Contractors can carry out surveying tasks more easily and improve jobsite productivity and efficiency with simplified total stations, lasers, levels and with increasingly effective machine control using Global Positioning Systems (GPS) receivers.
In order to simplify surveying instruments for the construction industry, manufacturers are focusing on making user interfaces easier to use, according to Ian Stilgoe, Topcon's product marketing and support manager for survey products.
"This is because how the contractor sees the instrument is the most important factor," he said. "What goes on behind (the interface) is not getting simpler - it's complex technology but from a user's point view they need to be able to pick up different types of products, whether it's a total station, GPS or machine control and see the same interface," he added. However, he told CE the biggest challenge is achieving interface continuity across the company's product range.
Craig Hill, marketing director for the geomatics division of Leica Geosystems, said GPS technology can be complicated. Processes such as establishing a connection to a reference station network to get the real time corrections in the field can be a complex task, he added.
"The good thing is that these kinds of things can be set up once by a technical person and the user doesn't need to look at them again - they just turn on the equipment and it automatically connects to the reference station network to get the GPS data and then they can just focus on collecting the points," he said.
The simplification of surveying equipment interfaces is further complicated by the wide variety of product users - from high end to simple end users - according to Mr Hill.
"That's the challenge as manufacturers - to try and cover both ends of the spectrum," he added.
Speaking to CE about interface technology, Anton Kehl, programme director for Hexagon Machine Control Division (HMCD), part of the Hexagon Group (Leica's parent company) said, "Based on the needs of our customers we try to come up with a scalable platform and if the technology is very complex, we try to hide it at the front end of the product."
Work flow efficiency
The transfer of data between the office and the construction site is an area most manufacturers in the surveying sector are focusing on and is "certainly a big shift in the industry," according to Mr Stilgoe. He said as well as machine automation, Topcon is investigating site automation.
"This enables telemetry between the designer, office and contractor so they can see the efficiency of the work as it happens. Rather than weekly reporting, it can show live reporting throughout the day. It allows contractors to see where they are against a designed programme and to see how much it's costing them and with live information it means they can react quicker," Mr Stilgoe added.
Meanwhile, Trimble's new version of the SCS900 Site Controller software (version 2.33) provides real-time transfer of data between the office and job site and increases workflow efficiency, according to the company. The new wireless communication capabilities of the SCS900 forms part of what Trimble calls its connected site portfolio of products.
A spokesman for Trimble said, "With this new two-way data capability, field crews are more connected to the office than ever before."
The new software allows engineers to email design changes or work orders to contractors and crews in the field. Likewise, the contractor can transfer progress reports, on site problems, and as-built data back to the office on completion of site operations.
"Contractors can eliminate the time and cost of physically driving data updates to and from the field. Using the two-way data capability reduces delays and re-work associated with using outdated information. Reduced delays and re-work increase the likelihood that projects finish on time and under budget," the spokesman added.
Machine control technologies are developing at a rapid pace as the number of satellite systems increases. In the not too distant future there will be four independent Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) in operation. According to Leica, today, only the US GPS system is fully operational, while the Russian GLONASS system is rapidly approaching full operational status. These two systems will soon be joined by the Chinese Compass system, which is expected to be in service before 2010. In addition, the much anticipated European Galileo satellite system is now re-scheduled for launch in 2013. With even more satellites, signals and frequencies available, using this technology in cities and built up areas should be made easier and quicker.
Mr Stilgoe said, "Adding GLONASS made GPS +40% to 50% better; adding Galileo will make it another +40% to 50% quicker and better - so it's not stand alone significant but it will certainly make positioning quicker at centimetre level."
Mr Hill said the expansion of satellite systems ensures the company's products are future proof. "If you buy a satellite machine automation system today you will be able to upgrade it in future -it's a safe investment for our customers," he added.
New machine control systems, including Leica's PowerGrade - the company's next generation grading tool - feature the PowerSnap concept, which has a docking station allowing for quick and easy transfer of panels between machines. This means that instead of being restricted to one dozer or grader system for one machine, the snap-on and snap-off capability allows the operator to immediately change from one configuration to another, a spokesman for Leica said. The specific machine settings are permanently stored in the docking station he added.
The company said the "breakthrough" grade control and machine guidance solutions, based on the PowerSnap concept are all wireless-prepared, in readiness for the company's web-based services rollout.
Meanwhile, Mr Stilgoe said machine control is not replacing hard-to-find highly skilled grader drivers but it is allowing contractors to increase the productivity of their workforce.
The most significant development from Topcon with regards machine control in the past 12 months is the integration of inertial sensors into GPS machine control, according to Mr Stilgoe.
The technology, known as 3D-MC², currently available on dozers, was launched at ConExpo this year and is being rolled out to the European market during the summer.
"That combination of technology allows a machine to grade in third gear whereas up to now it could do it in first or second gear - so in effect it can now perform twice as fast," Mr Stilgoe said.
Ray O'Connor, Topcon's president and chief executive, called the 3D-MC² a breakthrough "as tearing down the last barrier in regard to increasing job site productivity" - speed.
Mr Kehl said there is always a tendency to increase speed on machines but warned against damage to the engine in doing so. "But clearly speed does matter and accuracy at higher speeds will help," he added. HMCD is committed to looking at new technologies to improve this he said.
"Speed is important as long as accuracy is maintained but that is not always the case - to a certain extent you are working against the physics," Mr Kehl added.
According to Mr Stilgoe, the other major product to be launched this year is Topcon's Imaging Station (IS) robotic total station. The IS combines robotic survey, 3D scanning and video technologies in one instrument.
Meanwhile, Leica said its RedLine family of 3D sensors designed for machine control is the company's most significant product launch this year because "it has bought surveying equipment capability to the non-surveyors." The RedLine range covers the typical construction site workflow, from pre-design through site preparation to machine control and as-built checks.
Despite parts of the European construction industry slowing down in the last few months and difficult global economic conditions, Mr Stilgoe said sales of certain surveying products, especially in the field of machine control and GPS, are growing.
"People want to be more economical and efficient and therefore technology tends to get a better look-in," he said.
A spokesman for Leica said a global trend for increasing investment in infrastructure coupled with a greater emphasis on performance, efficiency, competitiveness and awareness of environmental issues is driving the need for three-dimensional measurement technologies. He added surveying equipment will become increasingly compact, easier to use with fewer components and will feature more integrated technologies and wireless systems.
"Users will become less and less familiar with surveying procedures and designs will become more and more complex, making tasks increasingly challenging," he said.According to Mr Stilgoe telematics and the integration of different technologies like video, imaging, and inertial systems will be the most significant future developments in the sector.