Product Review: Carlson SurvPC and Supervisor

A 1.063Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

In 1983, Dad founded J. D. Billings Land Surveying Company. Survey software development was a burgeoning market with the relatively affordable and easily obtainable personal computer suddenly available. That same year Carlson Software was born. In 1985, because Bruce Carlson was willing to personally make the effort to format his desktop software, Surveyor1, to be compatible with Dad’s Tandy 2000 computer, Dad invested in his software and has continued to do so for nearly thirty years. (Bruce Carlson’s home phone number is still penciled on the front cover of the old Surveyor1 user’s manual). Similar stories of Carlson’s dedication to customer support and innovation have propelled Carlson from one of numerous also-rans appearing in the early 1980’s to a globally renowned developer of software and hardware for surveying, engineering, mining, hydrology, construction and geographic information systems. What’s more—Carlson has done this while remaining a privately held company—a note-worthy achievement in a business landscape dominated by mergers and acquisitions.

More than a dozen years ago, Carlson introduced the Explorer data collector with their new SurvCE software. SurvCE brought some significant features such as data collection and manipulation in a map view with some light duty drafting tools. In the intervening years SurvCE is nearing its third major update and has more recently been ported to function on machines running Microsoft Windows operating system, denoted by a slightly modified moniker: SurvPC, which is the subject of this review. Carlson offers SurvPC software with the Algiz7, borrowed from HHCS Handheld USA and rebadged as the Carlson Supervisor, which is a ruggedized, tablet PC running Microsoft Windows 7 Ultimate.

The Supervisor/SurvPC combination expands on the performance SurvCE users have come to expect on Windows Mobile platforms. The Supervisor consists of a seven inch (diagonally measured), color touch screen. In working with the Supervisor, I was surprised to find the screen is noticeably brighter in direct sun than even the Carlson Surveyor data collector with the added benefit of being much larger. The Supervisor is powered by a battery conscious single core Intel Atom 1.6 GHz processor with 2 gigabytes of RAM. On a contemporary desktop or laptop, which one might usually expect to find Windows 7, these levels might seem marginal. However, the Supervisor is neither desktop nor laptop and provides its users extended field operability through its battery sipping power management while also easily handling the rigors of large data sets and actively panning across full color digital images.

Sixty-four gigabytes of solid state goodness comprise the hard drive– keeping it free from internal moving parts, promoting durability and quick access to data. And if that’s not enough memory for all your needs, the USB ports are easily used to connect thumb drives, making the memory virtually unlimited–not to mention cloud computing possibilities via the Supervisor’s wireless options.

The Supervisor is also equipped with a 2 megapixel camera (with LED flash) and an internal u-Blox GPS receiver (both of which contribute to some of the more notable expanded capabilities of SurvPC). The Supervisor also has more I/O ports and wireless capabilities than an AWACS aircraft, offering 2 USB, a 9 pin serial, a LAN, a contact pin docking connector, headphone jack, mic jack, and power port. Internally, it has a LAN 802.11 b/g/n for WiFi and internal Bluetooth (v2.0), as well as optional support for Gobi 2000 WWAN (cellular) connections for worldwide access (Supervisor+).

For user input, the side panel includes 10 keys (power, menu, navigation, enter, and three programmable function keys). In the Windows environment, a pop-up QWERTY keyboard or transcribe pane is available as needed for data entry. I wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about Microsoft’s virtual keyboard, and I appreciated Carlson preemptively addressing this within SurvPC by including a much more user friendly virtual keyboard that made data entry very pleasant. For instances the user may find themselves exploiting the compatibility of Windows 7 with other programs outside SurvPC, I found I was able to plug my wireless mouse and keyboard into the USB port of the Supervisor just as I would with my desktop.

We recently upgraded our office computer systems and I now have a 24 inch flat screen monitor. My laptop is a full 17 inch screen. At only 7 inches, icons and text on the toolbar and menus of the Supervisor are noticeably small by comparison. However the screen resolution is very clear and allows everything to be legible, even if tiny. The SurvPC software, by contrast, is fantastically formatted for the Supervisor’s screen dimensions. Generously sized touchscreen buttons, map views, and text make for a pleasing interface. Even Dad, who struggles with smaller text due to aging eyes, found interaction with SurvPC easy.

My imagination runs wild with the software portability the Supervisor brings to the practicing field surveyor. Consider all of the nifty programs you have on your desktop right now. How many of them would be handy to have in the field? Would it occasionally be nice to post-process a GPS vector in the field, or perform a RINEX conversion to upload a file to OPUS while still on the site? Perhaps a least squares adjustment of your control traverse? Maybe a CORPSCON coordinate transformation? Could a quick Access database search put your finger on the right file? Could printing a document in the field save you from returning to the office? I’ve been waiting for years for manufacturers to develop "light" applications that could do some of these tasks on Windows Mobile machines and more recently on Android powered devices. With the Supervisor, that wait is over, and there is no reason to be limited to a "light" version.

While the screen size seems diminutive compared to laptops and desktops, again the Supervisor is neither laptop nor desktop and is actually enormous relative to other data collectors available today. This comparatively large screen size, mated with the Windows 7 operating system leverages a pretty significant advantage over other data collectors on the market. The seven inch display makes background images truly useful in the field and the Windows 7 operating system allows SurvPC to directly import georeferenced aerial images into the map screen.

Regarding SurvPC–for those not acquainted with SurvPC or SurvCE, allow me to briefly cover some of the high points. SurvPC works with an incredibly wide array of total stations, robots and GPS devices (RTK, RTN and standalone), as well as numerous peripheral devices such as laser rangefinders and depth finders. It provides a true plug and play experience, able to switch from one device to another with only a few taps on the screen. Carlson’s field to finish dramatically reduces office time and, in my opinion, improves the fidelity of CAD work by putting the field crew, which is actually on the ground, in control of how the dots are connected on the screen back at the office. I literally have even the most complex drawings 75% complete seconds after downloading my field files at the office. If you aren’t using field to finish for collection, you are missing out on some real productivity gains and quality control opportunities.

Furthermore, Carlson’s SurvPC offers CAD functions so close to the real thing you almost can’t distinguish the difference, which allows the user to work much like he or she would at their desk in the office. Point symbols can be set up in the field to finish coding such that traverse points
look just like they would on your desktop machine as well as boundary monuments, fire hydrants, benchmarks, trees, etc. This makes point selection much easier in the Map screen, even with descriptions frozen from view. With field to finish, you watch your drawing being drawn as points are collected. Staking can be done to linework alone–no points required. (Just last week we staked a thirty lot subdivision entirely from linework imported directly from a 2010 version .dwg file).

The new release of SurvPC brings this sort of CAD versatility to MicroStation users. Direct import of DGN files and staking directly from DGN linework is now supported, as well as live creation of DGN linework using Carlson’s superb field to finish. With so many DOTs relying on MicroStation for design, this advancement minimizes conversion steps and allows MicroStation users to seamlessly work with Carlson’s data collection as well.

New to SurvPC in this latest release is image linking. Digital pictures provide incredible documentation. Imagine, following stakeout of a road alignment, you photo several stakes along a curve or you collect a picture of each stake (easily done in seconds). What a tremendous record to prove where you were and what you did should something go wrong during construction! For topographic surveys, pictures of the site could prove incredibly useful back at the office. Pictures of boundary evidence could aid in presenting a more compelling case for your decisions. With the Supervisor’s integrated camera, it’s incredibly easy to capture a photo to be linked to a point either while the point is collected or later using the edit point feature.

Many surveyors harbor animus feelings at the mention of "GIS". However, for those willing to separate the anecdotal abuses observed under the GIS banner from the technology itself that drives GIS, there is potential for profound reward. Just as Carlson is blurring the lines between PC and data collector with the Supervisor hardware, they are likewise offering GIS methodology to surveying data collection in the SurvPC software, blurring GIS data collection and survey data collection and computation. SurvPC now offers an option to work natively with ESRI database files (MXD). From a surveyor’s perspective, I was able to stake out directly to ESRI linework and perform inverses between linework entities. From a GIS standpoint, however, not only does this have profound implications for collecting geospatial data for traditional GIS markets (such as locating municipal or energy infrastructure), but also brings GIS database technology to surveying markets. Perhaps surveyors in the near future will find it commonplace to have their CAD work composed not only of points and lines, but also with a live database linking points to images, schematics, field sketches, video, raw measurement data, deed records, crew members, etc. This newest release of SurvPC, with ESRI OEM compatibility, sets in motion this sort of reality.

Besides making effective use of the integrated camera of the Supervisor, another hardware feature Carlson exploits is the internal GPS receiver. One such use is the GPS search feature for robotic total stations. I had no documentation of the feature, but with a little trial and error experienced meaningful success. For some robotic instruments it may be unhelpful, simply because the search capabilities of many of the latest robots have become so robust, however the considerable number of those in our ranks operating older robotic total stations will find this feature to be truly amazing. Each time a point is shot from a setup, a quick GPS observation is noted internally as well and a localization is performed. If lock is lost with the robot, the user can select "GPS Search" and within seconds (literally) the data collector makes a quick GPS observation, calculates the angle the robot should turn to collimate the point, commands the instrument to turn and initiates a search–very slick indeed.

Beyond the GPS search capability, Carlson accesses the Supervisor’s internal GPS receiver and allows the user to roam the map in real time. For the standard Supervisor, the internal u-Blox GPS receiver provides 2 meter precision. For the Super G model (as tested) standalone, submeter performance can be expected. By simply walking around with the Supervisor, an operator could map soft objects that don’t require centimeter level precision (littoral lines, and gravel roads for instance) or to find points for reconnaissance (such as control, man holes, boundary monuments, or preplanning stake out). I can’t begin to describe how implementing this capability can dramatically affect your productivity.

Regarding robotics, I found the Bluetooth range of the Supervisor to be very satisfactory. Many surveyors are using long range Bluetooth devices to communicate with their robots and finding that 1000 foot shots are fairly common with hot batteries. What some may not know is that the Bluetooth in Carlson’s Surveyor is capable of communicating with a long range Bluetooth radio out to about 600 feet. Thus, for a small job, it may not be necessary to tote around a Bluetooth radio at the pole. Simply use the internal Bluetooth in the Surveyor. I found similar capabilities in the new Supervisor. I was able to reach approximately 400 feet with the internal Bluetooth of the Supervisor paired to a Parani Bluetooth I had mounted to the robot. Again, for small jobs, this could make the pole setup much cleaner and easier to operate.

Downloading field data varied somewhat from the procedure generally used with Windows Mobile hardware. Typically with a Windows Mobile device (such as the Surveyor), the routine is: plug the USB in to a desktop and let Windows Mobile Device Center (previously ActiveSync) handle the details, then upload or download via Carlson X-port. Because the Supervisor is a Windows device this isn’t an option. Using a thumb drive to ferry files from one machine to another is one option via the Supervisor’s USB port, which I did with ease. I also used the LAN port of the Supervisor and connected it directly to my computer network. After a few attempts at getting the settings right for permission and sharing, I was able to send files quickly from one machine to the other using Windows Explorer. Not only did this give me incredibly fast file sharing capability, but also allowed access to my network printers and our hard-wired internet. Certainly this could also be accomplished via WiFi in a wireless network setting, and perhaps even more urbane, a user could simply upload files to a cloud storage service while still in the field.

Powering the Supervisor are two, hot swappable lithium ion batteries. The standard sized batteries will power the machine for about two hours apiece. The model I received for review was equipped with extra capacity batteries that protrude slightly from the back of the unit which allow for over three hours each (close to seven hours of operation total). Batteries are easily replaced by manipulating a spring latch and pivoting them out, thus allowing users requiring lengthier remote operation to swap additional batteries in the field.

The weight and feel of the Supervisor is astonishingly light and nimble. As can be seen, the Supervisor compares favorably in size with the Surveyor, sacrificing a full keyboard and offering a substantial amount of screen real estate in return while maintaining similar proportions and offering an operating system that can run most desktop applications. The Supervisor with SurvPC takes SurvCE and puts it on a real computer while maintaining a form and function that sophisticated field surveyors will appreciate for its capability and field worthiness.

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 rou
tes, and land development.

A 1.063Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE