Conference Review: Trimble Dimensions 2007

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I’m sitting at a table with one Uzbekistani and a bunch of Russians; the one seated next to me is named Vladimir. Ethereal blue patterns wheel softly across the ceiling of the cavernous dining hall and the chairs we sit in are swathed in shimmery fabric. During the course of our meal, a couple thousand of us are entertained by acrobats, jugglers, and taiko drummers suspended in midair. Several times I have asked myself if I’m dreaming, but no, it’s just Vegas, and since the ice sculptures in the center of every table feature the Trimble logo, this must be the gala dinner at Trimble Dimensions 2007. It’s a splendid, luxurious evening, and if I feel a little disoriented by all the spectacle, by the blurring of reality and fantasy, perhaps that’s the point; in a world where satellites control bulldozers and invisible rays scan the physical world and slurp it into virtuality, perhaps we poor humans, limited to our physical bodies and five senses, had better find ways to increase our tolerance for wonders and miracles because maybe, just maybe, things are going to get really astonishing before they get… even more astonishing. For as Arthur C. Clarke has written, "A sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," and I think we’re there now, for in the last three days I’ve been wandering around the convention hall and when I stop to think about what I’m seeing—­or rather, when I stop and don’t think about it, just take in the computers and Volvo backhoes and the 3D printers and let my jaw drop—­I can’t help but think that all these gizmos, all this technology that actually gets things done, has become so amazing that to me, at least, it’s starting to seem… like magic.

Sessions Well-Attended
Dimensions 2007 was held November 5-7 at the Mirage in Las Vegas, attended by 2,500 registrants from 50 countries. About 450 formal classroom sessions were offered in three main groupings: surveying, mapping and GIS, and construction. There was also a robust Spanish language track. Topics were both general, with titles like "Solutions for the Private Surveyor" and "Staying on the Crest of the Technology Wave," and highly specialized, with titles like "A Hands-on Site Calibration Workshop Using a Trimble GNSS Receiver and Trimble Software." I attended sessions mainly in the surveying track, trying to get a feel for the quality of instruction and preparation. Both were generally impressive, with useful tips and advice offered along with higher-level analysis of trends and issues. Speakers tended to be expert users who knew what they were talking about, and discussions between said experts and users were illuminating. Put another way, Trimble Dimensions fulfilled its primary mission—­education— admirably well.

At a convention of surveyors, one never has to look far to find an argument, and the best one I came across happened at a class with the lengthy title, "Land Boundary Determination Using GNSS RTN Positions—­Legally Defensible in U.S. Land Surveying?" The issue here is fairly abstruse: in areas with RTK networks like Trimble’s Virtual Reference Station (VRS) Network, land surveyors are getting used to doing accurate work without using their own base stations—­instead, they’re relying on signals from permanent receivers. This raises the question: since the surveyor is no longer in control of important aspects of the position-establishing technology, are corners established with said technology legally defensible? It’s a hot issue for urban surveyors where VRS is becoming common—­this was a well-attended session.

Licensed surveyor and presenter Joseph Betit, who uses a VRS Network in the Washington, D.C. area, made some good points. Both Wattles and Brown rather frown on coordinates, suggesting that they come last in the hierarchy of evidence, and the data trail supporting a position is much harder to follow than a set of field notes. An Australian court case saw an arrest thrown out when a GPS-derived position was not accepted. The response, in Australia, was to establish a certifying body—­essentially, a government agency—­to oversee such issues. Betit and others at the sessions seemed to be advocating a similar situation here in the U.S.

But I wasn’t the only one present who wasn’t getting it. It’s not as if this is the first time technology has made measurement a little mysterious. How many of us, for example, can explain how the little infrared thingies fly to the prisms—­and back!—­to give us accurate distances? And if we can defend points established by total stations-and conventional GPS for that matter—­why will points established with VRS Networks somehow require a whole government agency for verification? As always, the surveyor will have to defend his or her work, and those who disagree will have to make their case; technology isn’t going to change this basic dynamic.

The classroom sessions are hard to summarize, but they were the main feature of the event for most attendees, and more than one surveyor I interviewed said that they were getting their money’s worth. For example, David Trimble, LS (no relation) had been learning how to send drafting work to India, and said, "This one tip makes the conference worth it."

Keynotes Set the Tone
Dimensions 2007 opened with a keynote from Trimble President and CEO Steven Berglund, who talked about how Trimble is defining and organizing itself. The company did $1.2 billion in sales in 2007, and now considers itself "solutions company," meaning that they are far more than hardware makers. According to Berglund, "The threshold is higher for a solution company—­we need to know the problems our customers face and we need to be good at a number of different things." He also pointed out that Trimble is in more areas than surveying and GPS. The company now focuses on three major areas: managing mobility, precision agriculture, and the connected site. Managing mobility is the newest of these, and Berglund announced several acquisitions that will help Trimble move into this new field. Precision agriculture is rapidly expanding, and fits in well with sustainability trends, as it reduces the use of fertilizers and other chemicals while maximizing crop yields. Connected site is the area of most concern to surveyors. The basic idea is that surveyors, contractors, architects, clients, and other stakeholders in the construction process can and must begin to work together more tightly, enabled by interconnected software and hardware. Communication technologies like cellular telephony, WiFi, and Bluetooth and locative technologies like GPS and RFID are coming together, and I found it interesting that Trimble intends to put its own software into this mix. I’ve seen the same initiative from other makers—­the era of software companies selling software and hardware companies selling hardware is over, and it will be interesting to see how the two come together over the next several years. What does it mean for surveyors? Well, see my rant below, but the short take is that surveyors should start thinking of themselves as far more integral to design and construction processes, rather than specialists called in for specific tasks.

Daniel Burrus, author of Technotrends: Using Technology to Accelerate Growth, followed Berglund with a rousing discussion of, you guessed it, using technology to accelerate growth. Burrus opened by describing a talk he gave to a convention of court stenographers; it seems that stenographers are concerned about the future of their profession, give
n that computers are getting pretty good at transcribing human speech. I won’t say that Burrus was totally convincing—­I still think that stenographers are doomed—­but he pointed out that surveyors, too, are threatened by the advent of technologies like GIS and GPS that make some surveying tasks so easy that, well, you may not need to be a surveyor to do them. But on the other hand, he went on, these same technologies have led to a staggering proliferation of data and interconnectivity and, "the role of project information coordinator is up for grabs—­I think I’m more excited about your future than you are." Since I go to a lot of events sponsored by technology companies, it’s no surprise that I’ve been hearing a lot of speakers that encourage greater use of technology. Often I get the feeling that they don’t really differentiate between construction surveying and boundary surveying, and I don’t blame them for this—­nobody outside surveying tends to make this distinction, certainly not the engineers and contractors we are usually working for. It can be frustrating for boundary surveyors faced with dwindling practices to be told, in effect, to do more construction surveying: that’s not why we got licensed, and we’re not just technicians. But the basic point is sound: our jobs are changing, and as professionals with specialized skill sets, we’ll be looking to technology to expand our areas of expertise. But it may be that surveyors from the cadastral side of the business will move more into GIS and georeferencing, rather than construction. And Burrus is certainly correct that technological change will continue to accelerate, and planning for the future has to acknowledge that. He suggested setting time aside each week to think and talk about technological change, and offered a few nuggets to help with this. "Charge for value, not time" was one good tip, as well as, "Knowledge increases in value when shared." Burrus also suggested that we distinguish between hard trends, like increasing interconnectivity, and soft trends that are harder to be sure about. Betting on hard trends is usually a good idea. Oh, and he thinks RFID is going to be huge—­you heard it here first.

Other keynotes, on different days, were presented by Peter Hillary, Sir Edmund’s son, and Dr. Robert Ballard, the oceanographer.

The Wonder of it All
As with most conventions, a lot was going on in the exhibit space. Dozens of booths were showing off the latest innovations in machine control and 3D printing. Magazines from several industries were on-site, and thousands of conversations were taking place simultaneously as surveyors, contractors, industry reps and salesmen exchanged information and hammered out deals. So this is how magic happens. Humans gather together to share tips and techniques, to show off their latest gadgets, and to inspire each other with tales of their latest projects. Trimble Dimensions does this better than most conferences, connecting different disciplines and technologies and presenting superb teaching sessions. It may not be literal magic, but it is surely a little miraculous.

Angus Stocking worked for 17 years as a land surveyor in several different states. Nowadays he writes professionally (see and specializes in surveying and related topics. And also, of course, he is occasionally called to settle survey-related happy hour disputes.

Dimensions 2007
By Gavin Schrock, LS

Attendees were bombarded with the term "connected site"­ it was the conference title, the theme, and printed on everything in sight. There was even a running joke amongst the Trimble presenters that they got a brownie point every time they mentioned the term. What was meant by "connected site"? And what are the implications for the land surveyor? I was glad to find out that it was not a specific product being peddled, but more of a philosophy being adopted and adapted by the surveying community and related industries; with the thrust of many of Trimble’s own development initiatives now gel-ing into a good model and example thereof.

There were too many good classes to get to everything I wanted to attend; even comparing schedules with two colleagues left us with some hard decisions. With each session and hands-on demonstration I attended, be that in any of the construction, surveying, or mapping/GIS tracks, there were plenty of mentions of the "connected site." By the end of the proceedings I was starting to get a clearer understanding of this concept. While the desire for a more holistic view of integration in the processes, equipment, and data management in the plan-designbuild-operate cycle of civil/AEC industries is not new, what are new are many of the resources available to achieve this connectivity.

I am a fan of the process/data flow vision that Terry Bennett of Autodesk has been presenting and updating for more than a decade. It is always fascinating to hear yearly updates (this year in particular) and see how many of these vision elements have come to fruition within the offerings of Autodesk, Trimble, and others.

An example that really struck me was in a session demonstrating the futuristic Trimble VX Spatial Station. While I found the device fascinating on its own, what I found more compelling was that the demonstration employed a tool called Survey Manager. The sort of bland product name actually described it best; a way for a project surveyor, or site party chief to operate directly (or remotely) the elements of equipment, processes, and dataflow for a whole site survey. I joked with the presenters that they had fulfilled a dream for many of us: to perform a site survey from the comfort of our truck seat. In a follow-up "play with the gear" session we emulated (from the comfy confines of a conference room) a site survey integrating elements of robotics, hands-off-remote-view reflectorless observations, focused small-region scanning, import of reference materials and post-processed control, and live RTK observations (from someone sent outside with a rover for a smoke).

Another highlight (especially for us RTN operators) was the new Trimble Integrity Manager, or TIM (the blue-shirts did not like it when we called it "Timmy!"). While we already have powerful "coordinate monitoring" utilities in the GPSNet suite, TIM offers a half dozen other "motion engines." Motion engines are applications and algorithms that process and track relative position over time, one of these is a clever server-side RTK engine; also usable to compare with rover-side results. We can now program TIM to run monitoring tasks (that would have taken us days) in a variety of real-time modes, and on hourly, daily, weekly, monthly, etc., basis. For our own RTN here in the Pacific Northwest we can use this suite of motion engines to help answer a particularly nagging question; what is the true measurable effect of plate tectonics on the relative positions of our CORS and how can we use these utilities to automate the update of positions to take this into account?

In each session or demo, I found solutions that bridge between the project phases, respective gear, and processes. It is nice to see the surveying and construction sides working much more closely­the improved connectivity of data and wireless communications has made this an imperative. I looked for any weak links in a hypothetical chain of data in that long-sought-for cycle, and (assuming that the various parties would agree to work closely enough, and provided that purchasing decisions were not compartmentalized), even a moderately sized enterprise could actually pull off this "connected site" vision.

Gavin Schrock is a surveyor in Washington State where he is the administrator
of the regional cooperative real-time network, the Washington State Reference Station Network. He has been in surveying and mapping for more than 25 years and is a regular contributor to this publication.

A 1.749Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE