Going beyond GPS is the new order of the day

November 17, 2016  - By
The Trimble Dimensions conference.

The Trimble Dimensions conference.

Times have changed, and the technology landscape is much, much different today than it was as recently as ten years ago when GPS was the driving-force technology for geospatial users and geospatial equipment, and the exclusive concern of many companies in the industry. In that era, their challenges were to design the best performing receiver in terms of accuracy, size, weight, ruggedness and so on.

Now, GPS technology has been commoditized in mobile devices (the GNSS chip in your smartphone costs about $1.50), and high-precision GNSS is heading in that direction. It’s hard to make a living designing “GPS boxes.”

Sure, GPS is still a core technology offered in most hardware products that geospatial professionals use, but it’s not the centerpiece. It’s all about system solutions, of which software (and hardware besides GPS) is a major component.

As just one example of this overall industry trend, let’s look at how the message of system solutions was abundantly clear last week at the Trimble Dimensions User Conference  in Las Vegas. This event reportedly drew 4,400 attendees from more than 80 countries.

More than 4.400 attended Trimble Dimensions at the Las Vegas Venetial Hotel.

More than 4.400 attended Trimble Dimensions at the Venetian Hotel.

Virtual/Augmented (AR/VR) Reality

The Trimble Dimensions general plenary discussion didn’t feature the latest GNSS technology. In fact, there was barely a mention of GNSS. Nonetheless, the cool factor was present, with the highlight being a live demonstration of virtually reality using Microsoft HoloLens goggles and Trimble SketchUp software.

Over the years I’ve written quite a bit about augmented and virtual reality. This technology has a bright future for locating hidden assets (think underground and inside wall infrastructure) and visualizing design ideas. For this technology to work, it’s not just about having a set of goggles. One needs software and an accurate geo-database.

During the plenary, architect Greg Lynn demonstrated the value of virtual reality technology by “displaying” a building concept on an empty table on the stage. Lynn and a colleague donned HoloLens goggles while a camera was set up with HoloLens goggles to display what they were “seeing” through the HoloLens.

AR/VR reality are a step closer to being a practical technology to deploy in the field. In a way, AR/VR technology seems to be taking the same path as tablet computers. Tablet computers existed way before the iPad was introduced. They were expensive, and history is littered with failed tablet computer ventures, just like Google Glass failed in the AR/VR world.

I remember paying ~$2,500 for a Fujitsu Stylistic tablet about 10 years ago for my work. Like the Stylistic, HoloLens isn’t cheap. It’s $3,000 for a development kit and $5,000 for the commercial version. It’s not priced for the average consumer, but the attraction is undeniable and due to the price tag; industrial markets will pick it up before the consumer market will.

It might take a Steve Jobs-like push to punch it through the finish line, but it’s just a matter of time before AR/VR technology is commonplace.

Solutions

Hardware isn’t sticky. Software is. Even better, hardware and software bundled tightly together is the sweet spot. Dimensions showed how, more and more, geospatial technique is geared around solutions, not boxes.

Trimble partner solutions area at Trimble Dimensions 2016.

Trimble partner solutions area at Trimble Dimensions 2016.

Trimble solutions area at Trimble Dimensions 2016.

Trimble solutions area at Trimble Dimensions 2016.

One case in point: I took a 45-minute ride from the Venetian Hotel on the Vegas Strip to the outdoor demonstration site in the desert east of Las Vegas.

The demonstration site was a playground for heavy equipment utilizing Trimble hardware and software — from tractors to scrapers to bulldozers and paving machines. It’s difficult to imagine the scale of the outdoor demonstration site, so following are a few images.

Demonstration site facing south with the Las Vegas Strip to the southwest.

Demonstration site facing south with the Las Vegas Strip to the southwest.

I caught a ride in a fully autonomous tractor that was outfitted with  guidance technology (GNSS using RTX satellite correction service), collision avoidance sensor and display console. It repeatedly stayed within the track defined by the orange cones you see in the above image.

What good is autonomous guidance without collision avoidance? A sensor on the front of the tractor senses objects and either avoids them, slows down or stops. Trimble says they are working on perfecting the turns at the end of each line where traditionally a driver had to take control. This is a difficult task when the tractor is pulling an implement such as a planter or sprayer.

In the not-too-distant future, tractors will be completely hands-free from start to finish.

Wi-Fi radio.

Wi-Fi radio.

Back inside the Venetian Hotel, I saw this little beast. No, it’s not a funky GNSS antenna. It’s an industrial Wi-Fi radio. Yes, Trimble owns some pretty cool outdoor Wi-Fi technology vis-à-vis Fidelity Comtech, a company that Trimble acquired in 2015.

I’ve set up outdoor Wi-Fi infrastructure before in relatively benign environments (think agriculture), but I didn’t use anything like this. This equipment is built to propagate outdoor, long-range Wi-Fi connectivity in nasty, noisy environments like shipping terminals and construction sites. It can reshape the antenna pattern on the fly in microseconds, and shape the beam width/range to cover a specific geographic area.

GNSS Gear

Even though I’ve been talking about how this isn’t a just a GPS or GNSS environment anymore, I can’t leave without investigating the latest GNSS gear.

Check this out.

Trimble Catalyst software GNSS receiver.

Trimble Catalyst software GNSS receiver.

In the past, I’ve written about GNSS software receivers. They exist, but require some serious computing power. Well, some smartphones have powerful CPUs, such as the Samsung Galaxy 6 and 7. Trimble has developed a software GNSS receiver called the Trimble Catalyst that uses the CPU of a Samsung smartphone as the GNSS receiver…dual frequency. The antenna on the range pole is just an antenna, albeit an L1/L2 antenna. Using an RTK network, Trimble says it can deliver centimeter accuracy. Wow.

To be fair, it’s got some significant limitations such as it only uses GPS and Galileo, only runs on certain Android devices (it will likely never run on iOS devices), and eats up the smartphone battery. And although Trimble said it shares resources in a friendly manner, I must think that a rogue app or update might cause things to slow down. Although it won’t behave as snappy as RTK on an R10 and won’t recover as quickly from obstructions like trees, terrain and buildings, it most certainly could bring high-precision GNSS to a wide-array of previously non-RTK users.

Thanks, and see you next month.

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Eric Gakstatter

About the Author:

Eric Gakstatter has been involved in the GPS/GNSS industry for more than 20 years. For 10 years, he held several product management positions in the GPS/GNSS industry, managing the development of several medium- and high-precision GNSS products along with associated data-collection and post-processing software. Since 2000, he's been a power user of GPS/GNSS technology as well as a consultant with capital management companies; federal, state and local government agencies; and private companies on the application and/or development of GPS technology. Since 2006, he's been a contributing editor to GPS World magazine and the Geospatial Solutions website. He is the editor of Geospatial Solutions Monthly, a weekly newsletter focused on geospatial technologies. Follow Eric on Twitter at @GPSGIS_Eric.

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