A Race for Precision

Ladies mud run provides a healthy workout for new GNSS technology

Dillon GIS specialist Sarah Galloway used Trimble Catalyst and Esri Collector to lay out trails for a Canadian fun run.

For some companies, giving back to the community is part of a day’s work. That certainly is the case with Dillon Consulting, a professional consulting organization in Ontario, Canada, founded in 1946 by two military veterans. The company now has offices across the country and a well-deserved reputation for quality and high values.

Dillon strongly believes in supporting the local community, and a favorite charity is the Canadian Cancer Society. For the last four years, Dillon has been a co-sponsor of the ladies-only “mud run,” called the Halton Mudmoiselle, which raises funds for cancer research and support services. Last year, when the organizing committee chose a new location for the race, Dillon saw it as an opportunity to help the organizers while also testing the latest Esri® technology.

The race previously had been held at the local conservation authority. “We were limited in obstacles and what we could physically alter onsite,” said Sarah Galloway, a GIS specialist with Dillon. “With a mud run, we wanted it muddy. We wanted to up the ante.”

And they did. The new site is a maple farm, with dense undergrowth and thick trees. The site’s poor cell coverage, however, could turn what appeared to be a simple mapping project into a logistical nightmare. Dillon looked to GIS tools such as mobile data collection and mapping to lay out the new trails.

Preparing for the Event
The Dillon team and a group from the local chapter of the Cancer Society visited the farm four months before the race to see what they could do with the space. They asked the property owner if they could flag potential sites for creating a trail. The owner would be able to use the trail later to access the back end of the property, so the project would be a collaborative effort.

The maple farm has forested areas with very thick brush, and the trails would need to cut through the tree cover. “It was the first time a run had been held at the farm and we were bushwhackers,” Galloway said. “There was very dense undergrowth, so we couldn’t get far in our first few times onsite.”

Dillon wanted to compare Catalyst’s performance with their bigger Trimble Pro 6H receiver and ArcPad using corrections from Cansel Can-Net real-time network.

On top of that, the property was notorious for weak cellular signals. “We thought this would be a great test for Trimble® CatalystTM and Esri Collector,” said Galloway, who had been reading about the Catalyst technology, a software-defined GNSS receiver that works with Android-powered tablets and smartphones. Collector for ArcGIS® (EAP version) enables improved and informed decision making by putting mapping and data collection capabilities in the hands of the field worker. “We were wondering if Catalyst would be easier to use and we wanted to test accuracy under such poor conditions compared to other GPS products,” she added. The Mudmoiselle run provided a good opportunity to find out.

Before heading to the site, Galloway set up a simple online map in ArcGIS Online that could be opened in Collector on both the tablet and cellphone that would track the route and obstacle locations. The Online map consisted of the property boundary, current aerial photo and waypoints. The waypoints had two input fields: Fields ID, which would auto-populate with data so they could track the route, and a comment field used to note any potential obstacles. Collector has the ability to take and store images and photos, which was handy when documenting the obstacles and also for viewing the area later without returning to the site.

Dillon would compare Catalyst’s performance with their existing Trimble Pro 6H receiver and ArcPad® using corrections from Cansel Can-Net real-time network. “The Trimble Pro 6H is bigger and we didn’t need the sub-meter accuracy it provided,” Galloway explained. Catalyst can obtain positions in real time with accuracy ranging from meter level to two centimeters. “When you want to get to the decimeter level, you need a clear view of the sky. With Catalyst, the site team could navigate woodland areas and tough terrain carrying little more than a smartphone.”

The first day of Catalyst performance testing, Galloway and Dillon’s GIS technical lead, John Fairs, hiked the site for four hours. The Catalyst antenna, along with the Pro 6H, was mounted on a Trimble backpack. Catalyst and Collector were both running on Fairs’ Android phone. The Pro 6H was connected to a Windows® tablet using ArcPad that Galloway was using. Fairs and Galloway were collecting data simultaneously on each of the devices so they could later compare the data back in the office.

The Course Takes Shape
“We flagged potential obstacles, such as downed trees, which we could use as natural race obstacles,” Galloway said. “The race is 5K and we marked 2.7 kilometer of possible trail with tape and points so we could see where it was when we were back in the office. We were getting centimeter accuracy on both units. Using Collector made it easy for us to view the trail and location of the obstacles once we got back to the office. This helped us to make decisions on where we should focus the remaining 2.5 km of trail.

“There were a few swampy areas, which we incorporated to ensure the event lived up to its name. But the ground was drier than we thought which was good because the trail was very rocky. We didn’t bring much mud in this year,” Galloway said, “but next year we will. It was easy to get lost out there because everything looks the same, but when you have the right equipment with you, you feel more comfortable.”

Galloway and Fairs marked key waypoints and features for possible routes, and then showed the property owner their plan. They returned to the property whenever possible to continue the layout and help clear the trails. “One weekend we used Catalyst to mark 2.5 kilometers worth of trail and another time we marked about 50 meters. In that environment you have to have a clear path because the brush is so dense on both sides. Before Catalyst we’d place flags on bushes or trees as markers for the trail. Catalyst made it much easier to layout the course.” Galloway and other fundraising volunteers also helped the owner trim and clear underbrush when they were marking trails.

Strong Performance in Record Time
“Catalyst performed beyond expectations, especially in such heavy tree cover,” Galloway said. “With averaging enabled in Esri Collector, we were routinely getting accuracy of 80 centimeters or better, which we thought was excellent given the site location and cell coverage challenges, as well as tree cover.” To boot, it was an overcast, rainy day.

Though carrying equipment is part of a field tech’s job, Catalyst made the job easier. “It was so lightweight and had the accuracy we needed in poor environmental conditions. The added bonus of using smaller hardware made trekking through thick vegetation cover a lot easier,” Galloway said.

Catalyst also comes at a better price point than most professional-grade GNSS tools–without compromising results.

Galloway regularly shared Catalyst’s AGOL web map with event organizers and participants to show the progress of the course. The combination of accurate trail layouts and obstacle locations overlaid on current air photos (provided by Canadian company First Base Solutions) was critical to creating a successful race layout.

Mud, Sweat and Cheers
They also created an Esri Story Map® for race participants so they could see their accomplishment. To create the map, they used data collected in the field as well as photos taken during the event by photographers and volunteers. Participants had access to the Mudmoiselle Halton Story Map, where they could see the route and location of obstacles. The Story Map was sent out as a link on social media websites (i.e., Canadian Cancer society’s twitter and Facebook account). “This was a tough project because it was the first year at the maple farm and it was a site with lots of roadblocks,” Galloway said. “But everything was finished in time for the race. I am looking forward to working on next year’s race, and at Dillon we are looking forward to using Catalyst in even more challenging conditions.”

Kristine Carber-White is a writer based in Silicon Valley. A former editor for the San Jose Mercury News, Carber-White writes extensively on geospatial technology.