We started working on Mobile GIS solutions with phones and tablets back in 2010 for ways to get around clunky old GPS handheld units. Since then there has been an amazing proliferation of Mobile GIS apps, including the 2014 release of Esri’s Collector (disconnected version). Back then, Collector left a lot to be desired compared to its competitors in the field. However, with the updates to Collector in 2016 and the addition of Survey 123 with its smart forms, it is now possible to leverage a lot of efficiency between the office staff and field staff by utilizing Esri’s ArcGIS Online and suite of field apps.
But how does all this work together and how do you get your company from old-school handheld GPS units to real-time data collection and management with tablets?
The first thing to keep in mind is that for every license of Esri ArcGIS desktop software (ArcMap or ArcGIS Pro) you have, you also have a matching Esri ArcGIS Online (AGOL) account. With that account, you can log-in to most of Esri’s free field apps for free, including Collector, Survey 123, and Workforce. For an additional fee, you can even load custom roadmaps for navigation in Navigator. If you have a large number of field users, you can purchase additional AGOL accounts so all the field staff can log-in to Collector or Survey 123, or both!
With the advances of Esri’s ArcGIS Online and field apps like Collector and Survey 123, even more efficiency in field data collection/monitoring is possible than compared to even a couple of years ago. There are a few steps that I like to break down for the workflow.
Project Planning Using ArcGIS Online
With AGOL, users can log-in to their account on their desktop web browser to view existing project data. This is a great way for field staff and managers at environmental consulting firms to look at the aerial imagery of a new project site and get a feel for the potential habitat types, noxious weeds, and rare plants and animals that they may encounter before ever leaving the office. For utilities, this gives staff the ability to navigate around their mapped assets and learn where an existing asset of interest is situated and how to get to the site.
When it is time to travel to the field, users need two things:
- Phone or Tablet to run Esri’s Apps
- External Bluetooth GPS/GNSS receiver for submeter, sub-foot, or centimeter accuracy depending on project needs
The User can download offline maps in Collector to their tablet of choice (iOS, Windows 10, or Android) or use a cellular connection in the field for live data streaming. Field users can then use Collector to help navigate to their project site or asset where they can collect new data or update data at an existing asset. If they opt for Esri’s Navigator, they can get turn-by-turn directions to their asset. Or, if field users are collecting new data, they can take advantage of Survey 123’s smart form capabilities to collect data.
High Accuracy Field Surveys with Collector and/or Survey123
The greatest benefit of recent Collector updates is the ability to directly connect to an external Bluetooth GNSS receiver instead of just relying on the receiver to overwrite the internal Core Location services of the device. This allows Collector to automatically record with each collected point the:
- Name of the external Bluetooth GNSS receiver
- Latitude, longitude, and correct elevation
- Estimated accuracy (horizontal and vertical)
- Number of satellites used
- Fix type (GPS, DGPS, RTK Float, or RTK Fix)
- Correction Age (important for RTK work)
Something to emphasize is that this is the method for capturing the user’s accurate elevation. For other Mobile GIS apps (even the most popular apps) that do not allow the user to directly connect to the GNSS receiver, the low-accuracy elevation is being recorded from the devices internal GNSS and not the high-accuracy external GNSS receiver.
Another important capability of Collector is setting the project Datum. For work using submeter GNSS receivers, field users can leave Collector’s Correction Profile set to Default. However, for RTK work, users can set the Correction Profile to account for NAD83 (2011) corrections from their RTK Network so their base imagery in the field matches the position they are standing at in the real world.
Collector Tip: Users should change the default Collection Streaming Interval from 5 seconds to 1 second under Collector's Settings tab. We want Collector to update its position communication with the external GNSS receiver every second!
An exciting upcoming 2017 update to Collector is the capability to collect a point with GPS Averaging. It is still unclear how GPS Averaging will function in Collector. However, with other software this function allows the field user to average their location for a set amount of time (ex. 10 seconds) instead of capturing a less accurate single point in time (1 second).
Now ideally, Collector could do everything it does well with metadata capture and RTK workflows and has smart forms built in. That is the main downfall of Collector, lack of smart form capability, so Esri released Survey 123 with its smart form capability.
An interesting aspect of the workflow between Collector and Survey 123, is that data collected with both apps can be uploaded to the same project map/file in AGOL. Thus, field users can use Collector and Survey 123 interchangeably on the same project. This is great for data that requires the recording of satellite metadata from the external GNSS receiver, field users can capture points in Collector. There are a few different ways people can use this two software options together on the same project:
- Use the metadata capture ability of Collector to collect a point.
- Then flip over to the Survey 123 app to collect information in a clean yet easy to use complicated data form structure and then note the ID of the point that was collected with Collector.
Or, they can use the smart forms of Survey 123 to collect the initial data and then use the map to navigate back to those points (assets). Finally, if the field user is working in the range of cellular service, data captured in Survey 123 and submitted in real-time to AGOL will appear in their Collector app within minutes.
Something that I used as a field biologist, and many others, is the ability to call from the field to office GIS staff to ask for additional project data or data collection forms. This real-time ability to have updates added to AGOL and then synced to Collector in the field is immensely beneficial both in easing the field surveyors job and saving project time and budget. Field users no longer must augment electronic data with paper notes when their Mobile GIS app doesn’t have everything they need. Thus, eliminating the need to later “fix” field collected data with the help of office GIS staff after returning from field surveys.
Engineering and environmental firms now can greatly increase their reporting efficiency. Before field users even return from the field, project managers and supervisors can log-in to AGOL and view the field data collected
Utility groups can utilize the AGOL interface with field users using Collector to visit an asset, quickly update asset data, record photos, and videos, and then call office supervisors if there are problems. The office supervisor can log-in to AGOL and view the data (photos or video) the field user just collected and they can discuss issues live and in real-time!
It also gives supervisors the ability to check the GNSS estimated accuracy for data points to verify that field users are meeting project accuracy requirements. Having the field collected data uploaded to AGOL also allows supervisors to QA/QC the data before greenlighting the download of the data to the GIS system of record. It essentially creates a QA/QC firewall.
Field users can return to the office and log-in to their AGOL account to view their data and conduct their own QA/QC if necessary. It also eliminates their need to ask GIS staff to “show me the data” numerous times while writing their field reports. As a former environmental project manager, I know that this can both use GIS budget faster than necessary and create scheduling conflicts as GIS staff is pulled away from conducting analyses and making maps.
Another way you can speed up reporting is to create custom report generation from AGOL. Users can download field data points and associated data from AGOL and process it in a custom excel report generator to automatically create pre-formatted reports.
Are you and your team taking full advantage of the Esri software you already pay for?
If you need help with any aspect of software customization, help to decide on the appropriate external GNSS receiver, or deciding on which rugged tablet to deploy, contact us!