Students Get an Edge

With help, Mohawk Valley Community College upgrades surveying technology.
By Don Talend  

Don’t get Alan Chace wrong—the assistant professor at Mohawk Valley Community College (MVCC), Utica, New York, recognizes that, by the fall 2010 semester, MVCC’s Center for Mathematics, Engineering, Physical Sciences, and Applied Technology needed new surveying total stations for courses that include surveying instruction. The center had been using the same total stations for more than 10 years. But he contends that providing students with the latest technology also sends them a message, and purchasing four newer models provided a valuable benefit beyond new equipment features.

“Young people today will look at something that’s 10 years old, particularly anything that has a digital display—and I don’t care how well it’s made—you can put it in front of them and they ask, What is this ancient thing?” says Chace, who has surveyed since 1985 and began his academic career in 1999. “Computer technology changes that quickly, and this is the computer generation; these kids grew up from the cradle with a computer in front of them, and their standards are very different from those of my generation. They understand and feel very privileged when we’re investing in their education.”

MVCC’s center has benefited from financial assistance in a slightly different form than grants since 2005: discounts through Topcon Positioning Systems’ Educational Partners Program. The program, which normally is implemented through Topcon’s dealer network, provides financial support and training for educational institutions. More than 300 schools in the United States are involved in the program.

Getting New Tools

In 2005, MVCC purchased a Topcon HiPer Lite+ base station and rover antenna that students use to learn the intricacies of real-time kinetic (RTK) global navigation satellite system (GNSS) technology. Such GNSS tools are an example of how technological advancements are providing students and professionals involved in geospatial activities with new tools that increase efficiency and precision. Satellites send positioning data to an antenna/receiver combination at the stationary base station. The rover antenna, mounted on a pole, is set at a given location, and the stationary base and rover process the signals together to provide RTK position information with better than 1–2 cm accuracy. Software compares the rover’s position to the design grade at a given location, and the operator can determine the topography of the location by viewing a field controller that is also mounted on the pole.

A total station combines an electronic transit and electronic distance measuring device (EDM). Angles and distances are used to calculate the x, y, and z positions of points. Under conventional operation, the electronic transit provides a digital read-out of those angles, and the EDM sends an infrared beam that is reflected off a prism that’s mounted on a tripod or a prism pole. In some cases, no prism is used for obscure measurements, and a reading can be measured up to 350m at 5mm to 1cm accuracy, depending on the distance. The unit uses timing measurements to calculate the distance traveled by the beam. The total station also calculates the locations of points sighted, and many are equipped to record angles, distances, or the coordinates of points. The students use the data to develop an official site survey using CAD software.

Prior to the start of the fall 2010 semester, MVCC made its second purchase under the Topcon assistance program to acquire four GPT-3105W total stations. Chace explains that surveying labs typically serve 12 students (or four crews of three each), so four total stations were needed. In addition to the savings, MVCC has received several visits from Topcon representatives who have trained both instructors and students on the new units.

Dritan Taganovic of New York City, who is finishing his associate’s degree in building management before pursuing another associate’s degree in surveying, says that the operation of the new units is more efficient. “It’s more user friendly than the older units,” he says, adding that wirelessly connecting data collectors via Bluetooth was a major hurdle that they recently cleared. “You definitely don’t have to use a log book anymore—you can just plot as many points and take as many readings as you want.”

The displays on the new units allow more functions, according to Amel Bacic of Utica, who is focusing on civil engineering as well as surveying. As of early November 2010, Bacic and other students were using the total stations conventionally, i.e., in conjunction with a prism deployed separately, and were working on using their “reflectorless” capability. In reflectorless operation, the total station sends high-energy pulses that reflect light back to the station from an otherwise non-reflective object. “The Topcons are reflectorless, so you don’t always have to go out with prisms to get your distances, which is great,” says Bacic. “They can also save a whole lot of time on the job.” In addition to using wireless technology, the new units were designed to have the longest reflectorless range in their class at 350 meters or 1,150 feet; using a prism, the range is 3,000 meters or 9,900 feet. For reflectorless surveying, the unit uses a narrower “dual-optical” beam and a broader beam for surveying with a prism.

Putting the Equipment to Work

The total stations and GNSS receivers allow the students to complete hands-on tasks that accompany the theory behind surveying. “What we do, essentially, is teach them the theory, the mathematics, the legal issues, the work in the classroom, and then we have a series of lab experiences that are designed to reinforce that,” says Chace. “We talk in the classroom, for example, about how to read blueprints, and then we come up with stakeout notes for those blueprints, and then we go out in the field, outside of the classroom on the college campus and execute those building stakeouts.

“I think there are a lot of students who, until they actually get their hands on modern measuring equipment, think of mathematics in the abstract. But if we can show them a practical application, how to use mathematics in a realistic way, these things click. Take trigonometry: a high school student has no idea what trigonometry is, but if we can show them how they can use trigonometry to lay out a building, for example, then the subject material becomes easier.”

An example of how theory makes field work easier is the study of measurement errors, Chace points out. “We spend quite a bit of time looking at that,” he says. “All measurements have error, and we need to know how much error we’re working with. Is it at the thousandths-of-a-foot level; is it at the hundredths of a foot level? What’s contributing to it? We study random error, which means we study statistics. With the equipment, we determine what sort of error is occurring with it and use that knowledge as a basis of indoor laboratory work in statistical analysis.”

Using the GNSS receivers in tandem with the total stations will give the students more real-life training, according to Chace. Early in the semester, he said, students used the receivers to locate underground structures on campus so that some new solar-powered signs would not disturb the structures. The students imported data into CAD, mapped the structures, and later staked them. “This is an example of a real-life lab/theory application that we try to train people on,” says Chace, adding that the GNSS receivers made locating the structures a very efficient process. “We could have done it with a transit and steel tape, but we were able to get this technology into the hands of my students and put it to work very much like they would in the work force.”

Looking Ahead

Chace sees that technology can make surveying better than ever, as long as academia is up to the challenge of training students on those technologies. “What has happened is that, as technology proliferates, you need fewer man hours to accomplish any given task,” he says. “There is little room anymore in surveying for a laborer. When I got into the field, we would have one or two laborers on a crew. This doesn’t happen anymore—virtually everyone out there at this point is highly trained. You need fewer people, but the people you do have need to be more highly trained.”

One field that is growing by leaps and bounds in capabilities is building and analyzing geographic information systems (GIS), which use rich, archived data for applications such as highway maintenance, Chace contends. “Technology makes the acquisition of massive amounts of spatial data and coordinates so much easier and faster because we have a lot more of them, and because we have more of them, we need more people who are capable of analyzing it. We here at Mohawk Valley are interested in bridging what some people perceive as a gap between surveying and geographic information systems. In my opinion, the handling and analysis of these huge amounts of spatial data is where the need and the growth will be.”
Don Talend of  Write Results Inc., West Dundee, IL, is a print and e-content developer specializing in covering technology and innovation.

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