Reliable GPS is here

As little as five years ago, the letters “GPS” (Global Positioning System) were reserved for surveyors, military personnel, engineers and those elite sportsmen who liked the newest toys. The use of this technology was limited to those who could afford the equipment and had the ability to survive the learning curve. Today, surveyors and engineers still use GPS to create accurate plots and maps. But as with all things in the high-tech field, the equipment has advanced and is available at a much lower cost. Even car manufacturers now offer GPS systems as optional in-dash equipment in luxury cars. Another example of the advent of GPS is the fact professionals in many fields are turning to GPS as a tool that can help them manage projects.

Golf course maintenance is no exception. GPS is being used to map anything in the outdoors you can imagine. Tree locations, turf areas, shrub and flower beds, woodlands — you name it and you can map it. The beauty of good-quality GPS is that you not only map the item, but collect and store information about it. Imagine having an accurate map of the property you manage, with detailed information about everything on it! Where are my hazard trees located? Where are the trees with low limbs that need to be pruned? How much area of turf do I have in fescue, how much in zoysia? All of these questions can be answered with GPS.


GPS can tell you your exact position anywhere on the globe. Your position can be described in many different ways. Some prefer the old confusing “latitude and longitude” system, while others use a newer “state plane coordinate” system, or some modification of it. The state plane coordinate system simply uses two numbers to describe your location on an “X” and “Y” axis. A third number can be used to describe a “Z” axis for three-dimensional locations. This third dimension is important for elevation information.

The “system” is composed of three main parts. First, a constellation (or group) of satellites orbits the earth transmitting signals. Second, a small hand-held receiver stores the signals transmitted by the satellites. Third, a powerful computer interprets the signals and provides the location information you want. Many GPS units on the market today combine the receiver and computer into a single hand-held or backpack-mounted unit.


The constellation is composed of at least 24 satellites that orbit the earth and transmit signals to GPS receivers on earth. GPS satellites are maintained by government agencies that provide the services free of charge to most users. The satellites are used by military, commercial and private users. They were put in place several years ago and were designed primarily for military use. Eventually, the commercial high-tech industry began to develop products using the technology and satellite signals were made available to those who could afford the receivers, computers and staff trained to interpret the information. The sports industry got in to the picture as well and developed low-cost equipment designed to tap into the satellite's wealth of information.


GPS receivers are the hardware you need to purchase if you want to try your hand at this new technology. They range in price from $200 (accuracy of about 100 feet) to well over $30,000 (accuracy of less than ½ inch). The market provides the usual range in quality and “bells and whistles.”

The low-end models are hand-held units with a small screen (about 1.5 × 1.5 inches) that provides you with basic information about your location (low accuracy) and a small memory to store up to 10 locations. Mid-range models have a larger screen, better accuracy (about 3 to 9 feet) and have the ability to store “attribute data” for each location. This means you can collect a “database” of information about thousands of trees or other features on your property. The ability to combine the location data and information about that location is the beauty of GPS. Surveyors who need ultra-accurate survey information typically use the high-end models. They can use GPS to survey areas much quicker than ever before. Most of the high-end units are very rugged and are capable of withstanding the rigors of outdoor use.

Many commercial vendors of GPS hardware will package their GPS receivers with a computer that performs the required calculations and also stores data about whatever is found at a plotted location. For example, the MC-GPS unit sold by Corvallis Microtechnology will receive GPS signals from satellites, calculate your location and then allow you to store “attribute data” about that location. We have used this device to perform GPS inventories of trees in city parks and other private campus locations. The end product is a database of tree locations with detailed information about the health and maintenance needs for each tree. We can use the data to easily produce a map of the project site, pinpointing the location of every tree with a need.

Most GPS data recorders will not only plot the locations of “point” data (single trees, light poles, etc.), but will also plot “linear” objects (trails, roads, streams) and “area” objects (turf, woodlands, mulched beds, fairways, etc). The ability to plot all of these items on a map and at the same time view current data about each one is extremely valuable.

Other manufacturers package their receivers with computers and powerful software that creates road maps and detailed driving information. Some even provide voice commands about approaching intersections and destinations. The bottom line is that GPS can be used in ways that are limited only by your imagination — and your pocketbook!


While GPS applications are extremely varied, most of us in the business of grounds maintenance realize that whatever new technology we get involved in had better be affordable, easy to learn and very practical. The need for GPS applications will depend upon your need for accurate, easy-to-update information about your landscape. GPS is not inexpensive. If you have a need for detailed maps that you can update frequently (more than once a season), you may be interested in purchasing your own GPS unit and learning how to operate it. Realize that operating a small hand-held GPS unit to locate a campsite is a lot less complicated than using a GPS data recorder to collect data, download it to a desktop computer, create maps and then organize attribute data to create work orders and maps for work crews.

Many landscape managers have sought the help of consultants who provide GPS mapping services to fit their particular need. This helps to eliminate the cost of buying the GPS receivers and the high cost of the learning curve to understand the data collection process. Consultants bring their experience to you by recommending the most cost-efficient method of data collection and map production. They can provide the full-range of services for you or may simply provide direction as to the best type of GPS system to buy. Maps of project sites can vary from $500 to $50,000. Factors that affect price include the size of the area, number of features you need mapped and the amount of data you need gathered.

Provided below are some examples of GPS based projects that provided information property managers need.

Problem: The City of Crestwood, Mo., (a suburb of St. Louis) needed accurate maps of its seven city parks, along with a complete inventory of all trees in the mowed and manicured areas in each park. They needed the inventory to provide information about the location, species, diameter, condition, value and maintenance needs of each tree.

Solution: They used a GPS data collector to plot the location of trees and various “hardscape” objects (buildings, light poles, water fountains, utility lines, etc.) in each park. The mapped mowed turf areas along with parking lots, roads, trails, creeks, bridges, lakes and underground utilities. The final product included printed maps showing the location of each of the features. It also included maps that they could view and update on the computer. The computerized maps store important information about each feature that is gathered during the data collection process.

Park Operations Supervisor Bill Reininger can “filter” the map to highlight locations of hazardous trees, trouble spots in turf areas, utility locations or just about any other piece of stored information. He can then use this data to generate work orders for crews to complete or use it to generate requests for proposals, if he wants to contract out the work. Reininger says, “GPS enables me to see each of my parks in a whole new way. I don't have to spend as much time in the field gathering information about where work needs to be completed. Most of it is right here on the map. It helps me communicate much clearer information to my crews, contractors, supervisors, elected officials and the public.” Reininger was skeptical at first about the high-tech nature of GPS. “I didn't really think the technology would be that helpful, but it has made a big difference in how I manage my parks.”

Problem: A large corporation with a 250-acre campus near St. Louis needed a map of its facility that provided information about existing trees, turf areas, mulched flower and shrub beds, trails, lights, etc.

Solution: They used a GPS data collector to plot locations and gather information about the features mentioned above. The final product included a detailed map of the site that showed every tree in mowed and manicured areas, boundaries of woodland areas, turf areas, flower and shrub beds, directional signs, trails, trail signs and more. The computerized version of the map is an AutoCAD file that the client uses in LandCAD. The mapping software provides tremendous flexibility for future landscape design and maintenance. It generates and updates plant lists as new plants are added or removed.

There is no doubt that GPS is revolutionizing the way we gather information in our world. While many people are reluctant to jump on the technology bandwagon, I can assure you that the testing period has been over for some time now. Reliable GPS is here and land managers who want to have the very best information available to them are using it. While new developments in GPS will continue, the reliability of commercially available systems now on the market is extremely good.

Skip Kincaid is a forestry consultant and operates Skip Kincaid & Associates (St. Louis, Mo.). He is a Certified Arborist and a past member of the National Urban & Community Forestry Advisory Council. You can reach Skip at


If you are interested in utilizing GPS technology, or just want to find out more information, here are a few companies that can help. For contact information, use the circle numbers provided below.

Corvallis Microtechnology, Inc.
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