Topnet Live, a Key Enabler for Machine Control

Topcon is delivering its state-of-the-art, Topnet Live RTK correction services to a wide array of customers in precision machine control. In this exciting and rapidly growing field, corrections are crucial, where standalone GNSS remains a necessary but not always sufficient positioning tool.

Machine control systems deliver improved efficiency and productivity in the construction industry, using sensors and harnessing the positioning power of GNSS, but GNSS alone will not ensure the highest standards of accuracy and precision and the maximum safety required for such operations.

“Every single piece of MC equipment using GPS needs a correction,” said Ian Stilgoe, vice president, Global Emerging Business, Topcon Positioning Group. “That correction service might be a base station and radio, it might be a network or it might be via satellite delivery, but nothing works accurately without a correction service.”

Stilgoe is keenly interested is seeing Topnet Live continue to grow throughout the world, serving sectors of activity where there is an increasing demand for productivity and positioning accuracy. Using its own global network of reference stations, Topnet Live provides a variety of reliable correction services to customers anywhere, in a range of application areas, including construction machine control. Topnet Live utilizes both RTK and PPP correction models, delivered over cellular and satellite communications channels.

“This doesn’t have a correction service,” Stilgoe said, holding up a cell phone. “It’s powerful, but it isn’t very precise, not good enough to control an excavator on a construction site, of course. That’s why every single piece of GPS we make at Topcon is capable of RTK cm-level performance, and many other models of precise GPS technology out there, no matter who makes it, in order to achieve that type of accuracy, needs a correction.”

Taking pains

To illustrate one of the key challenges facing today’s machine operators, Stilgoe cited the case of a local city council that might be managing a number of different projects at a given time: “They might have a road project here, a drainage project there, so they send their crews out and they’ve got to set up a base station.”

Traditionally, a crew might place a base station on a stable and elevated surface, such as the roof of a temporary onsite cabin. “And that’s their correction service, via radio,” Stilgoe said, “and then they go find some nails to localize their machine before they can put up a cone and start working.”

A strange (though painfully familiar) way to run a construction site? Stilgoe said, “Why would you want to do that? Your base station could be stolen. It might be moved. It might be affected by radio interference, all of those historic problems we’ve lived with and had to overcome for years.”

A well-structured corrections network, like Topnet Live, makes old-fashioned base stations obsolete. “It absolutely makes sense to use correction services from a network if you’re using machine control,” Stilgoe said. “It means you’re saving yourself the setup time, the hassle, the cost, and you’re avoiding what might be the biggest problem, which is the coordinate errors that you may introduce.”

Topcon’s bold step

“We want to make sure we take care of our Topcon customers in the construction sector,” Stilgoe said. “With our OEM partnerships, a lot of our development effort has been about integrating machine control, integrating the GPS into their system, into their hydraulics, etc. All of that effort has been done and they’re really happy with that solution. The one piece that we want them to focus on now is the correction service, so we’re most interested in getting our Topnet Live in place at the OEM level. That’s our customers, it’s after-market, our own dealers. Of course we want to keep them on our own network.”

But there are also a lot of other machine control players, newer, smaller companies, start-ups, coming into the space. “These are machine-only companies,” Stilgoe said, “companies that produce 3D machine control and have no infrastructure, and they may never. Why shouldn’t we connect these systems to work on the same coordinates? Why shouldn’t they have a Topnet Live correction service?”

Unlike some other providers of RTK correction services, Topcon has understood the benefit of providing its correction services not exclusively but inclusively, via an open architecture, to serve the entire installed base in construction machine control.

“We do not deliver proprietary messaging,” said Stilgoe. “We always work to published open standards.” This means Topnet Live correction solutions are available to the total addressable market, and it’s an advantage to the company’s customers with mixed fleets of machines and survey equipment that they don’t need to manage different subscriptions. The company also offers enterprise-level service packages where appropriate.

Seizing the day

It’s an exciting time in an exciting area. “There’s an adoption going on now,” Stilgoe said. “3D machine control is here. We are definitely at a tipping point. It’s crossed the chasm, so now you’ve got no end of these companies who use machine control. The performance of systems may vary, but all still need a correction service. So, we’re inviting the MC community to come onboard along with our other trusted customers.”

Stilgoe said Topcon’s goal is to make the correction process so simple that the operator just has to turn it on. “Because if a major manufacturer is rolling out thousands of excavators, the operator should be able to flip a switch and it just works, not flick a switch and have to work out ‘where’s my base station’ or ‘who is providing a correction’ and what the log on details are…. That’s where we’re at.

“OEMs need to explore what makes their machines work,” he said. “They know putting in machine control is making their machines more productive. The next step, for Topcon, is connect them to the ‘grid’. That’s their next step change for productivity gain.”

Topnet Live services – the best of RTK and PPP

Topnet Live Realpoint
Provides network RTK accuracy and a quick start-up time.
Correction type/delivery: RTK via cellular network
Coverage: Regional
Accuracy: 2 cm
Initialization time: Seconds
Applications: Surveying, construction, machine control, agriculture, OEM, industrial IoT and autonomous robotics

Topnet Live Starpoint and Starpoint Pro
Provides PPP service anywhere on the planet, independent of local networks.
Correction type/delivery: Correction from satellite
Coverage: PPP via L-Band
Accuracy: Regular: 50 cm, Pro: 3 cm
Initialization time: Regular: < 5 minutes, Pro: < 20 minutes
Applications: OEM, surveying in remote areas, automotive, industrial IoT and autonomous robotics