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Making Precise GIS/GNSS Data Collection Accessible to More People

Q&A: Why users don't need to be licensed surveyors to operate a professional GNSS system and get precise results.

With Trimble DA2 GNSS receiver with Trimble Catalyst service, mobile GIS solutions such as Esri's ArcGIS Field Maps can get reliable, repeatable and auditable centimeter-level precision.

“For most people, “centimeters” isn’t the goal. The goal is getting more work done, faster, better, cheaper, or greener. Precision is an enabler for those goals if it is made easy enough.” — Gareth Gibson, Trimble GIS Marketing Director

The Trimble® DA2 GNSS receiver with Trimble Catalyst™ service provides mass deployment of GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System) positioning to a much broader audience than traditional GNSS receivers, with a subscription service that provides accessibility in cost and flexibility in the level of accuracy. 

What’s revolutionary about the Trimble DA2 is its combination of high-end performance, ease of use, versatile formats (handheld, backpack, on-pole, on-vehicle mounting) and compatibility with mobile platforms, making it an appealing solution to customers across a wider spectrum of geospatial users than previously imagined.

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In this question-and-answer with Trimble’s Gareth Gibson, we take a closer look at the evolution of the Trimble DA2 GNSS receiver with Trimble Catalyst.

Question: Please describe how the DA2 makes Trimble Catalyst a much different solution than its first iteration.

Answer: When we first released Catalyst in 2017, with the DA1 antenna, there were lots of innovative new concepts. The GNSS receiver itself was a software defined radio (or SDR). We built an app that could compute precise locations using the digitized stream of data from the DA1. Users downloaded the app to their phone, it connected to the USB antenna, and just “did its thing” in the background. It used the phone’s memory, processing power and power supply to calculate precise GNSS coordinates and serve them up for other applications to use. We completely eliminated many of the typical hardware elements and optimized the Catalyst system for cost, weight and size.

But these optimizations didn’t come entirely for free. For example, our first design used USB to both power the DA1 and as a means of communication with the phone, which of course meant a USB cable permanently joining the two devices. The work of doing all the position computation also consumed system resources. The Catalyst app used the phone’s CPU, memory, and battery to perform this computation, which in turn limited the number of devices the Catalyst system was compatible with, as well as impacting run time, because any device had to have enough “grunt” to do this heavy processing without limiting its other features.

And finally, as the first of its kind, the Catalyst service with DA1 was somewhat constrained in terms of the quantity and types of GNSS satellite signal it could use simultaneously compared to high-end traditional receivers.

With the DA2 we wanted to address those limitations while keeping all of the great things about the DA1. The result is an incredibly small, light and low-cost antenna with greatly increased performance, versatility and usability, including the added support for iOS as well as Android, which opens up the solution to many more potential users.

Q: When geospatial journalist Gavin Schrock reviewed Trimble Catalyst with the DA1 antenna in January 2017 for xyHT (link to article), he concluded it was “a very big deal, not only as a specific solution but also as a harbinger of things to come.” Now, 5 years later, what do you see as the “things to come” from this new Catalyst + DA2 solution?

A: In my interpretation, Schrock was talking about the accessibility and ease-of-use of Catalyst compared to traditional GNSS tools. The innovation in Catalyst is more than just being the first commercially available software-defined GNSS receiver. It is a complete GNSS positioning system, delivered as a service. Catalyst enables worldwide access to precision GNSS data, in a low-cost, light-weight and simple-to-use format. For me, it is the simplicity of the solution that is the real innovation. But even so, the first version of Catalyst was limited because you needed a relatively high-end phone to run the app, had to be an Android device user and had to be OK with running Catalyst on a survey pole with a USB cable connecting your antenna and your device. DA2 solves these three problems and also makes a big leap forward in terms of GNSS performance. 

Q: Trimble is using the word “revolutionary” in describing this new iteration of Trimble Catalyst with the DA2. Explain the decision to describe it this way, and why it is a word that truly does apply?

A: From the beginning, our goal with Catalyst has been to deliver a GNSS solution that is usable by a much broader audience than traditional receivers. We met that goal with DA1. DA2 is a revolution because now we are bringing together high-end performance, ease of use, compatibility with mobile platforms and versatile formats, including backpack, on-pole, on-vehicle mounting and handheld. In addition, the new Trimble Catalyst GNSS system handle accessory provides a convenient handheld way to carry mapping and field data collection workflows, with magnetic mounts that make it easy to rotate the device or remove it when needed for other tasks. We have been astounded by the response to DA2. It is attractive to customers across a wider spectrum of geospatial users than we imagined.

Q: How is Trimble Catalyst + DA2 different from normal GNSS (GPS)?

A: Most modern GNSS devices integrate a GNSS receiver and GNSS antenna into a single piece of hardware that can be mounted in a variety of configurations. In this respect, DA2 is very much the same as other GNSS products, but the similarities probably end there.

GNSS receivers are usually sold in a configuration that allows the receiver to operate at a specific level. The configuration determines the performance of the receiver in terms of precision and features. An entry-level mapping receiver will have a relatively low cost but will never be able to perform at centimeter-level performance. A high-end receiver will have very precise maximum performance, but this will normally come at a very high price point—and the receiver is configured to operate this way for the life of the hardware.

Catalyst is completely different. The basic hardware is capable of operating at any level, and rather than paying for that capability upfront, the customer pays based on what outcome they need to achieve to do their work. Catalyst is sold as a username-based subscription, and it is the performance level of the user’s subscription that determines the performance of the DA2 receiver. It's very simple to understand and low-risk for buyers because the time commitment is as little as a month at a time. Subscriptions can be easily changed as projects change to increase a team’s size or change the accuracy level, and because the hardware outlay is so minimal, it's very easy to get started.

Trimble DA2 with iPhone running Esri ArcGIS Field Maps

By itself, a GNSS receiver is capable of determining its own location to within a few meters. GNSS corrections are used to calculate errors introduced by the environment, and then these are used by the GNSS receiver to calculate its own precise location. Corrections services like this are available in a variety of ways, often as a subscription service, purchased and managed separately from the GNSS receiver. 

With Catalyst, this complexity is removed. Corrections are bundled as part of the Catalyst subscription, can be used by the DA2 without complicated settings, and users don’t need to purchase or manage any additional services. For those who still want to use their own custom correction services, the option is there, but in the majority of cases, Catalyst “just works” out of the box. Trimble’s international network of correction services is seamlessly tied into the solution, and the DA2 will generate positions that converge almost instantaneously down to the purchased precision level, without any input from the operator. 

 Q: Do you think the GIS industry is ready for GNSS as a service, or GNSS via a subscription?

A: It’s a great question. By definition, GIS is already a “digital industry,” but the idea of delivering GNSS as a service is about continual evolution and a move towards digital transformation. 

Digital transformation is about finding ways to use technology in smarter ways, and automating and improving processes to get work done better, faster, cheaper, greener or safer.

Through this lens, Catalyst is a good example of digital transformation. The necessary building blocks of the technology have evolved to the point that automation, bundling, and delivery of the solution as a service are realistic. In the spirit of building technology-led capabilities for the workforce of the future, Catalyst is empowering people to work in new ways by taking the day-to-day tools in GNSS and giving them a digital upgrade. 

Q: What value does Catalyst provide for Esri customers?

A: Esri provides a powerful mobile GIS solution with ArcGIS® Field Maps and other ArcGIS mobile GIS apps.

Field Maps is a powerful all-in-one app that uses data-driven maps to help mobile workers perform data collection and editing, find assets and information, and report their real-time locations. Because it is built on ArcGIS, organizations using this technology are all working off a single system of record.

Depending on the type of data contained in a GIS, accuracy requirements will vary. For some projects, such as damage assessments due to natural disasters, points within a few meters of the damage may provide enough information. For other projects, such as managing underground pipelines, the location collected must be within a few centimeters of the actual location. In these scenarios, the ability to map and measure points in the field with reliable, repeatable and auditable centimeter-level precision is critical.

For those who perform data collection that requires this level of accuracy and reliable quality control, using a professional-grade GNSS solution is usually the best option. Also a major plus is the flexibility of Catalyst to deliver on these accuracy requirements for ArcGIS Field Maps—and at a price point that allows large teams to use the same system.

Tablet running Esri Field Maps with Trimble Catalyst DA2

Trimble and Esri have partnered to bring support for Catalyst directly into the Field Maps experience. This combination brings Trimble’s world class GNSS performance to the table for ArcGIS Field Maps users, as well as all the “softer” benefits of Catalyst: lowered costs, ease of use and greater flexibility.

Q: Is this solution at the core of one of Trimble’s goals of “centimeters everywhere for everyone?” If so, how?

A: It absolutely is. “Centimeters everywhere, for everyone” captures the idea that you shouldn’t need to be a licensed surveyor to operate a professional GNSS system and get precise results. For most people, “centimeters” isn’t the goal. The goal is getting more work done, faster, better, cheaper, or greener. Precision is an enabler for those goals if it is made easy enough. There will always be a need for high-end survey GNSS systems where the operator is in complete control of the solution, but in many of the new use cases we are discovering, precise GNSS is simply an input to a bigger goal.

A good example of this is the use case of precision augmented reality. This new area of software uses a combination of sensors to create highly precise outdoor mixed reality visualizations of geospatial data. There are a wide range of use cases, from stakeholder engagement and fault detection to design validation and progress monitoring. Often these users aren’t surveyors or geodetic experts. They aren’t as interested in the technology as they are the outcomes and outputs. Catalyst fits well in these use cases because it removes the complexity and delivers a solution at a price point that matches the customer’s expectations.

Q: Who do you see among the newest users of Catalyst + DA2, and do they demonstrate a democratization of sorts of precise positioning?

A: Catalyst is a powerful tool, bringing precision GNSS to a new set of users and workflows. It removes the barriers of price, complexity and accessibility.

This means it is no longer necessary to pay thousands of dollars to begin using this technology. For as little as a few hundred dollars, Catalyst can generate centimeter-accurate positions, and that data can be fed into a simple mapping software running on a smartphone. Previously, this work would either require a survey or data collection team with dedicated, expensive equipment.

A wide variety of industries see the value in the solution as a primary tool and an inexpensive supplement to higher-end tools.

These industries are examples of Catalyst users and illustrate the democratization of access to high-accuracy GNSS technology:

●    Landscaping and concrete construction - design, layout and installation
●    Ecology and archaeology fieldwork
●    Land surveys in developing countries
●    Public safety and forensic applications
●    Precision agriculture
●    Education

Now field crews of any description can pick up the technology and just get to work.