RTK-Net Entrepreneurs: Loyola Has Its Customers Covered

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In the days before computers and data collectors and total stations, most surveyors learned on the job. But as systems grew more complex and capable, the need for outside support increased. Today, software support is generally readily available by phone, web or e-mail. But for equipment such as instruments, surveyors often look to the dealer. The introduction of GPS has increased the need for adequate dealer support. Many surveyors are using RTK, but along with it, onsite base stations must also be set up and monitored. Furthermore, range is typically limited to 1-4 miles with UHF radios. In an effort to reduce the amount of time and man-hours it takes to deal with RTK bases and range limitations, real time networks (RTNs) have been created. RTNs make it possible for one person with a GPS rover to perform precise location work anywhere within an RTN.

Starting more than a year ago, I began receiving an e-mail newsletter from Loyola Spatial Systems (Loyola), a full-line Leica Geosystems dealer in Richmond, Virginia. The newsletter provided information about their regional real time GPS network, "RTK-Net", which has been trademarked by Loyola. I continued to be impressed with the newsletter, the company website, and the quality of information they publish regarding GPS and RTN, so we recently traveled to their Richmond, Virginia facility to find out more.

We met with Brian Daniel, the Director of Loyola Spatial Systems. Daniel has a long history in modern surveying, having worked in fifteen countries, from Iceland to the Middle East to the Caribbean. He began surveying in 1985, doing work for a DOD design firm out of Norfolk, Virginia. He started using Leica GPS in the mid-90s, and in 1997, became the Technical Sales Representative for Leica Geosystems in Virginia. In 1999, Leica introduced the System 500 GPS which was capable of employing a cell phone at the base station and the rover, thereby dramatically increasing the range from the base, and Daniel quickly realized that permanent reference stations were needed to eliminate the need for onsite RTK base stations, and to take advantage of the "untethering" aspects of long-range GPS.

At the 2002 Virginia GIS Conference, Daniel met Benito Loyola, founder of Loyola Enterprises, a minority and veteran-owned high tech company with offices in Virginia Beach and Hampton, Virginia. The company has been in business since 1991 performing government defense GIS, and modeling and simulation work through its GIS Division and Information Systems Division. It was also recently recognized by the Virginia Chamber of Commerce as one of the 2007 "Fantastic 50" fastest growing firms in Virginia. Daniel realized that he needed capital and IT support to successfully carry out his vision of RTK-Net and Mr. Loyola, along with business partner Kent Stevens realized an opportunity to grow the company, so in January 2003, the Spatial Systems Division was formed. Daniel primarily worked out of his truck for the first year, traveling some 70,000 miles to build the division and begin development of RTK-Net.

The company’s first two GPS reference stations were located in Richmond and Virginia Beach. In the beginning, the two reference stations were primarily used for research, development and testing. In September 2003, Loyola became a fullline Leica Geosystems dealer responsible for Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia. Today, the division employs 12 people including two of which are licensed surveyors and three of which are LSITs. Its hires tend to be power users of the products it sells. The sales people at Loyola are the first line of support, followed by the technicians in the office, followed by Leica’s support staff. IT support for RTK-Net is provided by network engineers from the parent corporation’s Hampton and Virginia Beach offices. Loyola is also a Leica Geosystems Factory Authorized Service Center. Daniel said the classification ­ as witnessed by the number of certificates on the wall ­ is a big deal to maintain and that Loyola can handle most all repairs for the products they sell.

Operating under the self-directive that "Everything has to be ten times better," and having been exposed to many dealers in his surveying career, Daniel understands the importance of being not just a vendor, but a business partner to his clients. He understands that this equipment is a big investment, and that trust and loyalty are paramount. The surveying, construction and engineering communities are small, word of mouth will make or break a dealer, and everything has to be right.

Loyola opened a new, state of the art facility in Richmond in May of 2006. The facility features a showroom, training facility, factory service center, and warehouse space. Daniel contends that, with technology, the surveying career path has changed. The bulk of their business is in high-end products-RTK and robotic total stations. Interestingly, he said most of his early robotic sales were to smaller firms because larger firms had more people and didn’t need the flexibility that smaller firms need. Today, however, even larger firms heavily rely on robotic and GPS technology to stay competitive and cope with the ever shrinking numbers of new people entering the surveying labor force. More than 150 robots have been sold to firms in Virginia, and Loyola currently has more than 100 RTK-Net subscribers with a 100% subscription renewal rate.

Leica SpiderNET
Drawing on the IT strengths of the parent corporation, Loyola has parlayed this knowledge into the critical IT backbone of RTK-Net. The company has forged close ties with NGS and installed each of its current 29 reference stations according to NGS Cooperative CORS specs. This noticeably shows up in the antenna installations. Controlling everything is Leica’s SpiderNET software, which centralizes data distribution and provides data access management. Daniel likened the SpiderNET MAX correction to a high accuracy measurement zone because it allows the users to benefit from several reference stations in the network as opposed to just one. Leica’s GNSS QC software provides constant monitoring of the entire network. Before a new station is made live, it goes through a rigorous two-week QC process to ensure that the antenna is stable and that all the various connections are working properly. Ten days’ worth of data is provided to NGS for the precise determination of a new station’s position and insertion into the NGS CORS network.

The Richmond SpiderNET servers act as the main hub for the system, but the IT infrastructure has been built out in such a way that if Richmond or another station should go down, a user can continue to work by receiving corrections from the nearest reference station through a proprietary interface. Daniel emphasized, however, that through failsafe redundancy and emergency power backups, the overriding philosophy at Loyola is that the network cannot be down. If an individual station goes down, Loyola has a variety of notification systems in place, including e-mail and phone alerts and is currently implementing more automated techniques to communicate to their clients in the field. Although RTK-Net could support other manufacturer’s rovers, only Leica customers can connect to the network. According to Daniel, Loyola does not want to empower its competition to be able to sell receivers that will operate with their network. "Our clients have a very strategic advantage by having access to the RTK-Net infrastructure. By owning and managing the infrastructure and being invested in the equipment connecting to RTK-Net we are fully engaged and committed to the success of our customers" Daniel said.

Daniel talked at length about Leica’s Master-Auxiliary Concept (MAC) approach to real time networks, and emphasized that Leica has many years of experience with the complexities of RTN. MAC was jointly proposed by Leica Geosystems and other members of the Radio Technical Commission for Maritime Services (RTCM). It has been accepted as the basis of the RTCM V3.1 network messages which is the first industry standard for network RTK. Contrasting Leica’s approach with other manufacturers, Daniel says a Leica System 1200 rover receiving the MasterAuxiliary correction delivers user benefit because the rover is able to receive all relevant correction data from the network in a compact message. The rover is then optimized to perform sophisticated error modeling and calculate a true multibaseline position. This ensures maximum accuracy and reliability to measurements.

Daniel credits a close working relationship with Leica’s SpiderNET experts Robert Asher, James Stowell, Erik Soderstrom and Bob LeMoine as a significant part of the success of RTK-Net.

He believes that RTK-Net’s approach of being tightly coupled, on a geodetic level, to NGS CORS delivers better verticals, and that ppm errors ­ as a result of moving away from the first initialization point ­ are greatly reduced or eliminated when using the MAX correction. Daniel also feels that the Master-Auxiliary approach and the repeatability of measured vectors to its reference stations may provide a stronger defense of data in the event of a court case.

Daniel touched on the importance of cell phone connectivity, and said that 99 percent of his RTK-Net customers use Verizon Wireless CDMA technology. Loyola works closely with the Verizon Wireless data managers and engineers so the fit is very comfortable and customers can connect with ease. Daniel expressed concern that the cooperative RTN model (several different entities owning reference stations in a network) is vulnerable because as technology changes, a cooperative member might not be able or willing to invest in equipment and software upgrades. This scenario would quickly create a network that is incapable of delivering the best RTK product to the end user. Because Loyola owns the entire network, it is the single-point of responsibility for ensuring the network is operational, monitored and maintained. Moreover, Loyola does not have to worry about cooperative partners investing in the latest technology upgrades or replacing failed equipment.

Adding an element of surprise to our meeting, Daniel had asked not one, not two, but eight of Loyola’s RTK-Net customers or people the company has collaborated with to attend the meeting (see sidebar). Not only did some of these people drive two hours one way to be there, but that they offered frank assessments of technology, RTK-Net, and the Loyola/Leica approach. As we left, we stopped by one of the large plasma screens in the showroom. At that moment, a rotating image popped up with a quote from Benjamin Franklin: "Well done is better than well said." Well said, indeed! As the surveying community moves forward into broader use of GPS and RTNs, having a dealer like Loyola Spatial Systems and a well-run RTN like RTK-Net will make all the difference between success and failure.

Marc Cheves is the editor of the magazine.

Loyola’s clients speak…

Representing ATCS of Culpeper, Virginia, was Office Manager Joe Coppedge, LS. ATCS has bought nearly a million dollars worth of equipment, and due to productivity increases, expects the equipment to pay for itself in less than one year. They bought because of the network, but also because their competitors could not use the network (unless they bought Leica gear). Each crew has GPS. Coppedge said the company carefully examined the purchase because it had to make sense financially. RTK-Net made it viable. Training was quick, and within two to three weeks, the company started showing increases in productivity. According to Coppedge, RTK-Net does everything Loyola said it would.

Representing Shirley Contracting Company of Lorton, Virginia was Director of Surveying Dave Jordan, LS. Among its impressive project portfolio, this giant contracting company worked on one of the largest construction projects in the Washington, D.C. area, the Springfield, Virginia interchange–a $676 million VDOT project. Currently, Shirley Contracting is utilizing Leica GPS and RTK-Net on a $200 million VDOT road and bridge project along RT. 28 near Dulles Airport. Having to locate a secure location for the base station, set-up, initialize, monitor battery levels and the daily breakdown of equipment easily transformed into 8-10% of our work hours. Jordan said the purchase of the equipment has immeasurably increased production of both survey and construction forces.

Representing the Corps of Engineers was Brian Shannon, PE, LS. Shannon is collaborating with Loyola on a potential RTK water level system to support under keel clearance, hydrographic surveying and dredging activities. The under keel clearance system would aid commercial ship traffic to navigate the shipping channels safer and more efficiently while carrying larger amounts of cargo.

Representing Alphatec Surveyors of Virginia Beach, Virginia was president John F. Hill, Jr., LS. Alphatec has six crews, and runs several one-man crews with ATVs. Currently, one man is handling a $700,000 stakeout contract for a $99 million VDOT road improvement project. The company keeps a Leica robot and Leica GPS on every truck utilizing RTK-Net nearly every day. Alphatec is achieving more than 2,500 lineal feet of stakeout per day. Hill believes that within five years, without a network solution, equipment manufacturers will not be able to sell GPS. Hill said he regularly sees RTK vertical accuracies within 0.03′ of control established with digital levels.

Representing the Engineering Groupe, Inc. of Fredericksburg, Virginia were Survey Field Operations Manager Eric Grove and Party Chief/GPS Manager Bruce Joiner. Their land development company uses Leica GPS from start to finish. They have four offices and are using GPS in three of them, as well as ATVs. Bruce spoke highly of the customer support he receives from its Loyola sales rep. Bruce said he had been working with base stations for 15 years, and praised RTK-Net, since crews used to spend 15 percent of each day dealing with the base station. He added that RTK-Net eliminates more than 50 percent of the problems of working with GPS.

Representing Townes Site Engineering of Chesterfield, Virginia was Principal Land Surveyor, Mike Estes, LS. This company specializes in civil engineering and surveying. Being unable to find qualified personnel drove its decision to purchase Leica GPS and robotic total stations. Mike said that by utilizing RTKNet, his crews can simply get out of the truck and immediately go to work. Their first RTK-Net rover paid for itself in four months. Mike said they ordered their second unit very shortly after.

Representing Patton, Harrison & Rust Associates of Virginia Beach, Virginia was Vice President Bruce Frederick, LS. This company hosted one of the two original reference stations for Loyola, and has 100 surveyors in 18 offices. Currently, the company has Loyola reference stations on four of their offices. PHR&A is one of the largest multi-disciplined firms in the mid-Atlantic region. As a long-time user of Leica GPS, PHR&A immediately doubled their firm-wide GPS capabilities when they subscribed to Loyola’s RTK-Net.

Roundtable Discussion
In many companies, each robot and RTK rover has a timecard. In our round-table discussion, this, of course, brought up the age-old discussion of how to recover significant capital investments for equipment. The group agreed that GPS mission planning, with its information about satellite geometry and number of satellites, is very important, and will increase in importance. The group lamented the fact that too many surveyors today are just button pus
hers. Everybody agreed that the real power of RTK-Net is its ease of use, dependability, accuracy and of course, the ability to step out of the truck and just go to work ­ no base station required.

A 2.788Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE