The "Swiss Army Knife" Data Collector

"The Swiss Army Knife of Data Collection" – this is how I now describe the functionality of a mobile mapping system. This statement is not made as hype from a manufacturer. I am not saying we have created the ultimate, do-it-all product. My perspective comes from working with customers and dealers of Topcon’s IP-S2 over the past two years, watching as they put our systems to work on an ever-widening variety of applications.

As a manufacturer we design for and theorize about target applications during product development. We capitalize on the industry-related field experience of our engineers and managers to define features. But it isn’t until the product gets into the end-user mainstream that we begin to realize the variety of tasks for which it will actually be utilized.

Some insight into the diversity of mobile mapping applications can be ascertained by taking a perspective of data collection hardware. In the past, we focused on instruments and systems designed for very specific tasks. We constantly improved them with new features to speed up and simplify our work. When end-users take these devices out in the field, they operate on the same principle – they capture individual points and very specific, pre-defined information about only our target features.

Mobile mapping system works on the reverse principle – collect all the information available, then extract or "mine" only the data we are interested in. Mobile mapping provides "complete" information – virtual 3D reality that not only provides information about specific features, but also the surrounding setting and context. The IP-S2 merges spherical camera images with colorized point clouds. From the computer screen, the user can literally get inside the area and view it from a 360 perspective. Mobile mapping is radically different from the concept of discrete points and specific information.

The Swiss Army Knife concept was really driven home to me after spending a morning with Adam Arrington, Vice President of Earl Dudley Inc. The company is primarily a traditional survey instrument dealer. Earlier this year, they invested in an IP-S2 mobile mapping system. In addition to selling the system, they are also offering data collection services.

Arrington told me about six projects – two completed, four scheduled – that demonstrated the diversity of mobile mapping applications. The first project completed was for a consultant that will make a 3D model and GIS asset inventory of a military base. The second was an engineering route survey for a new water tank and distribution lines. Street cross sections derived from the system’s LiDAR output will be used as a base for design drawings.

Earl Dudley’s scheduled projects include more GIS / 3D modeling missions, an engineering asset survey of utility poles and above-ground water system features, and route survey for planning electrical transmission changes – One data collection system – multiple, diverse applications.

Geincor, Topcon’s distributor in Peru, is taking a similar approach – sales and service provider. The day after their mobile mapping system was installed, we embarked on a test run through the historic district of Lima. The objective was to create a virtual 3D map of the area. Geincor has a mutually beneficial relationship with an established survey / engineering / topographic firm. So the following day, we set out for the town of Lurin to map nine survey control points. The partner firm was pleased with the results.

They obtained engineering cross sections, GIS features, 3D modeling, asset inventories, and route surveys – all from one data collection system. The common thread is that the clients see mobile mapping as an exponential improvement over conventional data collection methods. They see the value proposition these systems offer – faster, safer, and more efficient, with a higher level of information.

Applications are where the rubber hits the road for the manufacturer. The rapid success that mobile mapping systems are achieving in so many areas proves the product concept. I can’t think of another device or system with the flexibility that responds to such a wide variety of tasks.