Product Review: Nomad by Tripod Data Systems

A 1.594Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine complete with images is available by clicking HERE

The Nomad is the newest handheld computer from Tripod Data Systems (TDS). It shares a strong resemblance to its predecessor, the Recon, which was first introduced based on a couple of relatively new approaches to field data collection and data manipulation. Although common variety personal digital assistants (PDAs) had been used with mixed results in field surveying, the Recon was built ruggedly, making it more suited to field use. It also had an integrated RS-232 serial port, eliminating the need for weak cable adapters.

Some might have questioned the utility of a data collector without a full key pad for use in surveying, but the success of the Recon speaks for itself. Between the Recon and the Ranger (their other hardware platform), TDS has been able to reach a broad segment of the survey market: the Ranger for those wanting a full keyboard and the Recon for those looking for a smaller form.

Yet even with these options, surveyors still found themselves wanting more, or lessmore keys than the Recon, less size than the Ranger. With this in mind, TDS developed the Nomad, adding an additional 10-key number pad while maintaining the small size of the Recon. The Nomad is only slightly larger than the Recon (6.92"x3.92"x1.96" versus 6.5"x3.75"x1.75"). But don’t get caught up on the expanded keyboard. The real improvements are under the hood.

Taking Care of Business

I was pleased to speak with Eric Hall, Marketing Product Manager at TDS, about the Nomad. According to him, with so many new technologies on the horizon, TDS needed to consider the likely future needs of surveyors and then engineer the Nomad accordingly.

The Nomad was designed to be more than a data collector. It has been well equipped to also help manage the day-to-day operations of an on-the-go surveying business. The Nomad is controlled by the latest operating system for handhelds, the Microsoft Windows Mobile 6 platform. With this platform there are some slimmed down yet powerful Windows Office programs included, namely, Excel Mobile, PowerPoint Mobile and Word Mobile. Various business tools are also found in the well rounded package, such as a mobile version of Internet Explorer, an appointment manager, and an e-mail messaging program.

Using the Notes function you can scribble out a sketch like you might do on a napkin while talking with friends or associates at the lunch table. Notes also allows you to record a voice note to describe the sketch. This can be saved or e-mailed depending upon your needs. The operating system also includes a Windows Media Player for viewing videos or listening to audio files, a picture viewer, contacts directory, and many other tools you’d expect to find on a desktop or laptop computer. It is virtually a scaled-down PC.

For communications, the Nomad offers several options, such as integrated Bluetooth, optional Wireless Local Area Networking, USB (with client being standard and having a host option), and of course, a DB9 serial port.

In some of my past attempts at using Bluetooth I have at times encountered frustrating results, whether watching the spinning color wheel or waiting for a connection to be reestablished before being able to resume work. Nomad’s Bluetooth connection appears to be much faster and more reliable. Without reading any documentation, I was able to connect the Nomad with another Bluetooth device in a matter of seconds and begin working.

Reliable Bluetooth communications are going to be imperative over the next few years, particularly for the Nomad. One of the primary reasons that I see for this is in the structure of USB ports. A USB port can be either a client or a host. A USB client device might be a printer, an external drive, a digital camera or any other peripheral device. A host device would typically be something along the lines of a personal computer. A subtle yet important advancement over the Recon is in the Nomad’s optional USB host port. With a host USB port built into the Nomad, the possibilities begin to increase dramatically. Although not yet supported, consider that you could hook up your Nomad to a portable printer, and, while in the field, print out a point list, a line drawing from the map, a Word document, or perhaps even an invoice. (Can anyone say "cha-ching"?) Furthermore, a USB cell phone could be plugged in to allow remote Internet access, allowing you to send or receive files anywhere you have cell coverage.

There is a catch, though, which has to do with the importance of reliable Bluetooth operation. Because of the size of a DB9 port, TDS could only fit the USB client and power port on the "serial" boot. Most surveyors need a serial port to communicate with total stations and GPS receivers, which means that you couldn’t use the Nomad’s USB host, again because the USB host and DB9 cannot be physically configured together. However, consider that with a reliable Bluetooth option you can now use the Bluetooth to connect wirelessly to your surveying instrument. This would free you from the need for a DB9 port, permitting you to have the USB host boot installed instead. Presently, the only problem with all of this is a current lack of drivers (such as printer drivers) available for the Windows Mobile 6 platform.

Another nice treat is the wireless networking capability. The Nomad is optionally equipped with an internal 802.11g wireless local area network (WLAN) module. With it you can connect to the Internet via wireless modem. I was truly impressed with how quickly and easily I was able to get connected and get online. Simply get in range of a wireless signal, select the Wireless LAN option, and Windows automatically begins searching for any available networks. Once the network is found, Windows automatically connects to it.

I was able to log onto the NGS website in a matter of seconds; within a few more seconds, I was looking at the data sheet for the local CORS station, TXTY, from the CORS website. I was also able to enter my e-mail address and password into the device and check my e-mail. Once the e-mail is set up, Windows Mobile 6 has an easy method of transmitting files. Just click a file in the File Explorer, press send, and an e-mail screen pops up with the selected file marked as an attachment. Eric noted that future possibilities using WLAN may include an automated download procedure in which the Nomad could instinctively back itself up to an office network as you walk into the office.

Memory to Last a Lifetime

Dad still tells me of a computer expert in the mid-eighties who said with wonder, "A megabyte disk will be able to hold a lifetime of data." Today, I give some pause when I start thinking that the one gigabyte of internal memory on the Nomad should be more than anyone could ever want in a compact device such as the Nomad. In reality, it is likely that the near future may make one gigabyte of memory inadequate. (The Nomad is available with either 512 megabytes or one gigabyte of nonvolatile flash memory).

Digital imagery is making a big impact in the way surveyors work. Whether ortho-rectified aerial imagery used as a backdrop for a map, or digital pictures taken by an imaging total station or digital camera, imagery will become even more integral to surveying over the next few years. Higher resolution photography improves the utility of the photography but with a nasty side effect on memory. You aren’t just left with the onboard memory of the Nomad, though. The top cover conceals and protects two card slots, one for a secure digital card, the other for a compact flash card. A quick quarter turn of the two screws in the top cover of the unit with the screwdriver end of the stylus allows for quick, easy entry to the slots. Retainers keep the screws in place in the removable cover eliminating the chance of the screws being dropped in the grass while out in the field. Navigating to the cards on the device itself is very similar to navigating in the Windows Explorer environment on your PC. Having the ability to use large capacity Compact Flash and SD cards will allow for more imagery and other large files to be stored, such as geoid models and 3D scan data.

High-res Screen
An increased use in still photos is not the only imagery on the near horizon. Recently Trimble introduced the VX Spatial Station, which among many other things, allows for the unit to be operated robotically while simultaneously transmitting streaming video back to the remote user. Watch for this trend to grow in surveying robotics in the very near future. The graphics capabilities of the Nomad have been enhanced to handle such video. With the faster processor and the improved resolution of the display, the Nomad should be up for the challenge. The resolution of the display is impressive at four times the resolution of the Recon and new Ranger (480 x 640 pixels versus 240 x 320). The difference between this screen and previous touch screens is akin to the difference between analog and High Definition television. With the finer lines and text, TDS is able to squeeze more information on a screen (possibly reducing the number of screens to perform some operations) while keeping the page legible and neat. The processor itself is a Marvell PXA320 and is a high octane beast running at 806 megahertz (twice as fast as the hottest Recon). Not knowing exactly what demands the next several years of software development may place on data collection hardware, this blazing processor speed will allow for some head room as new routines are developed. The unit also sports 128 megabytes of RAM to keep things moving quickly.

Also available is a built-in Sirf III GPS chip that allows the Nomad to be used as a navigation aid. While the Recon could use a GPS compact flashcard device, the built-in Sirf III chip allows the user to use the available compact flash card slot for memory or other devices (such as a bar code scanner or digital camera). The available GPS device also allows those operating Trimble or Spectra Precision robotics to use Trimble’s patented GeoLock technique for quick reacquisition of the prism in the event of a loss of lock. As pleased as I was that the internal GPS option is now available, I was somewhat disappointed that TDS has, at present, maintained such a limited role for the internal GPS within Survey Pro. I believe TDS is missing out here because there are untold numbers of applications such as rough staking, reconnaissance and general mapping that don’t require centimeter positions that could be performed using the internal GPS (which is spec’d with a horizontal accuracy of less than 2 meters with SBAS). When I brought this up to Eric, he told me that an optional third party application, BackCountry, can be added to the system, allowing users to make use of the internal GPS for some of these tasks.

Physically, the unit is very comfortable and has a solid feel to it. I am told that the unit has added reinforcement making it even more rugged than the Recon. The battery life is very good and should likely run the Nomad for a couple of days or more. The battery is fairly easy to access via four screws in the back of the unit. These screws are not attached to the battery cover, so care should be taken if the battery is swapped out in the field so as not to lose one. The stylus tip is spring loaded to protect against heavy handed pecking. The other end of the stylus is a Phillips head screw driver used to loosen the top cover screws, the boot screws and the battery compartment. The stylus is made of steel and is knurled for an improved grip and, when not in use, seats in a groove at the back of the unit and is held in place magnetically.

The keys on the keyboard are closely arranged to conserve space. I have large fingers, yet I was able to use the keys without "fat-fingering" any of them (although with gloves, the keys may be difficult to use). The tactile response of the keys was great. It feels like a rugged keyboard should. The keys are hard plastic and depress with a crisp snap, instead of being rubbery and smooshy. The glare from the glossy finish of the keys made them a little difficult to read in the sun, otherwise I was very impressed by the key pad.

The green power key actually serves several purposes. The unit can be placed in a suspended mode with a quick single stroke and then brought back to life instantly with the same quick press without waiting for the unit to boot up. Or, if the button is pressed longer, a pop-up appears with the options to clean or align the screen, replace the battery, shutdown or reset. The arrow keys above the 2, 4, 8 and 6 keys and the operations depicted beside the minus key and the decimal key are accessed by pressing their respective keys while holding down the yellow shift key. The Windows key at the upper left accesses a quick menu to various Windows options. The rest of the keys are fairly self-explanatory.

I was a little surprised, but not necessarily disappointed, that the keypad was laid out in the classic 10-key pattern instead of the more modern cell phone arrangement. I was surprised because I would have thought that the number keys would have also been accompanied by the alphabet and divided like a cell phone to allow alphanumeric entry using the number keypad. However, once I started using the unit, I found the existing options for data entry to be satisfactory. Whether using the pop-up keyboard, the transcriber, the block recognizer or the letter recognizer, the software could read my shabby hand writing pretty well. Given how much of the data entry in surveying is numeric though, having the ten extra keys will be nice in the field.

The screen’s response to the touch was very good. I did encounter a slight problem induced by the screen protector removal tab touching the frame of the screen. The touch screen would not respond at all, but once I figured out the problem, it was easily fixed by folding the tab over off of the frame. After that, I had no trouble from the touch screen.

With so many surveyors taking up the challenge of opening small businesses or going into solo operations, TDS has developed a piece of hardware that will easily accomplish the task of data collection and be an invaluable tool in managing and maintaining a business through the wide array of communication options and software tools available. The Nomad packs an incredible amount of power into the palm of your hand. It will be exciting to see what new surveying technologies will now be possible with this very capable unit.

Shawn Billings is a licensed land surveyor in East Texas and works for Billings Surveying and Mapping Company, which was established in 1983 by his father, J. D. Billings. Together they perform surveys for boundary retracement, sewer and water infrastructure routes, and land development.

A 1.594Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine complete with images is available by clicking HERE

About the Author

Shawn Billings, LS

Shawn Billings is a licensed land surveyor in East Texas and works for Billings Surveying and Mapping Company, which was established in 1983 by his father, J. D. Billings. Together they perform surveys for boundary retracement, sewer and water infrastructure routes, and land development. Contact Shawn Article List Below