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Mobile GIS Technology: Trying it out

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Spring 2006

- Tom Kurkowski, Cartographer, Alaska Department of Natural Resources, Division of Forestry

Mobile GIS technology has been around for quite a number of years, but not until recently have businesses, industry, and governments begun to realize its potential. With computers getting smaller and processors becoming faster, more and more can be accomplished in the field while saving time in the office.

A mobile GIS system consists of both capable hardware as well as software specifically designed to support GIS/GPS capabilities. Mobile computers come in many varieties, but there are basically three types on the market today. Laptops are very capable machines that rival some desktop systems in system performance and have large screens that may be very useful for some field tasks. Personal digital assistants, or PDAs, are the next most popular systems due to their compactness and ability to run mobile versions of desktop software. Finally, palmtop computers are the next generation of mobile computing. These systems are a compromise between the compactness of PDAs and the speed and flexibility of laptops. They run desktop software versions eliminating the need for a separate mobile operating system. Most of these systems have ruggedized versions available ranging from a simple case to a fully sealed and shock absorbing system. Options such as additional memory, GPS, and PCI slots enabling expandability are also available. As the market realizes the advantages of mobile GIS, there will only be more choices available.

Mobile GIS software is more limited. Most software developers have realized the advantages of mobile GIS, but have delayed releasing many applications due to lack of market demand. The available applications range from simple text data collection that can synch with GIS software to software that can link up with GPS receivers and display real-time locations with satellite imagery.

When considering using mobile GIS and/or GPS technology, the specific needs of a project should be determined. Will the project only entail data collection tasks, or will querying and simple analysis also be useful? Will imagery be incorporated or useful to display during data collection? If so, what is the optimum screen size for portability and outdoor readability? Will GPS capabilities be needed?

As an example, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, Fairbanks Division of Forestry has given me the task of developing a mobile GIS/GPS solution for wildland fire suppression as well as forest management activities. Our immediate needs are to display high resolution satellite imagery linked to a GPS in order to display real-time locational information in vehicles as well as on foot. The imagery capability limits our options because of the great amount of processing power needed to display and refresh images. We also want the ability to collect fire perimeter data by either GPS data collection or simple on screen field editing. Since the system will be used in a wildland fire situation, fully ruggedized systems are required. Additionally, the capability to expand the system to be used over a broader range of forest management activities was considered.

Currently, we are using Panasonic Toughbook laptops with touch screens that enable input through a pen, fingers, or the keyboard. Their large screen size allows satellite imagery to be clearly seen and touch screens allow simplified map navigation in the field. They are fully ruggedized and have endured field trials in snow, water, and cold and have built in GPS receivers that eliminate the need for an external receiver. The downside is the large screen size limits the outdoor readability because truly sunlight readable screen technology is limited to smaller screens, aside from what some manufactures will tell you.

In addition to laptops, we are also testing some palmtop computers for field use on foot. We currently have three oqo units that come with a five inch touch screen with pen input only as well as a miniature keyboard and mouse buttons. The five inch screen provides great portability and decent image display capabilities. The oqo runs Windows XP so any desktop software can be installed. Bluetooth technology is included, which allows wireless connections to external devices such as GPS receivers, albeit we did have problems getting the oqo to communicate with higher end GPS receivers due to oqo's proprietary bluetooth drivers. These units are not ruggedized because they were most likely designed for less demanding environments. This has led to two of our three units having major hardware malfunctions.

The mobile GIS software package we chose is ArcPad by ESRI (Environmental Systems Research Institute). This package is the most advanced available and is fully integrated with their popular desktop GIS software. This package can be installed on both Windows as well as Windows Mobile operating systems allowing one more choices in hardware selection. It is compatible with many image types including compressed MrSid and JPEG200 image formats. It allows the flexibility to simultaneously display satellite imagery with vector layers while connected to a GPS receiver which displays your current position. It allows simple queries as well as field editing capabilities. Other advanced features include georeferenced connections to digital cameras and rangefinders. ArcPad also has a companion development suit, ArcPad Application Builder, which allows customization of the out-of-the-box product. This is a great option to consider if your final goal is to develop simplified data collection programs for field personnel, except significant programming skills may be required to develop these programs.

I believe our needs for maximum portability, serious processing power, and ruggedness put our demands just past what is currently available on the market. However, most project needs of having the ability to collect data that is geographically referenced are definitely well developed in the mobile GIS market. As more and more people realize the benefits of integrating field activities with GIS, only more options will appear.