Evolution of Mobile Mapping

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In the early days of GPS, when there were fewer satellites and GPS units were far from handheld, getting an accurate position good enough for military purposes involved mounting a unit in a Humvee and stopping frequently so the unit could “catch up.” Much of the time, traditional survey was faster, and a skilled survey team could easily “beat” the computer when it came to finding accurate coordinates.

If by any chance you were in a canyon or heavily forested area, you could forget GPS coverage. No line of site means poor or no location accuracy. GPS and GIS have advanced to the point where you don’t need to have a high-powered Trimble to get pretty accurate coordinates and establish mapping points on the ground (related: Connecting to GPS in Tunnels).

In fact, with the right device, and in certain locations, you almost get more accuracy from your mobile device, and you get it faster. We carry powerful mapping devices with us every day, and if we know how to use them, they can save us a great deal of time.

Computing Power Becomes Portable

Part of the reason early GPS units took so long was simply processing power. Increasingly, more and more businesses are operating almost exclusively on mobile devices, and not just to communicate; they also do invoicing, billing, and payroll on the go, which has many benefits.

The GIS industry is no exception. To use GIS effectively, you need a computer that can process information fast enough. In the past, major computing solutions were limited to desktops or bulky portable systems, and accessing the internet through cell towers was relatively new and slow.

However, the modern smartphone has significant computing power. The iPhone 7 processor, an A10 Fusion Chip, is as fast or faster than many desktop PCs. It’s about more than just speed though.

Collecting GIS Data: Ways to Triangulate

A simple principle of mapping and survey tells us the more known points you can measure from, the more accurate your survey will be.

Trimble even offers a map that lets you know how many satellites will be visible in your area at any given time. This enables you to do GPS surveys at optimal times. There are moments in any area where 16 satellites can be detected by a GPS unit, and others where only three are detectable.

The advantage of cellular devices is they can use more than just satellites to triangulate. Other known points include:

  • Cell towers
  • Cellular signal boosters
  • Wi-Fi hot spots
  • Wi-Fi boosters

This can be especially useful in urban areas, where line of sight to satellites can be interrupted by tall structures and signals can be scrambled by overlapping wireless transmissions. As a result, these capabilities are being built into commercial GPS units as well.


Until recently, GIS software took up a lot of space on any device it was installed on, one of the many reasons mapping was a two-step process; field units allowed you to map specific points or routes using various breadcrumb methods, and then the data you gathered was processed and overlaid on a map. Then, the data could be manipulated and made more useful.

This was the advantage of dedicated GPS-enabled devices: some simple tasks could be performed on the unit itself. However, now more powerful software in the form of applications are available for smartphones. The ArcGIS Collector is one example. It allows field teams to collect and share data from nearly any smartphone, anywhere. The App Studio for ArcGIS allows businesses to create simple, user friendly amp based apps using GIS data without the need to know how to code (although it helps).

This has made mobile GIS much more powerful.


Phone cameras have also gotten much better, so associating images with places when creating mobile mapping products is easier than ever, and photos are of a higher quality. The metadata associated with these photos is much more precise than it has been.

Google Maps has proven this with the street views available, but now creating such rich street views is accessible to more businesses and map and app builders. 360 and panoramic views can also be easily created using mobile tech and simple apps, making the experience that much richer for the user.

There is risk in mobile computing though, and it is important to look at that aspect as well.


Mobile device cyber attacks are on the rise, and the more GPS and GIS functions are used on cellular devices, the more vulnerable these apps and software become. Since companies often have proprietary information associated with applications, it is important to keep information secure, both yours and that of your customers. Here are some tips:

  • You don’t have to connect to a public Wi-Fi network to triangulate using its location.
  • Disable Bluetooth capability except when essential, especially in crowded public spaces. Keeping Bluetooth enabled makes your phone more vulnerable to backdoor attacks.
  • Beware of ghostphishing and other threats, and use a personal VPN if you must connect to a public WiFi access point. This makes it harder for hackers to access your data.
  • Do more sensitive work on a secure network, not a public one.
  • Build consumer-facing apps with dual method authentication and other security features.

When using the cloud to backup files and free up mobile storage space, be aware of these security concerns as well. Use your cell network or a secure Wi-Fi connection for data uploads, and, again, use a VPN.

Mapping has always been a vital part of culture, communication, and business. High-definition mobile mapping is no longer out of reach for small businesses and individuals who want to take advantage of it.

Using the right hardware and the computing power we have in our pockets, the right software and apps, taking advantage of camera technology, and keeping security in mind will help your business use mobile mapping to its fullest capability without a great deal of expense. GIS technicians can apply their skills in new way to a variety of businesses who previously could not afford to utilize this technology. In this way, mobile mapping offers benefits to all kinds of stakeholders.


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