Live Event Webinar Follow-up: Answering Your Questions from the 2014 Esri Conference

August 6, 2014  - By


A few weeks ago at the Esri 2014 International User conference in San Diego, California, we conducted our first live event webinar from a Plexiglas booth sitting among many of the 14,000+ attendees buzzing around inside the San Diego Convention Center.

The webinar focused on high-precision GNSS on mobile devices (iOS/Android/Windows), unmanned aerial systems (UAS), and real-time GIS transactions. These are hot topics in the geospatial world, and that was confirmed when I received about 100 pre-webinar questions and more than 100 post-webinar questions.

In my article this month, I’ll do my best to provide answers to the questions asked. If I don’t get to your question, or if you have another, please email me at

First of all, if you didn’t attend the webinar and would like to view the recording, you can register here and you’ll be provided a link to view it. It’s a great, interactive discussion. I grabbed Sharad Garg, iOS consultant, from the Esri show floor to talk about the intricacies and complexities of using GNSS receivers on iPads and iPhones. 

Without further delay, following are some of the more popular pre- and post-webinar questions I received.

Mobile Devices

First, I’ll start with the questions about mobile devices and high-precision GNSS.

1. Will Android be the dominant mobile tablet platform in the Enterprise?

It’s hard to say. I recently met with a group of enterprise IT professionals and we were discussing this issue. Basically, the group was equally divided into thirds. One third were using Android. one third were using iOS, and one third were using Windows.

Android advantages: Lots of mobile devices available that run Android.
Android disadvantages: Open source = non-standard implementations, so app software may not run on every device; security concerns.

iOS advantages: Consistent user interface, consistent software development environment, popularity of iPad and iPhone.
iOS disadvantages: Closed ecosystem (very limited number of tablets); doesn’t interface to devices (such as GNSS) that haven’t been through the Apple certification process; security concerns.

Windows advantages: Security; lots of legacy apps and utilities written for Windows.
Windows disadvantages: Limited number of tablets being deployed based on Windows.

For enterprise organizations, data security is a huge concern. Since Android is open source and gaining the most market share (at least in the consumer market), it’s got a target on its back for hackers. That’s the biggest concern I hear from corporate IT professionals. How will Android device developers address that, or will they? The consumer market for Android devices is exploding regardless of security. Do they even care about the enterprise market? Apparently Apple does as it recently signed an agreement with IBM to address the enterprise market, with IBM committing to deploying more than 100 enterprise solutions for iOS.


Site of the webinar broadcast from the Esri UC.

2. Which mobile platform is the most universal/easy to integrate with GNSS receivers?

Out of the box, Windows and Windows Mobile devices are still the easiest to interface to external GNSS receivers for the average consumer. Using Bluetooth, serial or USB, NMEA (or proprietary binary) data flows easily via the device com port or virtual com port. If you’re using a Bluetooth interface, there is some inconsistency among mobile devices due to the different versions of Bluetooth management software used on mobile devices, but it’s workable, and worst case you can buy an inexpensive third-party Bluetooth software manager like BlueSoleil.

With the use of an app such as Bluetooth GPS that allows you to select an external GNSS receiver, connecting your Android device to an external Bluetooth GNSS receiver is relatively painless.

Apple products are the toughest to integrate with external GNSS receivers via Bluetooth. Each GNSS receiver has to be specifically designed with an Apple Bluetooth authentication chip and be subjected to the Apple certification process, which can be lengthy and costly. This is the reason why you see very few Bluetooth GNSS receivers available for Apple products. The good news is that once the GNSS receiver is approved, the Bluetooth connection happens automatically when the GNSS receiver is in range of the Apple device. No com port config, no baud rate to worry about, etc.

3. What is available on Android that will make my smartphone a practical and useable tool that can assist in collecting professional data?

First of all, you need to find a high-precision Bluetooth receiver to connect to your Android device. Then, establish the Bluetooth partnership between the Android and GNSS receiver (scan for Bluetooth devices, enter passcode, etc). Once you have that, download the Bluetooth GPS utility I mentioned above and it will allow you to select which GNSS device to use (external vs. internal). Once you’ve selected the external GNSS receiver and connected to it via Bluetooth, every location app on your Android device will use the high-precision GNSS receiver for location.

This applies to an Android tablet or Samsung Galaxy phone. Take a look at this article to see how I ran RTK on a Samsung Galaxy using a Bluetooth RTK receiver.

Today’s challenge is finding “professional” GIS data collection apps that run in the Android environment. There are a few, but the selection is limited. Esri has its Collector for ArcGIS app that runs on Android, but it requires an ArcGIS server backend or ArcGIS Online account. Other data collection apps like Fulcrum and Amigocloud run on Android as cloud-based services.

4. Is there an actual GPS receiver within smartphones, or are they triangulating off of cell towers?

There’s a GNSS receiver in virtually every smartphone manufactured. The GNSS chips are so cheap (a few dollars) compared to the functionality gained that it wouldn’t make sense not to design a GNSS receiver in a smartphone. Now, just because there’s a GNSS chip in each smartphone doesn’t mean it’s the only technology used for location. For example, Apple iOS uses multiple data sources to determine the location at any given time. It will use a combination of cellular triangulation, Wi-Fi IP address, and internal GNSS receiver and external GNSS.

5. Which applications do you see requiring RTK accuracy within the mass-market applications?

A couple of years ago at the GPS World Leadership Dinner at the ION GNSS conference in Nashville, Dr. Todd Humphreys of the University of Texas at Austin predicted that you’ll have RTK (real-time centimeter accuracy) capability on your smartphone by the year 2020. I agree with his prediction, and I think we’ll see inexpensive Bluetooth RTK “pucks” well before 2020, as I’ve written before.

Often, I get the question raised above. Who needs RTK on a mobile phone?

I can’t tell you any more than that in the early 1970s when GPS was first being conceived, not one could tell you what GPS would be used for today. I love the following quote from Steve Jobs: “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

6. Since many devices are complete systems with GNSS inside, do you see the direction of the industry moving towards remote “add-ons” like Bluetooth receivers?

Bluetooth receivers are certainly trending, and it’s primarily driven by the explosion of powerful yet inexpensive tablets and smartphones in the past five years, starting with the iPad/iPhone, and now with Android devices and smartphones in general. People want to use their consumer devices in a professional capacity and some need high-precision GNSS receivers, so that’s driving the demand for “add-ons” like Bluetooth GNSS receivers, laser rangefinders, and more.

Unmanned Aerial Systems

Ok, let’s transition to some questions on UAS (such as UAV, drones).

1. Do you see the FAA allowing simple operations for very low altitude UAV-sensors?

It’s difficult to speculate what the FAA will implement, but I have to think, based on its past behavior, that the initial rules will be super-conservative with minimum requirements being that a licensed pilot will be required to operate the UAS in addition to strict equipment requirements.

What’s going to be interesting to observe is what the FAA will do about the hundreds (maybe thousands) of UAS operators who will attempt (or are attempting) to “fly under the radar” and skirt the FAA rules. We’ve seen the FAA attempt (sometimes successfully and sometimes not) to crack down on some UAS operators whom it believes are violating the rules, but there have only been a handful of those cases.

2. When do you think the FAA will release rules for commercial UAV users?

The U.S. Congress-mandated deadline is September 2015. Some sources are doubting the FAA can meet that deadline.  The FAA UAS Integration Manager says they will.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the FAA issued some guidelines in September 2015, but I seriously doubt they will publish the full set of rules by then.

By the way, I attended an interesting UAS presentation at the AEC Summit prior to the Esri UC. You can see my write-up of it here.

That’s it for now. I’ve got many more questions from the audience that I’ll address in upcoming newsletters. Stay tuned and feel free to email me directly at

Thanks and see you next time.

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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 consulted 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 contributor to GPS World magazine, serving as editor of the monthly Survey Scene newsletter until 2015, and as editor of Geospatial Solutions monthly newsletter for GPS World's sister site Geospatial Solutions, which focuses on GIS and geospatial technologies.

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