on the Son Tay Prison camp in North Vietnam. The model was built by professional modelers working for the CIA and was based on Corona satellite and SR-71 reconnaissance photos.  Even the heights and crown diameters of the trees in and around the compound were properly scaled so the pilots could evaluate the best areas to set their helicopters down.

SonTay Raid Terrain Model 'Barbara'

 The terrain model code named ‘Barbara’ that was constructed in 1970 to support the planning for Operation Ivory Coast, the raid on the Son Tay prison camp in North Vietnam. The goal was to free American POWs reported to be imprisoned there. While the raid found no prisoners it was considered a success because it was executed without a hitch and so unnerved the North Vietnamese that they instituted better care and prison conditions for all American POWs

And sometimes your ‘allies’ are so lacking in map reading and military operational skills that the only way to get the point across is to walk them through the operation using a terrain model.

3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines terrain model in Afghanistan

3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines in Afghanistan, walking members of the Afghan National Army and Police through the phases of a joint military operation using a terrain model

While the use of sand tables and terrain models is ingrained in how we train our small unit leaders, doctrine addressing just who was responsible for building the more formal and complex terrain models was always lacking. The problem I frequently ran into as a Terrain Analysis Technician (Warrant Officer) in charge of small detachments of enlisted Terrain Analysts was that our commanders frequently associated ‘terrain analysis’ with ‘terrain model’ and assumed that making terrain models was my job. I actually had one Engineer brigade commander lecture me on how he knew with absolute certainty that terrain analysis units were specially trained in making terrain models and that we even had special modeling equipment as part of our equipment authorization. It also didn’t help that we often had talented artists in our terrain analysis units who enjoyed making terrain models and would often sell their services around the command headquarters. (Yes, I’m talking about you, Mark Nielander!)

There was a US Army Forces Command (FORSCOM) regulation that prohibited using Army terrain analysis and topographic units to make terrain models, but that never slowed down eager senior commanders who just couldn’t live without a terrain model. In one memorable episode in the mid-90’s the III Corps Commander at Fort Hood, LTG Tom Schwartz, directed a large scale terrain model of our operational area in Korea be set up inside the headquarters building for an upcoming joint exercise. My boss, the III Corps G2, looked me in the eye and said “get it done”.  I helpfully passed him a copy of the FORSCOM regulation. Without even glancing at it he dropped it into the trash can, looked me in the eye again and said “get it done”. Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full.

Thankfully the Deputy G2 had wrangled a bunch of sharp NCOs from both the G2 and G3 sections to do the actual work, so all I did was advise.  Over the Christmas 1995 holiday season a terrain model of the central Korean peninsula emerged that filled the entire floor of one of the headquarters building atriums (and if you’ve ever been in the III Corps headquarters building you know how big that space is). It was made out of crushed newspaper and spray foam insulation, with hand painted details. The G2 even had little airplane models buzzing overhead on special wires to represent the early UAV systems he had at this disposal. The model was so big that our standard laser pointers didn’t have the power or reach to highlight the key areas. One of our sharp NCOs ran over to the post theater and borrowed a portable theater light with a spot filter. We set the light up on the second floor of the atrium overlooking the terrain model and used that as the ‘pointer’.

By the time model was done it was like a carnival sideshow, with folks from near and far dropping in to marvel at what had to be the most outlandish and cheesy terrain model ever built. General Schwartz loved it.

Today the digital world is awash in ‘terrain visualization’ software. Given the high resolution imagery and elevation datasets available for just about anywhere our military forces fight it is easy to generate realistic and accurate computer models almost on the fly. But still, nothing satisfies like a physical model (just like nothing satisfies like a paper map). That’s why digital-to-solid terrain modeling systems have come on strong in the past several years.  As this picture shows, when you’ve got to gather up a bunch of folks to look at a key piece of terrain nothing fits the bill like a real terrain model.

Fort Irwin Terrain Model

A solid terrain model of Fort Irwin, California, generated from digital data by Solid Terrain Modeling, Inc. The model was first shown at the 2003 ESRI International User Conference in San Diego. Since this show the technology has gotten faster, cheaper and easier to use

So what’s on the horizon? I’m waiting for the first cheap desktop solid modeling printers to hit the market so I can crank out 3D models of my favorite fishing holes. Canon? Epson? HP? Anyone?

– Brian