How to Choose a GIS handheld GPS Device

Written by kendall.james on July 6th, 2015

As the geospatial industry is set to grow significantly over the next 5 – 10 years, the value we place on geospatial data is going to increase and be valued within an organisation in the same way other strategic information is.

When the importance of accurate (positional and attribute) spatial data is high on the agenda then the creation and maintenance of this information is brought into question.

To capture the physical geometry or mapping data requires a hardware/software solution that can then plug this data into the enterprise and be used to make important, informed, strategic and profitable decisions. However, when it comes to this capture and maintenance process the selection of the technical solution is often compromised, mostly through the lack of understanding of what spatial data can do and how it is created.

I’ve pulled together some guidelines I follow when assisting organisations in determining their hardware and software requirements that then allows then make sure they have the right tool for the job right now as well as in the future.

  1. What are the most important datasets to my organisation?
    • Am I able to articulate a value to these?
    • Who uses them and how do they use them?
  2. How is my current spatial data managed and is it in a GIS system?  What does that GIS system architecture look like?  What data standards (if any) are in place?
    • Knowing how the data is created, stored, managed and disseminated is critical.  This will drive the capture workflow and should facilitate the software option and device applicable to my business that will derive the most benefit for me.
    • It is unlikely that monetary value can be assigned to the process but efficiency gains and trust drive data value further than attaching a monetary gain/loss to the process.
  3. What will I be mapping?
    • These are the actual layers and features that need to be captured.  What needs to be captured?  Is it just geometry or is it geometry and some attributes?  Do I need to capture photo’s too?
    • Do I need to be cognisant of scale in my approach?
  4. What level of accuracy is required?
    • This generally refers to horizontal accuracy but knowing what is being mapped and what the business values in it’s spatial data can determine if vertical accuracy is important too.  This will influence the end solution from being a hand-held GPS device to one that perhaps uses an external antenna mounted on a pole where the z values can be recorded accurately and consistently.
  5. Will I need to capture attributes?
    • In the GIS world this is where the value lies.  Good attribute data is what helps make the important decisions once the spatial component has been satisfied.
    • It is important to identify what standards for this might be in place and if an asset data model has been implemented yet.  Consistency is key in capturing attributes so any mobile software that can take care of this for you in the way of drop downs or auto-fills will not only save time but will improve your data value and trust.  Again, being consistent in this approach is key.
  6. What in-house skills do I have?
    • It may be that you have a strong team of GIS folks that can get your project up and running quickly or it may be 1-2 of you.  Keep this in mind in choosing a full life-cycle workflow from office – field – office again.  Simplicity in this area can certainly pay back quickly.
  7. How much do I want to invest?
    • I use the term ‘invest’ rather than ‘cost’ as you’re spending money (cost) on some hardware/software to drive a strategic objective in your business to add value and improve margins (investment).
    • There is little value setting a requirement for cm accurate data with a map service based workflow if you intend to spend money on a recreational GPS believing it will ‘do the job.’
    • The business case should always being about deriving business benefit based on a financial investment.  Sometimes allocating this within an operational budget in the beginning is easier than a CAPEX one, which can happen in the future once the organisation sees it in the same light as their other IT hardware for example.

There are of course things to look out for when determining the right piece of equipment.

Post-Processing vs Real Time Corrections.  Do I have access to a CORS network of sorts that I can get real time corrections or will I rely on in-office post-processing?  This often determines the desktop software version that you will need to purchase.  For example, if you have a device that captures data at L1/L2 then you will need a more advanced piece of software from the vendor that one that just deals in data management.  It is not uncommon for there to be multiple tiers of software.

I’ve spoken a bit about the important of workflow.  There are things to look out for that you way want to engage your GIS leads on to assist.

Software & Workflow. You’ve identified your GIS architecture, data management protocols and so on.  In this instance you may want to consider a solution that fully integrates with this existing platform.  The benefits include:-

  • Simplicity in data management
  • Consistency in your data model and rules you may have implemented
  • Flow of data to the field and back can be managed quicker, easier and safer
  • Using additional software outside what the team already uses requires a learning curve and can introduce data errors
    • Exporting between formats always has the potential for introducing errors
  • Choosing a hardware supplier that supplies their own software will mean no compatibility issues.  If you decide to install software from a 3rd party on a GPS device and it doesn’t work properly then you may encounter some challenges between the two as to why it doesn’t work as you expexct it to.

If your organisation has teams dependant on using spatial data through web apps, map services or tablet / phone devices then looking into a solution that best offers this option could add significant benefit as well as elevate the value the spatial brings to the organisation as a whole.  We tend to forget the value of internal promotion.

Support.  Organisations don’t neglect the support contract with their other software e.g. Microsoft.  The same rule should apply.  Choose a vendor/supplier that has local representation where possible.  Do they have a manufacturer representation in your country?  If not, do they have a dealer that can support you post sale?  This may mean paying a little extra but this peace of mind keeps your project moving with no down time.  It means you can lean on them for expertise and advise.  Don’t be afraid to talk to them openly and honestly, ask the difficult questions like ‘Will you come to where I am in the middle of nowhere to help me?’

Scalability.  Often the purchase decision comes down to cost.  But will that purchase restrict you in the future?  How scalable is the hardware that you purchased?  Here’s an example:-

  • I have a project that requires 2-4m horizontal accuracy to capture some shapefiles with attributes and I’ll need 8-10 devices.
  • Next year we’re potentially looking into re-mapping some critical assets to sub-meter accuracy with a full data model behind it.  This data will also feed our asset management process and CEO’s dashboard.  We’re going to need 5 devices for this.
  • And if the plan goes the way we want it to, 2 years from now we’ll be improving that accuracy down to 5cm as we believe the integration with our risk management system will help in land management and potential claims against us.

So, you could procure those low end devices at a good price but in less than a year you’ll need to buy additional devices to meet your requirements.  What do you do with the equipment you already have?  And then when I want to go even further, will I end up buying additional equipment again?  Wow, that can be an expensive exercise and won’t excite the operational arm of the business.

It would be best to investigate to see that if my low-end devices can scale up as my requirements change?  Perhaps by adding an external antenna and then upgrade the license to improve my accuracy as I require.  This way you can grow as your projects do.