Data collectors: The most versatile device in the field

By Chris Doohan on 14th June 2024 (updated: 20th June 2024) in News

The world of surveying is transforming at pace. New technologies are reshaping the way we capture, analyse, and utilise spatial data, and at the heart of this process sits the data collector – a portable powerhouse that bridges the gap between field and office. This versatile device helps surveyors to collect, process, and visualise information with unprecedented accuracy and speed.

Spectra Geospatial Ranger 5

In a field where every millimetre matters, a data collector isn’t just a tool — it’s an essential partner for success. Whether you’re mapping terrain, staking out construction sites, or managing complex infrastructure projects, the data collector ensures your measurements are secure, organised, and ready to be turned into actionable insights.
In this post, we’ll cover everything you need to know about data collectors in surveying.

We’ll discuss what they are, how they work, their benefits, and how to choose the right one for your needs. By the end, you’ll have a deeper understanding of how this powerful technology can boost efficiency, accuracy, and productivity in the field.

What are data collectors?

Remember the days of juggling field books, calculators, and radios – all while battling the elements? Data collectors have revolutionised the surveying workflow, eliminating those cumbersome tools and replacing them with a single, powerful device. This transformation means less time spent on manual data entry, fewer errors creeping into calculations, and better insights emerging directly in the collectors

Data collectors are rugged, field-ready handheld computers or tablets built specifically for the rigours of surveying tasks. They run specialised surveying software designed to streamline data collection, perform essential calculations, and provide basic mapping functions while you’re out on a job site. A key aspect of their functionality is their ability to communicate seamlessly with GNSS receivers, total stations, and other surveying equipment.

This makes them one of the most versatile tools in a surveyor’s arsenal, ensuring they can be used to optimise a wide range of surveying activities – something we’ll explore in more detail below.
Data collectors also usually feature WiFi, Bluetooth, mobile, and radio capabilities for receiving corrections signals and transferring data between the field and office. This means they can sit at the centre of your surveying communications, gathering and transmitting data between devices and teams with ease.

What can data collectors be used for?

As we mentioned above, one of the reasons that data collectors have become a fundamental tool for surveyors is their sheer versatility. Whatever type of survey you’re conducting, whatever the specific requirements of your project, a data collector can help make your workflow more efficient and improve the accuracy of your results.

Let’s look more closely at some of the key surveying activities that data collectors can improve, as well as the more advanced capabilities they provide.

1. GNSS/GPS surveys

Data collectors are the central hub for your GNSS or GPS surveys. As we’ve explained in a previous post, GNSS surveys leverage a range of satellite constellations as a source of real-time positioning data. The precision and accuracy of this data is then refined further using differential GNSS techniques. For instance, a base-and-rover setup positions a GNSS receiver over a known point (the base station). This can then be used to transmit correction data to another receiver which is being moved around the job site (the rover).

This approach to surveying is extremely fast and flexible – that means it generates large quantities of positional data very quickly. A data collector is the ideal way to manage, monitor and refine this data while you’re still in the field.

With a data collector, you’ll have full control over configuring your GNSS receiver for optimal settings based on your project needs. A simplified setup process means less time fiddling with connections and more time collecting precise data. A data collector also displays your positioning data in real-time, allowing you to identify any issues as they emerge, as well as adding further information about your survey points, such as point descriptions or codes.

Total Station Surveys

As we’ve discussed previously, total stations S9 TOTAL STATIONare the foundation of modern surveying. The combination of speed and precision they offer has revolutionised surveying workflows by enabling surveyors to collect extensive, highly accurate data in record time. And the innovation of robotic total stations has developed this even further, with automated capabilities and remote-control options for even greater flexibility.

A data collector plays a key role in securing these major benefits for your team. It provides real-time data processing and integration for your total station surveys in a simple, user-friendly and highly portable way. This means you can perform basic calculations while still on-site and identify any errors before you head back to the office.

More advanced data collectors also offer real-time visualisation to help you verify data integrity, identify any inconsistencies, and ensure you’re capturing all the necessary points. Data collectors even have the capacity to control your robotic total station remotely, further streamlining your surveying activities.

Field Calculations and Data Management

Beyond their specific strengths in total station and GNSS surveys, data collectors offer a range of functionality that is valuable across all surveying activities. In short, they act as a powerful field computer and data management hub that you can carry with you on any job.

Data collectors transform how surveyors work by bringing the power of computation into the field. Traditionally, survey data would have to be brought back to the office, where specialised software can then be used to perform calculations, adjustments, and analysis. With a data collector, many of these computations can happen directly on the device. This allows surveyors to minimise the potential for errors during data transfer and make more informed decisions on the spot.

Furthermore, data collectors help you to organise projects, manage data files efficiently, and attribute information (like point descriptions or classifications) directly in the field. This translates to smoother workflows, minimised errors, and valuable time saved on data processing back at the office.

Mapping and visualisation

Cutting-edge data collectors don’t just provide handy data recording and processing functions — they add advanced mapping and visualisation tools, too. This visualisation goes beyond just displaying points – they allow you to overlay both GNSS and total station points on maps or aerial imagery. Imagine seeing your survey progress in real time, providing immediate context and verification that data is being collected accurately and in the right locations.

Some data collectors go even further, offering CAD integration. This seamless connection lets you import digital site plans directly onto the device, allowing you to compare your survey data against as-designed features. Additionally, these data collectors enable you to export your field survey data in CAD-compatible formats, streamlining handoffs to engineers and designers back in the office.

What are the benefits of using a data collector?

As you can see, data collectors have a wide range of uses across virtually every aspect of your on-site surveying work. That makes a data collector an excellent addition to your kit. With a single investment, you’ll secure a variety of benefits, including:

  • Enhanced productivity. Data collectors eliminate time-consuming manual data entry and field notes. Direct data recording and integrated calculations significantly boost efficiency, allowing you to complete more work in less time.
  • Increased accuracy. By automating data collection and performing calculations in the field, data collectors greatly reduce the potential for human error. This translates to higher-quality survey data with fewer mistakes.
  • Real-time feedback. Data collectors provide instant visualisation of survey progress and calculations. This allows you to identify and rectify errors on the spot, ensuring data integrity and preventing costly surprises back in the office.
  • Improved collaboration. Many data collectors offer cloud-based data sharing or real-time connectivity. This seamless communication between field crews and office personnel enables quicker decision-making, reduces project delays, and fosters a collaborative approach across your teams.
  • Cost savings. Data collectors represent an upfront investment, but they ultimately lead to significant cost savings. Increased productivity, reduced errors, and streamlined collaboration translate to lower project costs and improved profitability over the long term.

Data collectors are powerful tools that transform your surveying workflows. They offer a compelling combination of enhanced productivity, increased accuracy, real-time feedback, improved collaboration, and even long-term cost savings.

With so many benefits, selecting the right data collector for your specific needs becomes crucial. In the next section, we’ll explore key factors to consider when making this important investment.

What should you look for in a data collector?

While data collectors offer a remarkable range of benefits, it’s essential to remember that not every device is created equal. The specific features you prioritise will depend heavily on your typical project requirements. Let’s dive into some of the key features to consider when selecting a data collector, keeping in mind that the ‘best’ choice is the one that aligns perfectly with your needs:

  • Processing power. Faster processors and ample memory enable data collectors to handle complex calculations and large datasets with ease.
  • Storage. Adequate internal storage is crucial for storing project files, survey data, maps, and potentially even photos. Consider the scale of projects you typically handle to determine the necessary storage capacity.
  • Software compatibility. Ensure the data collector is compatible with your preferred surveying software, along with GNSS receivers and total stations you use. For instance, Trimble data collectors use Trimble Access field software, which integrates seamlessly with Trimble Business Centre.
  • Durability. Data collectors need to withstand the harsh conditions of outdoor fieldwork. Look for rugged designs with dust, water, and impact resistance certifications (represented by IP ratings). Some may also meet the MIL-STD-810 military standard for durability.
  • User interface. An intuitive user interface with clear menus and customisable shortcuts significantly speeds up data collection and minimises training time. Survey-specific software plays a key role in optimising the overall user experience
  • Screen quality. A bright, high-resolution display with good visibility even in direct sunlight is essential for viewing maps, data, and making precise selections with the touchscreen. Look for screens with a high nit rating (a measure of display brightness) for optimal outdoor readability.
  • Battery life. Long battery life ensures you can complete a full workday (or multiple days in remote locations) without interruptions. Additionally, the option for hot-swappable batteries allows you to quickly replace a depleted battery without fully powering down the device, maximising uptime in the field.

Trimble TDC6

If portability, durability and ease of use are key concerns, the Trimble TDC6 is a great option. This lightweight device dispenses with the usual keyboard to make it lighter and smaller than most data collectors – it weighs in at just 287g! –  as well as keeping it toward the lower end of the price bracket.

But this lighter construction and lower price point doesn’t mean it’s lacking in power. With a 2.7GHz octa-core processor and 6GB of RAM, as well as 64GB of data storage in a handy flash drive, the TDC6 can handle complex tasks with ease. And with its worldwide 5G integrated connectivity, military-grade durability and 9-hour hot-swappable battery: it’s the perfect choice for more demanding job sites.

Trimble TSC7

For those looking to access the cutting-edge of data collector technology, the Trimble SC7 should be your top choice. This versatile and powerful device is an all-in-one solution for handling complex data in the field. It can tackle the largest project files with ease, and even detailed 3D imagery and point clouds are no issue thanks to its 64-bit Intel processor and 6GB of RAM. And with its sizable 1280×800 display offering 800 nits of brightness, it’s easy to read and engage with your data even in direct sunlight.

Trimble T7 Tablet

For a truly versatile solution that can not only capture and manipulate data but also run a wide range of office applications, a field tablet is a great choice. The Trimble T7 tablet brings field and office closer together, with integrated wireless communication options for real-time data sharing. And with front- and rear-facing cameras, you can take photos and videos of site conditions or landmarks and append visual references to your positioning data, as well as quickly jumping on video calls to discuss issues with colleagues.

If you want to take advantage of these significant benefits but you’re wary of the up-front costs involved, why not consider a used model? Here at SEP, we offer a range of fully refurbished and quality-assured used surveying equipment, and that includes the Trimble T7 tablet.

How to get the most out of your data collector

Your data collector is a powerful tool, and like any precision instrument, it requires proper care and use to maximise its value. Here are a few tips to ensure you’re getting the best performance and longevity out of your investment:

  • Calibrate regularly. Follow the recommended calibration schedule for your specific data collector model and any connected instruments like total stations. This ensures accurate data collection and maintains consistency throughout your projects.
  • Update the software. Check for firmware and software updates regularly. These updates often include bug fixes, performance improvements, and new features that enhance your data collector’s capabilities. Contact SEP to find out how to keep an up to date software maintenance on your data collectors.
  • Invest in training. Understanding the full range of features and best practices for your data collector will unlock its full potential for you and your team.
  • Maintain accessories. Regularly clean and inspect accessories like batteries, cables, and the display screen. This ensures reliable connectivity and a good user experience.

Investing time in proper maintenance and optimal use will ensure you get the most out of your data collector. Remember the basics: calibrate regularly, stay updated with the latest software, prioritise thorough training, store it correctly, and take care of its accessories.

These simple steps will prolong the life of your data collector and ensure it delivers maximum value to your surveying projects. For more advice on using data collectors as part of a total station survey, read our tips for total station data efficiency.

Solve your data collector needs with SEP

Data collectors are the beating heart of modern surveying. They help you to store, manage and analyse the vast amounts of data that cutting-edge surveying techniques generate, boosting efficiency and accuracy across your entire workflow and bringing field and office closer together. And with rapid advancements in areas like artificial intelligence (AI) and augmented reality (AR), data collectors will only become more essential for location professionals in the coming years.

Here at SEP, we stock a range of data collectors suited to both total station and GNSS/GPS surveys, as well as a range of used options to fit every budget. We also offer survey equipment hire if you have short-term needs or would like to explore a particular solution.

Our team of surveying professionals have been delivering expert advice and support for more than 35 years. If you would like to discuss your requirements and explore our services in more detail, contact us.