Power House Software—A Review of MicroSurvey embeddedCAD

A 1.335Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

Is your field surveying and drafting software bogging you down on client projects you’re trying to complete? If so, you’re part of a club, and membership isn’t exclusive. Maybe the software tools you’re using are simply designed incorrectly, or maybe they can accomplish some tasks superbly yet prove woefully lacking with others.

Most surveyors prefer a traditional CAD interface and engine because, in many instances, this is the environment they’ve worked in and which feels most comfortable to them. That’s a hard habit to shake, and many surveying products marketed as one-stop solutions for both drafting and surveying miss the target. Surveyors also need to be able to compute coordinates, balance traverses and annotate drawings, among a host of other capabilities. For years, many software tools based on the tried and true Autodesk OEM engine have been available for a wide range of applications. Of course, AutoCAD was born to support 2D and 3D formats addressing these applications; the AutoCAD Civil 3D Building Information Modeling (BIM) solution for civil engineering design is a good example.

A More Complete Drafting Toolkit Needed
Until recent years, an application of this type aimed squarely at the needs of field surveyors has been somewhat elusive, except for some software offerings that contain a few survey drafting features that are worthwhile. MicroSurvey Software, Inc. pondered this dilemma and created a program called MicroSurvey embeddedCAD, a standalone software package that provides users with a powerful interface for a complete drafting toolkit. The toolkit, powered by Autodesk technology and compatible with AutoCAD DWG files, includes COGO, DTM, traversing, adjustments, volumes, contouring and many other helpful tools. For surveyors, it’s been a godsend.

In this article, we’ll examine some functions of embeddedCAD based on the experiences of three different surveyors. They will offer their views on how the software makes them more productive and strengthens their project workflow.

DTMs Once a Stumbling Block
For James Monk, LSIT and project manager with Alabama Land Surveyors, Inc. in Prattville, Alabama, a nagging sticking point in his survey work had been creating Digital Terrain Models (DTMs). Some software his firm had used for this job had severe limitations: Monk revealed, "If you tried to save a lot of points, the software would bog down or crash." Monk was typically trying to save 800 to 1000 points for DTMs. "Occasionally, we complete government projects for the military," Monk said. "In our latest venture, we performed a tree height study where we flew a five-mile radius around a control point of the airfield using LiDAR to collect points for flight paths to include georeferenced images," he continued. "There could be 11,000 points for these trees, but the software we were using could not process such a vast amount of points or the complex images. We couldn’t afford to get three hours into creating a DTM and have the program crash because it would not handle such a large number of points," Monk added. Alabama Land Surveyors needed a software program with a low learning curve and a powerful CAD platform able to process a substantial number of data points with complex 3D line work and aerial photographs. "It also needed to do COGO, whether this involved simple inversing or calculating missing curve data," Monk said.

Software Needed to Process Large Data Sets, Give "Smart Information"
The survey firm sampled several programs, but none of them could handle their testing of large data sets. The tree height studies made a good trial balloon for these programs. However, "What should have taken about 30 minutes with the aerials was an all-day event," Monk laments. So he abandoned these programs, eventually discovering MicroSurvey embeddedCAD. The fact that the software was powered by Autodesk was huge, and today the survey firm strictly uses embeddedCAD on all of its computers.

Alabama Land Surveyors, Inc. also conducts NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) wetland delineation surveys, whereby the federal government leases large, three-to-fourhundred acre boundaries with the goal of keeping them natural. About six of these surveys are performed annually. The firm’s primary work is larger ALTA /ACSM land title surveys throughout the Southeast for retail clients. These may be up to 20-acre sites, and the clients naturally want topographic data. In addition, title companies want a current survey for each of these sites to check for any encroachments on other properties and to identify locations of storm drains, sanitation lines, parking stripes, and all fix improvements. "There could be 1000-1500 points to map," Monk explained. "Once you bring this data in, plus all the 3D line work and breaklines to help create the contours, it’s a pretty complex drawing by the time you create the TIN and DTM. Building the DTMs is very user friendly," Monk added. "The embeddedCAD program is good for getting this kind of information, and works fine."

Monk highly values embeddedCAD’s database capabilities. In some competing programs, lines are just lines ­ there’s no intelligence to them. With embeddedCAD, all line work goes into a database to serve as "smart information." For example, Monk offers, "If we’re doing preliminary work on a boundary or a subdivision, the ability to just click on that line and get all the information from it really reduces the time you have to spend on calculations versus if it’s just a flat line with no `intelligence.’"

Smooth, Efficient Workflow, Time Savings Prove Crucial
Time savings is always crucial in survey work, which makes embeddedCAD a compelling alternative to other programs. Smooth and fast workflow is at the core of time savings. For instance, Alabama Land Surveyors may send a crew out to perform a topo on a cell tower located out of state. "We may need to gather topographic data from the site 1500 feet along an easement out to the highway, and then, say, go 200 feet in each direction along the highway," Monk explained. When the survey crew believes they have all the points needed they are ready to return to the office to draft and make sure all essential information is in the database. "They send us the file while in the field and I bring this into embeddedCAD to analyze the data, and with a few short steps within the program drop the survey data into Google Earth so I can see all of those points," Monk explained. "By doing this, I can see exactly where they’ve gotten their shots, and I can tell them if they need to get some additional points or if we have all the data needed to meet our clients’ needs," Monk added. The efficiency of workflow means huge time savings for both Alabama Land Surveyors and its clients.

Working with Coordinates Easier
Forest Jourdan, a field engineer and owner of WFJ Construction Layout of Texas in Spicewood, Texas, was initially skeptical upon hearing that embeddedCAD was positioned as being designed specifically for the surveyor and the field engineer. No wonder ­ when he tried manipulating coordinates in other software that supposedly had powerful, versatile CAD engines, they didn’t identify true coordinates, but "nodes" instead. It was around these nodes that data was separated. For instance, in Trimble’s CAD surveying product TDS ForeSight, which WFJ Construction Layout uses along with embeddedCAD, a node and its data are all one function,
Jourdan said. "These stay intact until you decide to pull pieces off of it. MicroSurvey’s embeddedCAD does the same thing, but it gives you functions to work in that data," Jourdan continued. "It allows you to run coordinates as coordinates and not run your whole drawing as line work. That’s what we wanted!" The survey firm now stages coordinates in ForeSight, then moves them to embeddedCAD to work on them.

What Jourdan says he likes about MicroSurvey’s solution is its simple and easy-to-understand functionality. "When you do line work with coordinates in embeddedCAD, it really is just point to point," he said. "With other CAD programs, if you’re not really careful, your snap points can burn you bad. embeddedCAD snaps only to that nearest point or coordinate." The software works well for WFJ Construction Layout’s projects, which include construction surveying/field engineering, road/highway, pipeline/ utilities, and multistory commercial developments. It is used exclusively in the firm’s office, where the software’s annotating functions for text and line work manipulation are valuable.

Jourdan spends a lot of his time intercepting topo maps with easements indicated so he can build drawings to fill in critical details such as waste water and storm sewer lines. "embeddedCAD allows me to do the line work and all of the positioning for these aspects," Jourdan said. "I can set my parameters in the software on alignment, depth, and the software will build my profile sheet as I’m building them. These are not two separate functions, which saves a huge amount of time."

‘Coordinate Editor’ Feature Streamlines Point Manipulation
Jourdan uses ForeSight for positioning and organizing coordinates on line work, and once these are adjusted just right they are imported into embeddedCAD. Jourdan said he would like to see embeddedCAD give users the option when changing a coordinate layer to assign all of the data to it. Why? "You need your coordinate data as you walk through coordinate manipulation," Jourdan said. Helping with this step is embeddedCAD’s active coordinate editor, which Jourdan says is key when working with multiple coordinates simultaneously, as in staking a waste water line. "As long as coordinates are in groups and they’re in order, the active coordinate editor makes it easy to put all of the coordinates up and down the (waste water or sewer line), and you want this," Jourdan said. "We just manipulate our coordinates right on the CAD drawing."

Jourdan likes the fact that embeddedCAD has engineering functions, such as solid line work. "It builds profiles well and quickly," he said. "That’s huge, and it’s why I bought the software for this type of manipulation."

3D Capability Helps Identify Problems
Like so many surveyors, Mark Osborn, a surveyor with Williston, North Dakota-based Horgan Surveying, was originally trained in AutoCAD. So, making the transition to Autodeskpowered embeddedCAD was easy. The software has pull-down menus and features very similar to AutoCAD, so this compatibility is not only reassuring but essential when working on projects. Horgan Surveying handles surveying for a large portion of the many oil fields in North Dakota. The software has proven its mettle well for these projects. Much of the work in the field involves pinpointing section corners for precisely locating prospective well sites so many feet from the north-south/east-west section lines, then taking topo shots every 50 feet so a topo map can be created. The data points from these measurements are imported into embeddedCAD so a tent can be built. "We later go out and do an as-built of the oil well once each well is constructed, and shoot the edges of the pad and where the well heads are," Osborn detailed. The gathered data points are exported over to embeddedCAD and a plat is created. What Osborn likes is that the software allows him to manipulate these points into different objects.

No matter how simple a software program may be, a surveyor eventually hits a wall on some of his projects. When this happens while using embeddedCAD, Osborn appreciates the availability of online help movies for the software, which enable him to work through problems precisely when he’s working on a survey drawing, in real time. Sometimes, he recalled, "When I’m doing topo shots, the contours don’t match up. There are some 3D capabilities in the software that allow correction of these types of problems," Osborn said. "I’ve struggled with some of the survey designs I’ve done, but when I put them into 3D I can tell where the problem was right away."

Robert Galvin is a freelance writer based in Oregon City, Oregon. He writes on topics pertaining to software for various surveying applications. He can be reached at: rsgpr@msn.com.

A 1.335Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE