GPS Receivers for GIS Data Collection

June 22, 2009  - By

In my last issue, I proclaimed the start of GPS/GIS month, with a focus on the subject in three of my newsletters. This is the second in that series. The first column can be read here. Also, I’m hosting a webinar June 30 to discuss using GPS receivers and technology for GIS data collection. In my last newsletter I discussed the use of consumer GPS receivers for GIS data collection. Remember the analogy I used…a Volkswagen Beetle wasn’t designed to run in a Formula One race? This column is going to focus on the Formula One cars, not the Volkswagen Beetles. In other words, it will focus on the GPS receivers on the market that are designed for GIS data collection. I will refer to them as GPS/GIS receivers.

What differentiates a GPS/GIS receiver from any other GPS receiver?

The number-one differentiator is that GPS/GIS receivers are designed do a better job of optimizing tracking and accuracy in areas where GIS data collection is performed. The operative term is “are designed.” Specifically, engineers who designed GPS/GIS receivers do so with different design criteria than engineers who design consumer GPS receivers and even survey GPS receivers. For example, a GPS/GIS receiver must be designed to operate where GIS data is collected and with reasonable accuracy. On the other hand, consumer GPS receivers are designed to track in tough conditions, but at the expense of accuracy. Furthermore, survey GPS receivers hold accuracy as the number-one priority so they sacrifice the ability to track in many environments.

The following matrix illustrates my point (1 = Highest priority design consideration, 5 = Lowest priority design consideration):

There are thousands of designers of consumer GPS receivers (Garmin, TomTom, Magellan, etc.) and probably only 10 designers of GPS receivers for surveying (Trimble, Leica/NovAtel, Topcon, Magellan Professional, Septentrio, JAVAD GNSS, NavCom, etc.). There are even fewer designers of GPS/GIS receivers — less than 10 (Trimble, Magellan Professional, Topcon, Geneq, Sokkia, Hemisphere, JAVAD GNSS, ViaSat).

The market for GPS/GIS receivers is a complicated one. That’s the primary reason why there are only a few manufacturers. Here are some of the reasons why it is complex:

  • Users require a GPS receiver that will work effectively in many different and challenging environments such as under trees, in mountainous areas and near buildings. There is not one product on the market that will meet every user’s requirements.
  • Users have various needs for the type of GIS data collected. For example, some only need two or three attributes for a utility pole and others may need to collect dynamic line segments such as speed zones and road lane types.
  • There is not an effective way for manufacturers to distribute such products. The traditional survey instrument dealers (not all) are not typically trained or experienced in GPS/GIS technology. Since there is not an effective distribution channel, the alternative is to create a grass-roots distribution channel, which is very time-consuming.

There are many factors to consider when attempting to determine what sort of GPS/GIS data collection system best fits a user’s requirements. Here are some in order of priority:

  1. Budget. One could argue that data collection requirements should be #1. Maybe, but that depends on what stage of planning you’re in. If you are in the budget planning phase and are able to influence it, then I agree that user requirements should be the first priority. However, the vast majority of people I encounter are given an established budget to work within. In that case, budget should be #1 because it’s a waste of time to consider solutions outside of the budget constraint.
  2. Accuracy. When I ask a potential GPS/GIS user what their accuracy requirement is, the typical answer is “as accurate as I can get”. Of course, you can imagine the ensuing conversation…Me: Well, Ok, you can achieve results around a centimeter.
    Them: That’s great. A centimeter is perfect.
    Me: Ok, here are the cost and training requirements.
    Them: Wow, why is it so expensive???????
    Me: There is a direct relationship between accuracy and cost. The more accurate you want, the more expensive it’s going to be.
    Them: Well, Ok, we reeeeally only need to be within about three feet.
    Me: Do you need elevation values within three feet?
    Them (now leery of the response to their answers): Will those cost more?
    Me: Yes, probably quite a bit more.
    Them: No, we don’t need elevations.
  3. Data collection requirements. Essentially, consumer GPS receivers and survey GPS systems “think” in terms of points. More specifically, consumer GPS receivers operate in terms of waypoints and survey GPS systems operate in terms of point averaging.
    Some of the more sophisticated survey GPS systems offer Field-to-Finish (F2F) capability whereas points are automatically connected to form a line back in the office such as with curbs and property lines.GIS data collection systems are different. GIS “sees” the world in one of three ways; points, lines (or polylines) and areas (or polygons). All have some level of database information attached. For example, a fire hydrant is a point on a map but there is also information in the GIS about that fire hydrant such as condition, last inspection date, etc. A parcel is a polygon on a map but there is also information in the GIS about that parcel such as ownership, tax id, etc.
    Additionally, there are several methods to record all three.For example, a wetland biologist may be mapping the perimeter of a wetland area but wants to “take points” on certain habitat nests he/she sees while walking the perimeter. Some of the more powerful GIS data collection software is built so the biologist can temporarily suspend mapping the perimeter and be allowed to map the next site and resume mapping the perimeter when point recording is finished.

    Using the proper data collection software that matches the user requirements can save a significant amount of time and energy.


  4. Data collection conditions. This is the biggest “gotcha” for GPS/GIS receivers. A certain GPS receiver designed for GIS data collection may perform flawlessly in the open-sky and works perfectly well for uses such as agriculture or other open-sky environments. However, most uses consist of some or all work done in “less-than-ideal” GPS conditions. Tree canopy is the biggest culprit. In that scenario, receiver performance can differ significantly. Some won’t track at all in those environments and some will track very well, but accept excessively noisy satellite measurements (which significantly degrades accuracy). The best ones are designed with a keen balance of satellite tracking and accuracy – with settings the user can change depending on the environment.

Why are GPS/GIS receivers so much more expensive than consumer GPS receivers?

Part of the reason that consumer GPS receivers are adapted to GPS/GIS data collection is the significant difference in cost. A consumer GPS receive
r can be purchased for well under US$200. The entry level price for a GPS receiver with comparable accuracy, but with GIS data collection features is four times that. Furthermore, the entry level price for a GPS/GIS receiver capable of sub-meter accuracy is about $2,000.

There are several specific and justifiable reasons for the price difference, but suffice to say that significantly more design engineering, technical support and sales effort is involved with GPS/GIS receivers. Furthermore, the volume of GPS/GIS receivers is miniscule compared to consumer receivers. If there were tens of millions of GPS/GIS receivers manufactured and sold every year, the price would be under US$200 each. But the GIS market just isn’t that large. Therefore, GPS/GIS manufacturers have to charge more per unit to account for engineering, technical support and sales overhead.

Lastly, as mentioned above, there are not very many manufacturers of GPS/GIS receivers. Lack of competition usually results in higher prices to the end user.

What sources of GPS corrections are available?

Autonomous (no differential correction applied) GPS is pretty accurate these days…on the order of a few meters. For this reason, consumer GPS receiver manufacturers tend to leave out information on GPS corrections in their specifications. Their rationale is that consumers don’t really care as long as they can navigate effectively.

However, the GPS/GIS receiver market is much more concerned with accuracy. Therefore, some sort of GPS correction source is highly recommended and necessary to achieve the desired accuracy.

There are essentially two types of GPS corrections: real-time and post-processing.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, post-processing was the dominant method of correcting GPS data. Even then, 2-5 meter accuracy was the norm for GPS/GIS receivers after post-processing was applied. Sub-meter GPS technology (using GPS/GIS receivers) only became possible towards the end of the 1990’s. Users were accustomed to going through the post-processing exercise (downloading base station data, QAing post-processed data, etc.). At that time, the only option for using real-time corrections were commercial services such as OmniSTAR.

In the mid-1990s, the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) established the DGPS system that broadcast real-time GPS corrections free of charge along the US coastlines and major waterways. The user only needed to purchase equipment (beacon receiver) to receive the signal. The success of that program lead to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to expand the program to cover inland regions that were out of the USCG domain. That was the GPS/GIS user’s first taste of free DGPS corrections…and they liked it because it eliminated the time-consuming (and sometimes painful) process of post-processing.

The break-out milestone for real-time corrections came in 2003 when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) declared the Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) operational. WAAS took real-time GPS corrections to another level of simplicity. Not only is WAAS free of charge to users, but unlike the USCG DGPS and commercial DGPS services, it’s broadcast on the same frequency as GPS. This means that no extra antenna or receiver is required to utilize the signal. Furthermore, it’s broadcast nation-wide in the US where ever the WAAS satellites are visible to the user. Due to the success of WAAS, several other regions in the world have deployed similar systems; EGNOS in Western Europe, MSAS in Japan/Korea and GAGAN in India.

Finally, in the early part of this decade, local networks of reference stations began springing up. These are called RTK Networks. While built primarily for users of survey GPS receivers who require cm-level accuracy, there is a growing population of GPS/GIS users who are connecting their GPS/GIS receivers to these networks to obtain GPS corrections. However, the costs can be expensive. Some network operators charge a fee to access their network and the user must also have a data subscription with a wireless provider (GSM or CDMA) which has a monthly fee associated with it — similar to a mobile phone.

The Future is Clear

The trend is clearly towards using real-time GPS corrections no matter which source is used. The time consumed by post-processing and the expense of maintaining software and training requirements adds too much overhead in most applications for organizations to consider it.Although not the dominate correction technology any longer, post-processing in the GPS/GIS segment still has a niche – the so-called “sub-foot” niche. While the majority of GIS applications are satisfied with “sub-meter” (or even 1-3 meter) accuracy, there are certain applications where “sub-foot” accuracy is required. With these receivers, the users must post-process against several reference stations or tie into an RTK Network.

Integrated “All-in-one” GPS/GIS receiver or separate stand-alone receiver?

In the GPS/GIS receiver market, there are clearly two types of systems. The “All-in-one” receivers have the GPS receiver, antenna and data collector built into a hand-held format. These are products such as the Trimble GeoXT/XH, Magellan Mobile Mapper CX/6 and Topcon GMS-2.

The “stand-alone” receivers are a “black box” which houses only the GPS receiver, GPS antenna and optionally a battery. Other devices such as PDAs, tablet computers and notebook computers receive GPS data from these stand-alone receivers typically via Bluetooth interface or cable connection. These are products such as the Trimble ProXT/XH, Geneq SX Blue, Sokkia GIR1600, Hemisphere A100 and Javad GISMore.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both.

“All-in-one” receivers house everything one needs in a single hand-held unit. The advantage is that the data collector, GPS receiver, antenna, battery system, etc. are all designed by one company to work together. On the other hand, designing all of these components into a single hand-held can make for a somewhat heavier unit. Also, PDA technology is evolving rapidly. “All-in-one” receivers aren’t updated nearly as fast as PDA technology so an “All-in-one” unit may have an out-dated operating system and/or processor if the design is a few years old.

“Stand-alone” receivers are separate receivers that send GPS data to a PDA, tablet computer or notebook computer via wireless Bluetooth or cable connectio
n. The advantage of these systems is flexibility. On one project, they can be interfaced to a PDA. On the next project, they can be interfaced to a notebook computer running different mapping software. They aren’t affected by the advancement of PDA, operating system or computer processor technology.

The Final Analysis — GPS/GIS Receivers for GIS Data Collection

There a myriad of GPS receiver technologies being used for GIS data collection. It’s a complex industry. Some receivers being used are purpose-built and others have been adapted from other industries like consumer GPS.

There is no magic formula to determine which GPS receiver will work best because it really depends on the user’s requirements and in GIS, the user requirement vary greatly. “Try before you buy” is the best advice to follow when going through the equipment/software selection process.


If you have time, I’m conducting a GPS/GIS receiver webinar on June 30 (next Tuesday) at 10:00 a.m. Pacific time. I will continue the discussion of GPS/GIS receiver selection. Register for the webinar here.


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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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