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We machine the face of the Earth

Ray O’Connor
President and CEO
Topcon Positioning Systems / USA

Ray O’Connor joined Topcon in 1993 and was instrumental in the formation of Topcon Laser Systems. He became the President of Topcon Positioning systems in September 2002. He has been associated with the comapany in both, the sale of technology and more importantly research and development of future technology and products.

With Topcon celebrating 75 years of its inception, how has been the journey since then?
Topcon has been around for 75 years and the company has major attributes with respect to manufacturing capabilities along with extensive knowledge about optical, mechanical and electronic capabilities in making products, especially, surveying equipments. The unique thing about Topcon and what has made it successful is its ability to bring the new technology to the market place than anybody else. It is our company philosophy, internally known as TM1- Time to the market number one and our competitors may not agree, but we believe that we are very good at and unique at brining new technology rapidly. I have been a part of this company since 1993. At that time, the technology that was just entering the geospatial market was Real Time Kinematic (RTK) use of GPS. Since the introduction of GPS, Laser and other newer technologies, we have seen a growth of over 500%. In addition, we have seen a major effort on the part of government, to map and collect data to efficiently manage infrastructure. Because of this, we have seen a lot of investment in technologies like, GIS, GPS, Imaging, Inertial sensor etc., and now we have reached to a point where the call is to make handheld devices so that the user can collect, store and analyse the spatial as well as non-spatial data much more efficiently in the field itself.

How has the company witnessed changes in the Geospatial domain (more and easy access to data, demand for accuracy, devel- opments in IT, land surveying to present 3D scanning, etc.)?
The biggest change the company like ours has witnessed in the Geospatial domain is the data capture & manipulation and also making data available, especially the 3D data, modeling data, layered data, etc. The availability of data is the biggest portion that is accelerating this business. Companies like ESRI have done a good job in building those data layers and making it accessible over the internet to the users worldwide. Because the infrastructure, on the software side, is available from companies like ESRI, it driving companies like us to make hardware which is suitable, flexible and easy for the people to collect the field data.

A good example is the companies like Google and Microsoft. They have started integrating maps with imaging e.g., Google’s StreetView – where they are collecting street data to build 3D models of cities in real-time. This is possible only because, the software infrastructure is available and can manage petabytes of data.

How has Topcon adjust- ed to the continuous change and innovations and how these have affected the demand in the company’s products?
We have recently launched a product called IPS2 – a vehicle- mounted, mobile 3D precision mapping and survey solution, with primary positioning coming from our survey grade GPS and satellite positioning technology. This product integrates our core GPS technology and inertial sensors with scanning and imaging technology highlighting that our products are under continuous evolution based on the market requirements as created by Microsoft, Google, Tele Atlas, etc.

What is the profile of Topcon products?
We have been manufacturing hardware related to GIS and Mapping industry for about 5 years now. But the overall profile of the Topcon products is in the engineering and the measurements field. Since the beginning, Topcon has been leading its sales in the optical total stations and in the 90’s it entered the manufacturing of laser instruments and subsequently we evolved our machine control instruments. With the invention of RTK GPS, it allowed us to add GPS sensors in our machines to create more complex models.

The ANALOGY that I give to people is that Topcon is a measurement instrument company but the construction field is the largest manufacturing field in the world- it builds roads, bridges, buildings, etc. – and it is the least automated industry in the world. So as a measurement instrument company, we are taking the measuring instruments and putting sensors on the machinery, so that we can take a design file send it right to the machine and have the machine to create complex surface.

How are Topcon’s prod- uct spread over differ- ent regions viz., South Asia, South East Asia, North Asia, Europe, North and South America, Middle East and Africa?
The quickest adoption of this technology has been in North America and California has been the starting region as it has the tendency to be the early adopters as they try new things. In North America we distribute these products from companies that specialize in the surveying and construction market. They have immense knowledge about the market but there is a paradigm shift in the way people actually do the work so we have to have people who are integrators and so our distributors are very specialized in this field and now we have distributors in North America, South America and Europe. We are opening offices in Dubai and shall be providing necessary training and knowledge transfer to help use the product and technology in this region.

In terms of technology what are the unique contributions (in geospatial and GIS segment) that Top- con has made?
The most unique thing with Topcon is the invention of the real GNSS receiver. GPS has been in use for last 15 years and we introduced capabilities to receive both GPS and GLONASS signals in our products in 2000. We then integrated the Galileo signal receiving capabilities into our existing products in 2006. And now with our G3 chip we can track all the GNSS signals like L5 and soon will be adding COMPASS (Chinese system) signal receiving capabilities. Any signal available will be tracked by our products, as more signals we can track the better the chances are that we get a fixed position.

Another unique advancement by Topcon has been in the integration of this technology in the handheld receivers. Also integrating the ability of using a compass, laser distance meter and using camera measuring the offsets, because in the GIS/Spatial business a lot of times you want to have a coordinate for assets such as fire hydrant or telephone pole, but it is difficult to get the position fix as we are too close to building structure. But we have the ability to get positions of those assets by standing in a place where GPS signals are available and make measurements through such devices.

We are very open source with regards to our software and allow it to be operated with our competitors’ software.

What lies ahead for the surveying community in terms of the technology and the market?
The role of a surveyor is changing dramatically. This is probably because the biggest percentage of their work is associated close to the buildings & infrastructure and their development and the after market surveying work is a smaller percentage. As these instruments are being made available, some members of the surveying community feel insecure about their jobs. However, most of the contractors that are associated with infrastructure development have realized that they need more surveyors to manage the data that is being gathered by these instruments to improve the efficiency of the entire project. This industry is booming and the technology is keeping pace. The surveyors can see this change and they know that lot more work has to be done than just collecting data in order to make the infrastructure but also to mange during its life-cycle.

Topcon’s perception about Today’s GPS Technology and Market.
GPS is a chip technology that is being used increasingly in all our handheld devices, like PDAs and cell phones and there is no doubt that more and more devices are going to utilize it. Also we can expect, with more satellites being launched and increasing user base, it will enable some manufacturer to produce devices like ours at much cheaper costs. Topcon is about integrating technologies in solving customer problems. We are focused on understanding what our customers do and need and then integrate technologies in order to make their work easier.

Topcon’s perception about Today’s LBS Technology and Market
It is a new business for us as we originally only purchased GPS technology for our traditional markets and recently acquired the license for all GPS related markets. There is difference between LBS at 10m level and LBS at submeter level. Topcon has the unique advantage in the submeter area. The largest market of the GPS technology users is in Japan; they also have very advanced traffic management system and close to 80% of the vehicles on the road have navigation systems installed in it. They are now developing a system that will prevent cars from crashing into each other! Being a Japanese company it adds to our uniqueness and this technology, after its implementation in Japan, will be widely used in other regions of the world.

Topcon’s perception about Today’s Imag- ing/3D Modeling Technology and Market
It is relatively a new business area and is driven by applications of companies involved in utilities, infrastructure, transportation, etc.

Nowadays they require along with all the spatial and non-spatial data, the 3D scan data to improve the quality of their businesses. Topcon has introduced a 3D Laser scanner, launched at Intergeo 2007, and its uniqueness is that it is smaller, cheaper and efficient hardware with an interoperable and intuitive software module. At Topcon we see a huge potential and growth that lies ahead in this market.