The Ashtech brand returned a short while ago. The company provides high quality GNSS technologies and by all accounts the pace of innovation has been increasing, providing many new products around the globe since the name change. Vector1 Media editor Jeff Thurston interviews François Erceau, general manager and vice-president of Ashtech on the company's new products and direction.
V1 Magazine: The Company changed to the ‘Ashtech’ name short while ago, how is that coming along?
Erceau: We have been very happy with the response from the markets. Business partners and customers are positive about the Ashtech brand and the new product offering and things are going well. Since that change we have released 9 new products – 3 major product upgrades and 6 totally new solutions - in 2010 alone.
V1 Magazine: I saw the new MobileMapper 100 for the first time today, can you tell me about that?
Erceau: We are really very excited about it. The MobileMapper 100 is designed for geographic information system (GIS) professionals who want GNSS accuracy and also have a need to communicate from the field. The handheld receiver includes single frequency GPS + GLONASS and provides sub-meter down to centimeter accuracy in real-time. It includes support for Windows Mobile 6.5 standards and (GSM / GPRS / WLAN / Bluetooth. It also features a 3.2 mega-pixel camera.
V1 Magazine: What is new on the land surveying side?
Erceau: One of the receivers we have introduced on the land survey market is part of the ProFlex Series. Our multi-applications receiver line now also includes a CORS reference station for geodetic and RTK networks applications. The ProFlex are high performance GNSS receivers intended for RTK use. This line can also be used for many other applications where various levels of RTK accuracies are desired.
We have seen interest for applications such as agriculture, remote sensing and hydrology for the ProFlex Series. The machinery control sector is also interested in these for machine guidance related work.
V1 Magazine: Between the ProMark 100, ProMark 200 and ProMark 500 there is a progression, can you explain that please?
Erceau: Yes - together they provide a full range of solution options. The first two are newly introduced survey related products. The features range from GPS + GLONASS post-processing to full RTK capability with full multi-communication functions and multi-frequency capabilities. The scalability of the ProMark range is unique on the market. With the addition of the ProMark 100 and 200, Ashtech is now in a position to offer a full range of solution to every surveyor, accommodating any survey technique, environment or budget constraints. There are also many upgrade options within the ProMark range, which enable users to progress up with the same receiver and move to the next level of technology as they need.
We also offer a unique approach, bridging between the GIS and Survey worlds. Our handheld receivers are indeed fully operational for both type of jobs and our users can easily move forth and back from the MobileMapper to the ProMark applications.
V1 Magazine: Does this mean you find Ashtech dealing with a wider range of sectors in the industry?
Erceau: Absolutely - While we were meeting a wider range of end-users with the MobileMapper line for GIS, the ProFlex line means that we extend that customer range to also reach developers wishing to build upon the technology. For example, we have been working with Carlson Software to integrate our ProFlex series. Carlson has also been looking for best in class GNSS technology that enables them to have full machinery guidance solutions. This allows Ashtech to enter fields like land fills, mining, waste management and where other machinery control benefits from GNSS. The ProFlex line provides a full range of positioning solutions, while other customers simply want to build high quality systems that use GNSS accuracy.
V1 Magazine: Didn’t Ashtech support a wide range of solutions before though?
Erceau: In a more limited way we did. Now we find that the GNSS piece is the key part. So we added to this to ensure we can reach a wider scope of users, including the developer. In practice in house, via business partners or OEM customers we are now able to bundle software and hardware, depending upon the user needs and the type of solution required.
V1 Magazine: So - you are also setting out on a new direction?
Erceau: We are aiming to become GNSS enablers. The applications needing precise positioning, guidance or geolocalization are growing internationally.
V1 Magazine: Are we moving away from talking about technology alone now do you think - and moving to a solution orientation?
Erceau: I think we need to be talking about both. Most people are looking for a return on investment. As a result, they expect optimal productivity, they do not expect to see downtime, or at least to have it limited and remain operational continuously. Today technology also means quality and simplicity. But talking only about technology is not enough. Without knowing about the solution, then the right technology choice cannot be made. The solution expertise means better integration, mobility, communication, ergonomic, interoperability.
V1 Magazine: Is GNSS really taking off in your view?
Erceau: I think it is. Over the last ten years we have continually seen the demand for accuracy grow. It is common today to see RTK (real-time accuracy) solutions. This rise of RTK solutions has built demand - and expectations - for even higher quality accuracy. The more people expect it, the more the manufacturers facilitate the access to it.
But projects now have also changed; they have become more continuous and demanding in terms of serving real-time needs. Equipment must operate 24/7 in many cases. People also want to work within demanding environments like under trees and inner cities.
V1 Magazine: How are these demands going to be met?
Erceau: To really meet these growing demands (accuracy, reliability and coverage) will require more satellites. This results in improved satellite geometry and over time GLONASS becomes a must. In the future we will see GALILEO but also other systems become standard within products, offering even greater accuracy and meeting demanding challenges.
V1 Magazine: What you are describing sounds like much more then accuracy alone?
Erceau: You are right - The whole GNSS solution environment involves more than positioning alone. The need to be able to work in tough, demanding environments in a continuous fashion is a key aspect of many solutions today. The ability to receive, and process additional signals involves the need for more compact data format capabilities and new communication protocols. This in turn influences the changing nature of business solutions and the business space.
V1 Magazine: As you know the QZSS satellite constellation from Japan has been gaining interest. What are your thoughts on this work?
Erceau: Ashtech can see QZSS in our road map going forward. We will be including it into our products when it makes sense to have it. The reality of the benefit for the user is our “time to market” driver.
V1 Magazine: Positioning alone then is not the only factor?
Erceau: From our perspective, positioning is not enough. We need to consider other factors like communications. Many applications today link field workers and technology to databases directly. Ashtech is very proactive when it comes to talking about establishing these communication links, since they are so important to meeting the full work flow value. Some of the value can be attributed to technology; other parts will include new designs.
V1 Magazine: I understand you are involved in the TERIA project in France, can you tell me a bit about that?
Erceau: TERIA is the French Geodetic Network and was established by the land survey union at the national level. Lately they decided to upgrade the reference stations set up in the country to ensure the network could improve with GNSS technology.
Our ProFlex 500 CORS product is directly involved in this evolution as they are used for a large part of the TERIA network. It has also improved the network management over the Web, thereby increasing accessibility. The idea is to operate the station remotely and to support changes in its operations through remote connectivity. This again supports the notion that positioning needs to be supported with other capabilities.
V1 Magazine: Do you see high grade professional GNSS extending to consumer spaces?
Erceau: There is a big difference between the two, but in some aspects like the ergonomics, the mobility and the ease of use, some expectations are converging. In general, most professionals want to make money and expect a return on investment, which is not the case for consumers. The need for service and support is also a distinctive difference. As we were just discussing, many applications in the professional space look at more than positioning alone. At the end of the day, there is a big gap between professional and consumer applications. We are definitely oriented to the professional side.
V1 Magazine: How do you see the integration of GIS and surveying?
Erceau: We think we are unique because we do not set the two against each other. Our competitors often break things into GIS versus surveying, we do not. They like to have departments, designs and features separated, we do not. Our focus is on accurate positioning and services within the needs of the application and we bring a range of products to the table to provide users - GIS or surveying - with the products that work for them. They can have complete solutions or build their own upon our GNSS, Communication or Software technologies.
This interview first appeared in V1 Magazine.