Hands On: TDS Recon
Professional Surveyor Magazine - September 2003
Al Pepling, LS
With SOLO software, Survey Pro for the Pocket PC and the Ranger, you would wonder why TDS would bring out a new piece of hardware, the Recon. It is to be the replacement for, and compete with, the HP48GX-based software line. Since 1995, TDS Survey Pro has been the most popular data collection package on the HP48 platform, but HP has recently stopped production of the HP48 platform. From that perspective the decision to bring out the Recon makes good sense to me.
At Trans Associates, much of the work we do is either for, or reviewed by, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. The districts we work in use TDS for their data collection and Bentley's MicroStation software. Trans Associates is currently using TDS Survey Pro on the HP48GX platform, with an environmental case during the colder months. Office transfer is done with TDS Survey Link software.
The Recon is small, ergonomically designed, and fits your hand like a glove. It comes in gray or yellow with a 200 MHz or 400MHz Intel XScale processor and weighs in at 17 ounces including the rechargeable "PowerBoot." It has a sunlight readable TFT design color screen and "rugged" design. There is 64 MB high-speed DRAM and 64 MB or 128 MB of nonvolatile Flash Storage. Nonvolatile means that data stored in it is secure even in the event of power loss. There is also one type I and one type II CompactFlash storage port. The unit is rugged, operates in temperatures from -22º to 140ºF, and meets the MIL-STD-810F spec for humidity, water, drop, sand and dust, vibration, and altitude. TDS also sells screen protectors, and their use will prolong the screen's life immeasurably.
The other side of the unit contains the stylus port, the "PowerBoot," and part of the rubber housing/feet that covers the compact flash card ports. Threaded brass inserts in the main body hold the screws that secure the cover. A less expensive method would have been to use "self tapping screws" into the body housing material. Cross threading or stripping of the housing threads would lead to compromising the "ruggedness" of the unit with malfunctions soon to follow. TDS has been thoughtful in their design of this unit, no doubt incorporating feedback from their users.
The "PowerBoot," like the CompactFlash port cover, also serves as the other two feet and cushioning "bumpers." The "boot," which houses the NiMH battery, is removed by turning the two arrow cams 180 degrees and then sliding it out. The stylus has a blade on one end just for that purpose. The battery is rated for 15 hours of continuous use at room temperature. The 48's battery life was much longer and three "triple A" batteries could be obtained most anywhere, but it is not as rugged and it is severely limited in its graphic capabilities. Fortunately, spare Recon "boots" are available accessories. This feature makes it superior to many of the newer Palm and PocketPC PDAs which have to go back to the factory for battery replacement.
Advantage Over the 48
The Recon has a standard, non-proprietary, 9-pin serial connector, a USB connector, and the coaxial power connector for recharging the battery. They are all part of the "PowerBoot." This choice of components is superior to the fragile and often damaged 4-pin connectors of the HP48 itself. From some feedback I have encountered, it is almost as expensive to have the pin connection repaired as it would be to replace the unit, leading many 48 users to purchase spare 48's or only use them in the "hard" environmental cases. The Recon unit itself is definitely a "hard environmental case." From my point of view, the Recon has definite advantages over the 48 platform when it comes to data collection and it is pretty handy in the office too!
The Windows CE operating system, 400 MHz processor and TDS Survey Pro software are the heart of the Recon's advantage over the 48 platform. One of the "wish list" items I desired when I was a "solo"operator was the ability to put my deed plots on top of a USGS quad for field recon. Another was a spreadsheet for record keeping of time and job expenditures in the field. The HP 41CX was my first field and office computer. Quad memory modules were the hot setup back then. Any of you remember 10 x 10 to the inch blue "fade out" grid paper and coordinate plotting?
I used printed forms in my files to accomplish this prior to the PDA, but always had to input it into the computer, when I got one, back at the office. With the CE software all of these things are now possible on platforms like the Recon.
The CD that comes with the package contains MS Active Sync, for transferring files. It also contains Adobe Acrobat Reader for the PC and the Pocket PC. Part of the CE operating system is the file viewers from Microsoft consisting of Excel, Image, PDF, Power Point, and Word. A viewer has limited ability to edit or change an existing spreadsheet or word processor document. A program called MS WordPad was already installed. The CD also contains SpreadCE for spreadsheets and can be uploaded to the Recon. A very useful handwriting recognition program, Transcriber, is included on the Recon, and does a fine job for handwritten notes or sketches.
Dynamic File Storage
In a past column, I used the file storage terms "dynamic" and "static." I may not be correct in the verbiage I use, but the 48 platform uses a "static" system. If the coordinate file has points 1-150 and you need to use point numbers in the 6000-8000 number range, Survey Pro on the 48 has to "resize the file" and data collection speed is noticeably slower. File space is created for point 1-8000, even though 151-5999 is not used. The Recon uses what I term a "dynamic" file storage scheme. File space is created only for the points used regardless on the point number. The "static" scheme allows for faster point access, a necessity with the use of the slower 48 processor. In comparison, the Recon uses a "dynamic" system. Even though the retrieval of the point data is slightly slower, with the same speed processor of a 48, the Recon with the 400mHZ processor is on the order of magnitudes faster. You do not have to choose ranges of points when downloading with Survey Link either when transferring files from the Recon. Another platform advantage.
Perhaps the biggest concern for most new Recon users is the absence of the numeric and alpha keypads of the 48. My five years of use of the Palm PDA and then the IPAQ 3835 Pocket PC PDA may "bias" my remarks, but I am now to the point where I am equally as adept with the stylus and touch screen as I am with the keypad for numeric data entry (probably even a "tad" faster with the stylus and touch screen). Accessory keyboards are available for PDAs, and an article such as this one could be typed on one. However, article typing, even for a two- or three-fingered typist such as myself, is still much faster on a standard, or notebook, keyboard. There were times in the first few months on stylus/touch screen use when I went back to the standard calculator for numeric entry, but they became less frequent with more use.
Touchpad keyboard design is "key" to ease of use and speed of data entry. The typical Palm and PocketPC designs have smaller boxes and require more accuracy in stylus placement. This slows you down. Do not judge the Recon by these! TDS has provided larger boxes that you can even use your fingers on. The stylus is much faster and more accurate though. There are actually two on-screen keypads, one being numeric, while the other, with slightly smaller boxes, is alpha. Each will "pop up" or "default" depending on the information to be entered into the dialog box. TDS has used the acronym "SIP" for these clever ways of inputting data. Their proper name is Software Input Panel. They are designed not to cover the data field that input is needed for. If they do, you can "drag and drop" them out of the way or just tap a blank area and they close. If you do not read anything else in the manual, read about them. If you read and study the "getting started" section your learning curve will diminish considerably.
I still prefer numeric point coding to alpha point coding and the lack of the "qwerty" keys is immaterial to me. I think most of the survey personnel we employ are hired for their survey experience and not their typing ability. Moving over ten keys can be done quicker than moving around twenty-three. Numeric codes are committed to memory for the most often used ones in a month or less of daily use. Mine were on plastic laminated paper the size of a deck of playing cards with two holes for "snap" rings. They were grouped in similar categories. This format fit easily into my shirt pocket for handy reference.
A scientific calculator can be accessed from the F-J section of the "Job" menu item. It has DMS-DEC conversion, DMS+/DMS-, x^nth, P>R, R>P conversions and a "Log" key for those of us who started out with slide rules or who could not afford a $350.00 four-function calculator. Another calculation I used often in the office was the "curve solution" from the "Curve" menu. It's easier to grab the Recon and check curves for correct data or to see if they were arc or chord definition, than to do it on the office computer. It simplified my odd-station R/W offset points central angle calculations considerably. Once you get used to the convenience of a handheld it is just hard to give it up for quick calculations.
The home key takes you to the beginning menu icons. The key with windows icon brings up: programs, favorites, documents, settings, help, and run. The home key takes you back to the start up menu. Any of these "hardware" buttons can be remapped to the functions you use the most. So you can tailor the Recon to suit your personal needs.
Software operation settings can also be personalized. The settings screen is used to control all of the settings for your current job, total station, and Survey Pro software. The "settings screen" has instrument settings, unit settings, format settings, files settings, surveying settings, stakeout settings, repetition settings, date/time settings, button settings, and general settings. The general settings toggle audible confirmation of certain actions. It is where you toggle the prompting for descriptions, layers, attributes, etc. Spend the time setting up the settings to maximize your daily work routines. I was happy to find that Control Files are still supported in the Windows CE Survey Pro software, as are solar observations.
There are several additions to some of the routines. One that I have been wanting for quite some time is now available in the Repetition Shots screen. On the 48 you were limited to two sequences. On the Recon there are now six, including my favorite. It is the BS^BS>FS^FS method. This is one half on the sequence I use for traversing. I would complete the horizontal circle by then zeroing on the FS and doing BS^BS.FS^FS again. I would then have complementary angles that should total 360 degrees within an acceptable tolerance. That tolerance can be easily calculated from a "pointing test." I knew before I left the set-up if my angle was good. It was easy to detect refraction by paying close attention to the angular spreads. An increase in the standard deviation of the spreads during the pointing test indicated it was time to have preventative maintenance performed on the instrument.
The graphics capabilities of these CE devices are way ahead of the 48 platform. Points can be picked from the graphics screen for many of the survey operations. You can toggle to the Map View, graphics screen, from many of the survey routine screens. Occupy and back sight points can be picked from the screen. Points to be staked out can be picked from the screen. Collect some side shots and toggle to the Map View screen to see what you have just shot. TINs and DTMs can be seen on the Map Viewscreen in plan or 3D. You can compare surfaces in 3D too.
A Next Generation Data Collector
This article is primarily about the Recon and Survey Pro. With the Recon and appropriate software you can use robotic total stations, GPS, and collect GIS data. The Recon is a very versatile, rugged hardware device. I did not drop it, immerse it in water, or play catch with it, but it is nice to know that it will withstand a drop from the roof of the survey vehicle when forgotten in a hasty exit from the job site. Another 41 & 48 problem was locking up due to static electricity when used in cold dry climates, sometimes causing data loss. The Recon is made to work in these conditions.
Summing it up, the Recon boasts standard robust data communication hardware in its own environmental case, MIL-STD design and testing, improved survey data collection, GPS, GIS data collection, speedy operation, better graphics capability, user replaceable spare batteries, and non-volatile data storage in one "fits-in-your-hand" sunlight-readable color screen device. Hey, I don't have to keep it in my inside jacket pocket in the winter either! Compared to one or two days of lost data on the 48, the Recon will pay for itself over and over again.
From my perspective the Recon is the next generation data collector and will replace our current 48 platform in our next capital purchase time, or sooner if the 48 fails. You will have to try one for yourself to form your own perspective. You won't be wasting your time.
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