Are Tablets a Useful Option in the Field?

When the iPad came out over a year ago, a surge of interest formed over a product that had little to no following previously – the Tablet.

Apple, of course, did not invent the idea of the tablet computer – Windows has been running on tablets since (at least) the XP operating system, with a version of the OS dedicated to tablets – Windows XP Tablet Edition.  (In fact, I am currently writing this post on a Gateway Convertible Tablet, which is a laptop with a pivoting hinge, allowing the screen to lay down flat over the top of the keyboard to be written on or controlled with the included stylus.)

 

So, are the current flood of tablets useful tools for the Field Technician?  Certainly, but it will depend on your requirements and expectations, along with your platform of preference.  If you are picking up an iPad or Android device, they will certainly have apps available to simplify some of the work required (See my previous post on the topic) though they will have limitations in functionality, such as the lack of GPS in the original wifi-only iPad.   Simple mapping could be done with an app-tablet, as well as barcode scanning for drill samples, photos of outcrops, field notes, etc.

There are a great deal more applications available for Windows tablets, with the obvious inclusions of programs such as AutoCAD and any General Mining Package.  (The Draw By Hand option in Vulcan is ideal for a tablet/stylus combination.)  Certainly, field mapping could be greatly simplified by performing said mapping directly within the target software package, rather than having to do data transfers and reformatting to make it compatible from one device to the next.  Ruggedized tablets are also ideally suited for the rigors of a mining environment, as they are typically shock, water, dust, and scratch resistant.

Tablet PCs and Pocket PCs are commonly used for controlling hardware in the field.  Maptek’s i-Site scanners are controlled using a ruggedized tablet, and Optech scanners have an optional Pocket PC controller option.  Riegl also experimented with using Pocket PCs to control their LiDAR scanners, but to my knowledge it never left the developmental phase.  It is highly likely that app-based Apple and Android tablets will be able to perform these controller functions in the near future, as they are currently being used to control other pieces of hardware such as radio-controlled vehicles and remote-access automobiles.

In addition, the capabilities of integrated GPS in Windows tablets exceeds those of the app-based tablets.  For example, two ruggedized tablet options would be the Trimble Yuma (of the survey equipment company) and the Xplore series of tablets.  The Xplore tablets utilize the L1 GPS band, which means they are theoretically compatible with psuedolite or base station GPS arrays.  (According to my source, this has not been tested but there’s no reason it shouldn’t work.)  Presumably, given Trimble’s experience with GPS systems and arrays, their tablet should also be capable of working with psuedolites and base station arrays,but that information was not available on their website nor provided by a representative.  Of course, the advantage to connecting to a base station array would be increased accuracy over a standard GPS signal – such that field mapping could be done on-the-fly, by simply standing at the point to be mapped, recording the GPS coordinate provided by the tablet, and entering the mapped information as appropriate.  The amount of time saved and data entry errors avoided could be significantly higher with such a system.

Thus, even though tablets are a fairly new entry into the mainstream market, they should not be discounted as “just a toy.”  The functionality and practicality of tablets will only increase as their utility in the field is recognized and developed accordingly.

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