Thoughts on Mobile Devices, UAVs, and Cheap Data-Collection Software

May 8, 2012  - By 0 Comments

On the coattails of last week’s Geospatial Solutions newsletter outlining the United Nations’ five- to ten-year vision on geospatial information management, and my column on the mobile device operating system war, here are some more thoughts on those subjects.

As the cost of GIS data collection devices (handheld, tablet) has plummeted in the past two years and smartphones have proliferated, the quest for inexpensive GIS data-collection software has intensified. It makes sense. When people were used to paying thousands of dollars for a GIS data-collection device, another US$800-$1,000 for GIS data collection software seemed reasonable. It might have added 15-25% to the total price of the system. With today’s inexpensive devices, sometimes data collection software ends up costing more than the device itself, thus pushing the demand for cheaper software. On top of that, as I discussed a couple of weeks ago, we are in the middle of a mobile device operating system war. Whereas it used to be a no-brainer that Windows Mobile (or some derivative of it) was going to be the dominant operating system and supported by software developers, that’s not the case any longer. Windows Embedded is going to be around, but it’s clearly not the dominant mobile device operating system it once was.

Interestingly enough, GIS data collection software for iOS and Andoird have followed the iOS and Android price trends. The mobile devices running iOS and Android are inexpensive, sometimes free. You don’t see any iOS or Android GIS data collection software packages costing thousands of dollars. On the other hand, many Windows Mobile-based geospatial softwares cost upwards of US$2,000. Of course, you can make the argument that the Windows Mobile-based softwares are mature and feature rich. That’s true, as most of the iOS and Android-based softwares have a fraction of the capability, but I’d venture to say that most users don’t need many of the features they are paying for. I also agree with one of the trends outlined in the UN document in that I think open source might be where things are headed.

  • Free and open source software will continue to grow as viable alternatives both in terms of software, and potentially in analysis and processing.

Ironically, open source GIS data collection software has been around for years. However, you probably don’t know about it because no organization is actively marketing it (if there’s no revenue, there’s no marketing budget). Software like gvSIG Mobile is a reasonably powerful GIS data collection product. A little quirky? Perhaps. But, if your budget is depleted and your requirements exceed the capabilities of the typical free or inexpensive software in the iTunes or Google Market, you might tolerate the quirkiness.

gvSIG Mobile Open Source GIS Data Collection Software.

gvSIG Mobile Open Source GIS Data Collection Software.

The UN also predicts that geospatial data will trend toward open source.

  • Within five years the level of detail on transport systems within OpenStreetMap will exceed virtually all other data sources and will be respected and used by major organizations and governments across the globe.
  • Community-based mapping will continue to grow.
  • There is unlikely to be a market for datasets like those currently sold to power navigation and location-based services solutions in five years, as they will have been superseded by crowdsourced datasets from OpenStreetMaps or other comparable initiatives.|
While I agree that the trend towards open source data is gaining traction, five years is a really aggressive timeline for phasing out the likes of TeleAtlas (owned by TomTom) and Navteq (owned by Nokia). These are the two major map database suppliers for virtually all GPS navigation devices used in vehicles around the world. I think there will be, for the forseeable future, a quanitifiable and valued difference between open source data and commercial geospatial data. Commercial users will pay for perceived quality and accountability, especially if the price differential is minimal. Consumer GPS users (vehicle navigation) might be a different story. A $30 difference in retail price can sway a consumer from one brand to another.
More on UAVs for Mapping
One of the first trends in the UN listed are:
  • There will be an increased demand for applications to be used with high-resolution imagery.
  • The use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) as a tool for rapid geospatial data collection will increase.

Trimble’s acquisition of Gatewing just last month supports this trend as well as the Obama administration’s accelerating the use of civilian UAVs back in February of this year via the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012.

Cost-effective mapping UAVs are starting to emerge. In just this past week, Event 38 announced a small mapping UAV for under US$1,000.

Low-cost E382 Mapping UAV from Event 38.

Low-cost E382 Mapping UAV from Event 38.

Augmented Reality

As does the UN vision, I think augmented reality has a bright future for both commercial users and consumers.

  • Augmented reality applications will be pervasive, with the ability to view a whole range of data overlays on top of the real world.

For professional geospatial users, the situational awareness possibilities are tremendous. Imagine the backhoe operator being able to “see” the underground infrastructure in order to avoid it. Imagine the park superintendent being able to “see” all of the underground irrigation and drainage lines by simply positioning a tablet computer towards the area of interest.


Thanks, and see you next week.

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This article is tagged with , , , and posted in GSS Monthly, Mapping, Technology, UAS/UAV
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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