GNSS and the real-time network: The surveyor’s best friend

May 4, 2016  - By

A lot of talk is being made about UAVs these days and how this technology is going to revolutionize many industries, with surveying being one of the biggest users.

I won’t deny the impact this new tool is going to have on our profession (as written in my last column). But I don’t think it will compare to the use of GNSS technology and how it modernized measuring methods for the surveyor.

Gammon-reelI’m often asked by young surveyors what I think is the biggest improvement experienced by the surveying profession. Ironically, I asked that same question to my teachers when I was a new survey technician. My mentors will talk of the electronic distance meter, the theodolite or the total station. (Some old timers even told me the best improvement was the gammon reel for their plumb bob or the reel for a steel “chain”!)

While these were good advancements, for me the biggest improvement was the introduction of GPS into surveying, followed by the advancement to real-time network capability. Now, coupled with modern communication methods of radio or cellular transmission to permanent base stations, the GNSS rover has become one of the most valuable tools in the surveyor’s toolbox.

To understand the importance of GNSS technology and its use by the surveying community, first take a look at the history of the profession and method/devices used for measuring. Land surveyors have been measuring boundaries of parcels for centuries, dating back to Egyptian times and workers known as “rope stretchers.” Their use of rope with knots tied at specific intervals was the measuring stick of the time period.

From "Discovering Geometry: An Inductive Approach," M. Serra, 1997.

Egyptian rope stretchers. (From “Discovering Geometry: An Inductive Approach,” M. Serra, 1997)

As centuries passed and measuring units were developed, surveyors used these dimensional tools for measuring and describing land parcels. By the time the early settlers of America began traveling westward, surveyors were using a 66-foot-long Gunter’s chain made with 100 links, each almost eight inches long. Over time the links would stretch until the surveyor’s measurements were not accurate for land surveys.

Gunter's chain photographed at Campus Martius Museum. (Wikimedia commons)

Gunter’s chain photographed at Campus Martius Museum of the Northwest Territory, Marietta, Ohio. (Wikimedia commons)

By the early 1900s, tapes made from low-expansion steel became more widely used and much more accurate for surveying. The early 1960s brought new technology with measurement systems using laser light beams with the ability to travel several miles with sufficient accuracy.

A total station.

A total station.

The electronic distance meter (EDM) allowed the surveyor to cover longer distances in much less time than the conventional method of the steel tape, leading to more productive field time. This technology was further refined to be installed inside of traditional theodolites to create the modern total station instrument — still used today for basic measuring of angles and distance. Almost all surveying projects can be completed using a total station, but the invention of a remotely available measuring device would be a welcome tool in the surveyor’s toolbox.

Enter the 1980s and the adaptation of the military’s satellite measuring system for civilian use. While early users and developers needed a Ph.D. in mathematics to configure its use, GPS measurement revolutionized long-distance measurement for the surveying profession. Static GPS measurement took many hours of data collection and even longer processing time, but with terrific results and with tremendous accuracy.

Further refinements with hardware and software configurations brought more affordable and user-friendly systems that gave surveying community another resource for accurate measurement. While the use of real-time kinematicc (RTK) expanded greatly in the late 1990s and 2000s, the big difference in the past 10+ years has been the introduction of real-time networks and permanent base stations. This advancement helps by eliminating the need for a base receiver and radio with an amplified repeater, and thus another employee guarding the idle base station equipment.

North SmaRTK GNSS RTK Receiver being used to survey the forest population in Switzerland. (Wikimedia Commons)

North SmaRTK GNSS RTK Receiver being used to survey the forest population in Switzerland. (Wikimedia Commons)

Depending on the surveyor’s location, real-time networks are readily available by paid subscription or through publicly funded transportation department. These systems are very reliable and don’t require a six-figure investment in equipment.

All survey data-collection methods, no matter the measuring procedure used and positional accuracy required for the project, needs to follow a strict quality-control procedure for verification of its content and position. The old adage “Measure twice, cut once” works well here, too, so let’s discuss what is involved with good measuring procedures.

Measuring procedures

Prior to any field measurements are taken, it is good practice to verify satellite availability during your planned measuring period. The U.S. GPS currently consists of 31 active and healthy units orbiting the planet and crisscrossing the sky 24/7. The geometry created by radio signals received from these satellites constantly vary in size and strength. By using mission-planning software, the user can accurately predict the best times of the day to collect positional locations with the highest accuracy and repeatability. Low numbers of satellites or strength of constellational geometry can lead to inaccurate locations and incorrect measurements between points.

The introduction and allowance of other satellite systems into our data collection system (GLONASS, Galileo, BeiDou, IRNSS) will enhance the availability and strength of constellation geometry throughout the data-collection process.

Another potential problem for GNSS data collection is solar storms, sunspots and other radio interruptions. Most manufacturers will notify the user of major atmospheric radiation events, but check the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) website for updates on potential events. The key here is to plan your field collection prior to execution, in order to reduce errors in measurement or even interruptions to completing the work in a timely manner.

Survey results are only as good as the measurements, and following strict guidelines is very important. When using survey-grade GNSS equipment in a real-time function, many items need to be monitored while collecting data to ensure good quality positions. Here are items as listed by the National Geodetic Survey (NGS) in the “User Guidelines for Single Base Real-Time GNSS Positioning” manual on the NGS website:

  • Accuracy versus precision
    • Accuracy is how your collected data compares to the defined standard.
    • Precision is how often the solution is repeated.
    • Achieving both provides necessary confidence in field measurements.
  • Redundancy
    • The ability to collect similar measurements at different times, satellite constellation geometry and atmospheric conditions.
  • Multipath
    • Minimizing opportunities for measurement to be affected by reflected or misdirected signals.
  • Position dilution of precision (PDOP)
    • Higher readings usually achieved when measuring during periods of weak satellite constellation geometry.
  • Root-mean-square (RMS)
    • Statistical measurement of precision notifying the user of the positional quality of the measurement based upon quality of satellite signals.
  • Site localizations/calibrations
    • Basing the strength of survey network on the location of the base station and the accuracy of the monument it is located upon.
    • Typically used when real-time network connectivity is not achievable.
  • Latency
    • The delay of the received satellite signal data and correction information at the base, sent to the rover for computing correction values.
  • Signal-to-noise ratio (S/N)
    • Ratio in which burdening noise is measured versus the actual signal from the satellite.
  • Float and fixed solutions
    • Floating solutions occur when precision for survey-grade measurements is not met due to noise, lack of satellites, weak satellite geometry and latency.
  • Elevation mask
    • This setting is a filter to eliminate signals from satellites below the user-defined angle, thus eliminating opportunities for weak constellation geometry and noise interference.
  • Geoid model
    • Correction model used to improve vertical measurement with GNSS data collection by incorporating previously determined elevations across a wide area.
A U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey marker. (Wikimedia Commons)

A U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey marker. (Wikimedia Commons)

While all of these components are necessary for quality data collection, one of the most critical steps is horizontal and vertical verification on published or previously established control points or monuments. By checking into a known point before every data-collection session, you can eliminate errors in rod/antenna height and/or coordinate system setup. Checking a known point can also help determine if the correction signal is providing accurate information, either from the RTK base station or as part of a subscription service via cellphone or radio. It will also help discover poor PDOP or RMS due to weak satellite configurations. Also, if the rover unit takes longer than usual to initialize, a potential data-collection issue may occur to bad conditions.

The biggest complaint I get (and see) is field crews not checking the accuracy of the GNSS unit during the course of a survey. Hopping out of the vehicle, firing up the data collector, and taking a measurement multiple times without redundant measurements or verifying existing control points/monuments is a recipe for disaster.

Here are my keys to successful data collection with GNSS technology:

  1. Keep the equipment is good working order: batteries charged, receivers and collectors in travel cases when not in use, poles kept in safe places and regularly checked for plumb.
  2. Utilize a checklist for project startup.
    a. Horizontal coordinate system to be used.
    b. Vertical datum to be used.
    c. List of multiple published or previously established control points for datum verification.
  3. Once receiver has a fixed solution, verify horizontal and vertical position on known point.
  4. Minimize loss of fixed solution times, recheck when establishing new fixed positions.
  5. If possible, recheck main control points at various time throughout the day to establish redundancy.
  6. Reverify at the end of the session and at the end of the day.

While GNSS has greatly decreased field time for covering large areas quickly, it must still be used correctly in order to provide accurate positional locations. The accuracy of these positions are what the measurements of the surveyor relies upon, and they must meet a high standard of confidence. Our profession prides itself on being called upon as the “expert measurer,” so our methods of measurement must be up to those standards.

While it took a little time to get the cost-effectiveness, reliability and user friendliness to a level of affordability for the surveyor, GNSS has become one of the best tools in our toolboxes. GNSS has revolutionized modern surveying, and I, for one, appreciate its ability to help me offer my services as an expert measurer.

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