Product Review: IS-3 Imaging Station

A 416Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

Technological revolutions come about rarely. Many of the products heralded as revolutionary, in truth, are not. For example, consider the ubiquitous smart phone: a cell phone with a touch screen, modem, GPS, Bluetooth, WiFi, digital audio/video player, digital camera, LED light, accelerometers, digital compass and computer. Interestingly, none of these components are new technology. Most have been around for at least a decade, some much longer. Yet the combination of these features has generated a product that has affected the daily lives of millions of people in a way that simply was not possible just a few short years ago. Arguably, some of those effects are not all positive (have you tried to have a face to face conversation with someone under 25 lately?) But overall the smart phone has made it possible to have driving directions at your fingertips, to find out answers to those nagging questions that keep you up all night (such as "Who played Uncle Jesse in the Dukes of Hazzard?"), to always have a camera handy for your daughter’s band concert, and to be able to listen to your favorite music anywhere.

It wasn’t a techno-revolution that did that, it was simply an intelligent fusion of existing technology that worked well together. As a product reviewer, and as a user of technology for my business, easily one of the greatest frustrations I have with much of today’s gear is the lack of maturity and synergy within a system or program. All of the pieces are there, if only the manufacturer would have invested a little more energy into the product, it would be complete. But the drive to release new equipment with ever increasing frequency makes little allowance for such efforts. If there is any benefit at all to a recession (or stagnant economy, if you prefer) it is that all of us must step up our efficiency–become smarter, shake free excesses, and run leaner where brute force of capital might have worked before. Equipment manufacturers are no less immune to this. The result might be a slower rate of new product releases. At the same time, it might also mean smarter, leaner, more mature equipment.

The Topcon IS-3 is the third iteration of the IS (Imaging Station) series. The IS series combines multiple existing technologies into one homogenous platform. Like the smart phone, none of the elements that make up the IS-3 are particularly revolutionary when viewed singly. In fact, I reviewed the IS-1 in 2008 and the instrument is largely unchanged from then. A solid robotic total station, with an incredible long-range reflectorless EDM, fitted with two 1.3 megapixel digital cameras (one coaxial, one wide angle), integrated spread spectrum radio and WiFi, and Windows CE.NET 4.2 operating system with Topcon data collection software. While I am still truly amazed at the long range EDM, measuring ordinary objects such as power poles at ranges in excess of 4,000 feet (not a typo), this is now somewhat old technology. The scanning ability of the IS adds a dimension of usability to the total station that radically exceeds conventional uses of other total stations. The IS-3 scans at twenty points per second (also not a typo), which is amazing for a total station, but even this is now four year old technology. No, like the smart phone, the IS-3 shines in its intelligent cohesion of these various technologies. It truly is the best culmination I’ve seen of "I wish they would…" in a survey instrument.

With the IS-3 being the third model in the series, it is also very mature. The improvements to the minutia of the instrument are hard to see in a listing of specifications. There are several seemingly tiny details that make the IS-3 a clear successor to the previous models such as the increased WiFi range, user defined scanning boundaries and improvements to robotic tracking.

The extended WiFi range is perhaps the most significant enhancement. Transmitting digital video requires some serious bandwidth. Bluetooth and Spread Spectrum data modems simply are not adequate for the size of 1.3 megapixel images beamed out at 10+ frames per second. WiFi is the best option. However, WiFi is usually limited in range to about 300 feet, which is far enough to get you to the house next door (those of you stealing internet service from your neighbors know what I’m talking about), but not quite good enough for most surveying applications. Just as Bluetooth began as a limited range data transfer option and now offers a range of 1000+ feet, Topcon has utilized long range WiFi in the IS. When mated with the WT-100 WiFi modem a user can operate the instrument remotely from some pretty impressive distances from the instrument.

I was able to easily view the rod from the instrument and control the instrument at 1000 feet with the WiFi capability. I was able to view the rod from the instrument with intermittent success at controlling the instrument from as far as 1600 feet (suggesting that the WT-100 was very capable of receiving and less so at transmitting or that the IS was very capable of transmitting and less so at receiving). This range really opens up the capability of the IS-3. I was able to measure angle/distance offsets just like I would from the instrument from hundreds of feet away. I could also switch to reflectorless mode and measure any point within a few thousand feet while standing as far as a thousand feet from the gun. In reviewing the original IS, this was perhaps the most considerable wish-list item I had. The WiFi range was simply too limiting. But with this addressed, the IS-3 becomes a much more useful remotely controlled survey instrument.

With the WiFi remote control, tight interior spaces become much less challenging. No need to move around the instrument, simply control it from the data collector and watch the crosshairs from the live video feed as you collimate the target. The IS really does cover about as many disciplines as your imagination will allow.

Regarding tracking… If your last encounter with a robotic total station led you to abandon robotics in frustration, you should take a look at what is available now. I’ve not seen any late model robot track anything but a prism in several years and the IS-3 is no exception. Not only is it reliable at rejecting imposter reflectors (such as the infamous tail light), it is also extremely fast. With my old robot, I must be very careful at moving slowly as I come in close proximity to the instrument. Inside of 20 feet, I am forced to creep very slowly. Contrasted with the IS-3, the tracking speed is incredible. I could run within 20 feet of the IS-3 and still not lose lock. Only by violently whipping the rod at very close range was I able to lose the intense lock of the IS. Of course, even if you should lose lock (walking behind a large obstruction, such as a house) the RC-4 whistles the wayward instrument back in very short order. I range tested the RC-4 Quick Lock feature as well. It worked farther than I care to do robotic work… in excess of 2000 feet. Color me impressed.

My final wish list item for the IS would be some method of automatic solar observations. I can envision the IS sighting the sun and performing all of the necessary calculations of the observations and delivering precise orientation within seconds. No one offers anything like this. All of the hardware is in place, only the software to make it happen remains.

Of course the IS is more than a remote controlled total station and more than a robot, it is also a low volume laser scanner ­ low volume in comparison to Topcon’s flagship laser scanner, the GLS-1500, which pushes 30,000 points per second to the IS-3’s 20 points per second. Of course, you aren’t apt to do stake
out with the GLS-1500 either. Topcon has improved the scanning functionality of the IS by adding more scan boundary options. When one is scanning at the relatively low speed of 20 hertz, reducing the scan boundary to only the area of interest can reduce the time needed to complete the scan thereby improving efficiency.

Looking beyond the IS-3, there are some other advancements to accessories that round out the system. Topcon has introduced a new data collector platform, the Tesla, and software, Magnet Field, that are ideally suited to the IS-3 as well as other applications. The Tesla is a rugged tablet with Windows Mobile 6.5 operating system. Magnet Field is TopSurv, Topcon’s own data collection software, to the next level, with added features such as cloud networking. The Tesla has a 5.7 inch screen with large easy to see icons. It can be operated in landscape or portrait view and has all of the goodies common to mobile computers. It is expandable to include a 3.2 megapixel camera (Topcon’s data collection software is fantastic at incorporating images with collected points), internal GPS (2-5 meter accuracy), and internal 3.5G cellular modem. The modular design of the Tesla suggests that new accessories might also allow it to function as an RTN rover, similar to Topcon’s current GRS-1.

Magnet Field builds on Topcon’s TopSurv software and in many respects looks and "feels" the same. The most important added feature is cloud networking. For those of you who are not technogeeks, please don’t let the term intimidate you. Cloud computing has been around for a long time. In simple terms it allows you to store data in a commonly accessible location. How many times did you wish you could have had the coordinates for that job you did back in ’05 in the field with you now, or the control notes on that station you haven’t seen since ’98. Cloud computing provides you with the tools to get that data any time, from anywhere. But it isn’t just for legacy data, you can also immediately upload data to the office. My contact from Topcon, Scott Langbein, expressed that this software is really Topcon’s tipping of the hat to project managers. Data can be sent to the project manager at any time – and not just raw files or coordinate files. Images can be sent as well, along with text messages.

It pains me to consider how many crews go out each day without proper supervision, with the surveyor chained to the desk, in responsible charge of more crews than he or she can humanly oversee. Here we see technology giving conscientious, overwhelmed project managers a real opportunity to exercise greater control over what is taking place in the field. "Boss, how do we handle the topo shots on this culvert?" or "How do we stake this missing corner?" can be addressed with better information–instantly.

Magnet will certainly change the way multi-crew operations work. Not only is the data available up and down (field to office and vice versa), but also side to side (field to field). Consider a large site with 2 or more crews on site. Perhaps one is setting control with RTK while the other is performing layout or topographic data collection robotically. Data and messaging can be sent crew to crew while still in the field. Warnings about certain areas encountered on the site, updated coordinates and pictures of points can all be readily transmitted and received.

The IS-3 is incredibly versatile, and according to the prices Mr. Langbein gave, incredibly affordable. Mature features that still out pace much of the competition make it even more tempting. The addition of the Tesla and Magnet software take it to an entirely new level. I wouldn’t call the IS-3 revolutionary, but that isn’t a bad thing either. It has more tools than MacGyver’s Swiss Army knife and provides the flexibility to work in an unfathomable range of environments and scenarios. The revolution will be up to the user, as he or she creatively exhausts the full potential of the system.

Shawn Billings is a licensed land surveyor in East Texas and works for Billings Surveying and Mapping Company, which was established in 1983 by his father, J. D. Billings. Together they perform surveys for boundary retracement, sewer and water infrastructure routes, and land development.

A 416Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE