A mobile, flexible state-of-the-art field mapping solution that provides accurate as-built and field asset documentation verified by GIS technology. It's easy to use and the kind of tool you can build a business around.
(by Conrad Blickenstorfer, based on interview with James Benson, Public Works Market Manager, Juniper Systems)
In an era where smartphones and tablets afford us unprecedented access to friends and entertainment, we sometimes forget that personal computers once were all about work and making us more productive. Before browsing, tweeting, blogging and streaming, there were wordprocessors, spreadsheets and databases. There's nothing wrong with Flipboard or Facebook, and apps can be enormously clever and useful, but with all this social networking and doing stuff in "the Cloud," sometimes it seems like just plain old using a computer for work has been all but forgotten.
Recently we had a chance to explore a piece of software that is all about work and productivity, one that helps to get jobs done (and done easier), and actually provides the very foundation of an interesting business. I am talking about the Aspect field mapping solution by Juniper Systems.
What is Juniper Aspect?
What is Juniper Aspect? A handy hardware/software solution that uses GPS and field data to generate accurate as-built and field asset documentation. It's applicable to all those numerous jobs out there where someone has to record and map how something was actually built, where exactly items are, what their condition is, and so on. Juniper Aspect makes that job hugely easier, and the results much more accurate. It's just a tool for the job, a fairly simple one, but one that makes work a lot simpler, and also one that I can easily see being the foundation of a business or career.
How did Juniper come up with the idea of Aspect? It started when their customers came to them and asked for a better way to locate components of irrigation systems so that they could generate as-built maps and drawings. Amazingly, somewhere between 80 and 90% of all irrigation systems have no as-built documentation at all. Which makes maintaining and repairing them a needlessly expensive and frustrating proposition. Juniper decided to remedy that situation. But how?
Building such an automated method was clearly a GIS — which stands for Geographic Information System — type of application. While GIS evolved from the survey industry and has been tremendously helpful in all sorts of mapping work, most GIS software unfortunately is complex, expensive and difficult to use. Juniper wanted something much simpler that didn't necessarily require a GIS professional to learn and understand. The company has considerable experience in how software is actually being used in the field, and they felt that the app should be as simple and straight-forward as possible.
A two-part solution: mobile and desktop
In essence, any field mapping and surveying project consists of two parts, one in the field where the data is collected, and one in the office on the desktop. A project is described, managed, tracked and formatted for submission to clients on the desktop. Working conditions in the office are obviously very different from working conditions in the field, and Juniper felt it was important to optimize the two components of the software for these very different conditions.
The field part had to be simple. Since Internet access in the field can be spotty, the software should not rely on it. It can be cold, dirty and wet in the field, so field software should be simple to see and use, which means large icons, simple screens, and operation by just tapping the screen. And the hardware used had to be able to work and survive in the field, on top of being competent, simple to use, and having displays that could be viewed in bright sunlight.
It was also important to think through the nature and logistics of field mapping. What the surveyor does, in essence, is collecting data points out there in the field. Data points provide not only the exact geographic location, but also a description of the point and perhaps attributes such as color, material, condition, codes, etc. Data points may then form lines (like following a pipe or conduit), or they may combine to describe irregular shapes like a cluster of trees or a distinct area.
Objects and object catalogs
Collecting data points and their attributes, however, would quickly get tedious without the help of predefined objects, and so Aspect includes a large catalog of objects. The default object catalog for irrigation applications alone has almost 2,000 commonly used parts from all the major manufacturers, and Aspect allows the ability to have various catalogs. Objects can have names, types, classes, serial numbers, etc., and users can create their own additional objects, or import catalogs in via CSV files.
So the job then becomes collecting data points in the field, which can be just points or objects, adding commentary where needed, and then using that field data to create maps on the desktop. Since desktops have much larger screens than the handhelds used in the field for data collection, desktop maps can be much more complex, contain multiple layers, and everything else a client will expect from the surveyor.
In addition to selecting from a catalog of objects, surveyors can also attach up to five photographs to each point, edit its geometry if need be, add commentary and whatever notes and additions come to mind.
Where can Aspect be used?
But given that Juniper designed Aspect as a simple tool for non-GIS professionals, what can it do, what are its benefits, and where are its limits?
It's all really a matter of required accuracy. Professional surveyors using triangulation tools can do roughly 30 to 40 points a day. A worker using Juniper Aspect can do between 300 and 400 points day. The Juniper Mesa's typical GPS accuracy is between two and five meters, and the Archer Field PC can reach sub-meter accuracy when equipped with the Hemisphere or GlobalSat receiver. The question then becomes if that is good enough for a project, whether it requires complete and total accuracy, or whether approximate location is sufficient as it often is. It comes down to a matter of cost. As always, using the proper tools and methods for a job is key, and Aspect is the right tool for a good many mapping and asset documentation jobs.
What Aspect looks like
Below are some sample Aspect screens on a Juniper Systems Mesa handheld. Also note the unique Juniper Mesa hardware. While the Mesa runs Windows Mobile, Juniper calls it a rugged notepad due its large 5.7-inch display.
On the desktop side, the Aspect software provides the flexibility required to create informative reporting and attractive maps for clients. Users can select from various types of base maps from ESRI, ArcGIS, Bing, etc. (but not Google as Google does not allow caching or offline maps) and then load whatever databases they need, such as street signs, light poles, etc. Data is synchronized between the desktop and the mobile computer, and data can also be loaded from, and exported to, Excel. ESRI Geo standard CAD files can also be imported, the opacity of layers can be controlled, and everything can be edited to perfection.
Once the layouts looks just right, Aspect users can then generate great-looking reports with their logos, include maps, pictures, data lists, and diagrams. Data can be exported to .CSV files, shapefile, geodatabase, KML, etc. Survey data can even be viewed as an overlay on Google Earth. Below is an example of what a part of a customer report can look like:
A tool for mapping jobs, and more
Juniper is pretty proud of their Aspect System which, they say, is one of the few products available that provides GIS capabilities in an easy-to-use package focused on the guys in the field. Aspect comes in Standard (no pictures) and Pro editions, and in packages with either the Juniper Archer with GlobalSat or XF101 GPS or the larger and more powerful Juniper Mesa with integrated camera, geotagging and 3G data.
What are the costs? The Aspect package that includes the desktop and mobile software and a rugged Archer handheld computer runs between US$2,400 (standard) and US$3,800 (professional). A Juniper Mesa professional system is between US$5,900 and US$6,400. There's an annual license renewal for professional versions (about US$800). That's an investment, but given the cost of professional software and high quality rugged hardware, it's a bargain. Especially when you consider that the Aspect solution will likely pay for itself within very little time.
Overall, it's very easy to see Aspect as the primary tool for any number of asset documentation and assessment businesses. For a self-motivated individual, it could be the key to a lucrative business and career.
Below is Juniper's video introducing and discussing Aspect: