So I’ve been following GPS Tracklog’s coverage of the Consumer Electronics Show last week in Las Vegas, and been underwhelmed by the handheld GPS announcements:
- Magellan announced nothing new.
- deLorme announced their PN-60 model; while it adds an interface with a Spot Satellite Communicator, the GPS capabilities are essentially the same as with the earlier PN-20/30/40 models.
- And Garmin announced the Oregon 450 and 450T, which join the Oregon 200, 300, 400, 400T, 400i, 400c, 550, 550T. They all pretty much offer the same GPS functionality with minor option tweaks (electronic compass, barometer, camera, built-in map sets).
At the same time, I keep getting asked by field professionals what the best handheld GPS is for serious field work. I have to tell them that there isn’t a single model currently available that does everything I’d like to see in such a unit, so they have to make some compromises. While professional-grade units are available from Trimble and Ashtech (formerly Magellan Pro), they tend to be much more expensive than consumer units, less rugged, have shorter battery lives, and run Windows Mobile (aack). And while they’re good at data recording, they’re nowhere near as good as standard consumer GPS models when it comes to navigation and map display.
There must be tens of thousands of field workers out there who would be a ready market for a reasonably-priced GPS that met their needs, like geologists, biologists, archaeologists, etc.. I’ve put together a list of what I’d like to see in such a unit; feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments. And it’s not like the requirements are all that difficult to meet; in one form or another, you can find most of the following features already present in at least one commercially-available consumer-grade model.
- High-sensitivity, high-speed, high-accuracy GPS chipset.
- Galileo/GLONASS support for higher accuracy.
- Readout of the Dilution Of Precision, plus a graph that shows you the DOP for the rest of the day so that you can choose times of lowest DOP to get the highest accuracy with your GPS measurements.
- A high-gain, omni-directional antenna. Many units these days come with just a small ceramic patch antenna, and tend to have less signal gain and be more orientation-sensitive than the “stubby” quad-helix antennas found on models like the Garmin 60CSx and the Garmin Colorado series.
- A decent-sized screen that’s easily visible in direct sunlight. 2.6” diagonal is a bare minimum, 3” is even better. Many recent models have higher resolutions and greater color depth than older models, but sacrifice daylight visibility as a result. I’d rather have a unit with fewer colors and lower resolution that you could use in daylight than a sexy high-tech screen where you can’t see anything on it unless you hold it in the shade with the backlight on.
- An easy interface for adding text. If it doesn’t detract from screen visibility, a touch screen is fine, but a slide-out keyboard would work as well.
- Buttons with programmable functions. One of the big problems with touch screens is that you sometimes have to dive multiple menu levels into the interface to access a needed function; the ability to call up such a function with a single button push would make life a lot easier.
- Decent battery life, at least 15-20 hours.
- Rugged and waterproof.
- More waypoints, tracks and trackpoints. Some models currently sold allow only 1000 waypoints, and 10,000 trackpoints, to be saved. I’ve never had to have more than several hundred waypoints myself, but I’ve hit my unit’s limit of 20 tracks and 10,000 waypoints many times.
- The ability to add your own GIS map data, like point/line/area shapefiles, for display on the unit, preferably with at least some attribute data.
- Loadable vector maps, from the manufacturer and/or custom maps created by the user or others.
- Raster imagery like topographic maps or aerial imagery, both standard mapsets (like USGS topos) and your own custom imagery.
- A tri-axial electronic compass that works regardless of how you hold the GPS.
- If you have a tri-axial compass, you have the electronics necessary to determine the angle of orientation of the GPS with respect to the ground. This would be useful for geologists (dip and strike), archaeologists (site maps), geomorphologists (ground slopes), botanists (calculations of tree height using angle), and presumably others as well.
- Some means for recording additional data associated with a waypoint. Standard waypoints are limited to about 30 characters in the note field, and expanding that to a larger size to add more info would be helpful; another option would be audio recording capability that’s linked to the waypoing.
- A built-in camera with both automatic geotagging, and automatic tagging of the direction the picture was taken in. 5-megapixel minimum, with autofocus and a macro mode for closeups.
- Bluetooth NMEA serial output so you can use it with a laptop or PDA.
It’s unlikely that any of the current manufacturers of consumer-grade GPS models will someday decide to create a “prosumer” model with a reasonable subset of the features above. But a guy can dream ….
… and he can also try to put together an affordable field-ready PC with GPS and GIS functionality. More on that soon.