Could an iPhone be a useful field tool?

When it comes to collecting field data, I’ve always been a bit of a traditionalist:


I’m also on record as being a little sceptical about the benefits of taking shiny gadgets into the field. A traditional notebook is hard to break and will not stop working when it gets wet (assuming you have been converted to the wonders of Rite In The Rain) or gets sand in the innards, and the only thing that you can run out of are pages and pencil leads, rather than battery power.


Nonetheless, the fact that the latest iteration of the iPhone has a digital compass, combined with some conversations with Chris Town, and a recent post by Bob Jamieson about some iPhone applications he uses in the field, led to a bit of chat on Twitter about whether Apple’s latest object of geek worship might be of use to a field geologist. I’m starting to think that there might be some potential there, with the right software. For example:

  • With a compass and an accelerometer, could the iPhone be used to measure the orientation of dipping beds? Even if it’s not astoundingly accurate, combined with GPS co-ordinates it would be sufficient for quickly mapping out regional structures. You could even plot out the data on a stereonet as you go.

  • Geotagging photos (and now, videos) would be easy as pie, although the iPhone camera is not the greatest ever.

  • It might be possible to geotag voice memos as well, so you could quickly record observations as you go (perhaps you could transcribe them using voice recognition?)

As far as I’m concerned, there’s always going to be a place for physical note-taking; if nothing else, you can’t overestimate the value of a good interpretative sketch. But as a supplementary tool, there are possibilities. Perhaps the advantages are not so clear at the outcrop itself, but given how central spatial and location data is becoming to geological research, actually collecting data in a way where they can instantly be manipulated and analysed on your computer, rather than being forced to transcribing everything later, could be a real boon, both for research and for teaching.
However, I still have some reservations regarding the durability – or lack thereof – of devices such as the iPhone in a field setting. A good bit of kit should be tough enough to put up with rough handling and rougher weather, and even though there are some tough-ish cases out there, I’m not sure they quite fit the protective bill. Then there’s the question of battery life – although there are possible ways around that too – and, if we’re thinking about the iPhone in particular, the lack of a physical keyboard is a possible limitation as well.
Still, perhaps the rest of you have some ideas: what funky things would your ideal electronic field aid be able to do? Do you think it would be worth pursuing development in this area, or would you argue that using an iPhone-like device at the rock face would be more trouble than it’s worth?

Categories: field gear, fieldwork, geology, gifts and gadgets

Comments (22)

  1. Bob says:

    On the camera quality: I haven’t had a chance to play with it yet, but the 3GS now has a 3.0 megapixel camera (up 1 from the previous generation) and improved focusing features including a macro option. So I think the camera is now a viable tool.
    The biggest problem I see is the durability issue. I wouldn’t fancy exposing my iPhone to salt spray and potential rockpool calamities.

  2. Mary says:

    How funny. I never put any thought towards field computing, but this is the second time time it has come up. I was at a site earlier today that had data collection resources for biodiversity researchers. Probably these are things you field work folks know already, but just in case there’s something useful, try this site:

  3. george.w says:

    I don’t even play a geologist on TV but I do a lot of outdoor photography in adverse weather. Keep in mind the smaller the lens, the more it matters how clean it is. The iPhone has an even tinier lens than most digicams. Carry a microfiber cleaning cloth.
    The military seems to think that iPhones are pretty durable.
    I carry a Pentax W60 and a spare battery with me almost everywhere. It’s tough and water resistant and has fantastic macro photography ability. It would be right at home on cliffs or around salt spray. Of course it’s just a camera, no GPS or compass or iBeer.

  4. I am unsure of an iPOD but I am really curious about the digital pencil presented at Digital Frothings
    That would be so cool to get my notes directly into the computer as a base for report writing and the new example also has sound recordings, too!
    I was actually pondering using a small, digital voice recorder during field work bit discarded the idea bc it would only be more work bringing it into text. But the pencil…I want to try one.

  5. Brian says:

    I am not convinced an iPhone would be durable enough for weeks of strike and dip measurements in the cold and rain. That said, as soon as I started playing with the compass and level app and also thought about. Maybe they can make a super tough version – can be dropped in mud, stepped on, dust/sand proof, etc.

  6. Yeah, I wouldn’t trust the iPhone for field work.
    The first year I had one, I went through 5 of them! Mostly due to keeping them inside my allegedly snow proof jacket while snowboarding. There was enough condensation that collected on my iPhone, that the touch screens would stop working. My opinion of them now is that they’re extremely fragile devices, and the capacitive touch screens are much more susceptible to malfunction due to moisture than any other electronic device I’ve ever used.
    The accelerometers are also fairly inaccurate. When using the digital level apps available in the App Store, it’s amazing how much play you have while the application still displays a zero degree dip.
    The compass in the iPhone 3GS also seems to be susceptible to inference. Good luck getting a solid strike if you’re dealing with outcrops that may contain any sort of ferrous minerals.
    Lastly, since most smart phones (iPhone included) use A-GPS (a = assisted), you need a cell phone signal first to lock into a nearby tower, then you can begin to receive coordinates. Most of the places I’ve done field work have zero cell phone coverage.
    That said, I love my iPhone. I just wouldn’t trust it as a tool for geological measurement and data collection.

  7. Zane Bruce says:

    I’ve been carrying some sort of handheld computer for field data gathering since 1995, but always as an adjunct to my notebook and pencil. Initially, apple newton and gps, then toshiba laptop and gps, later general laptop/magnetometer combinations. Along the way, the newton survived being dropped in a lake, as did the gps. The old Toshiba didn’t really work well after a lot of volcanic ash (didn’t do much for my camera, either). Most recently, my Northern Territory kit was: Notebook, Pencil, Hammer, Compass, 5 megapixel camera, Garmin gps, Eeepc 900 netbook, and magnetometer. Although the Eeepc isn’t particularly robust, they are nice andd small (slightly larger than my field notebook, say the size of about two Rite in the Rain notebooks) cheap and relatively easy to troubleshoot, and do most things you need for initial field data download and manipulation, without needing to lug a larger laptop about.

  8. Ben Baugh says:

    I think most geologists would agree: the simpler the better. Occam’s razor. Unless Motorola came out with a cell phone called the Occam’s Razor, then I would use it for the sake of supporting good humor. That aside, I don’t think electronics will replace a good ole fasion Brunton compass and field notebook. Even if they did, I wouldn’t prefer it.
    By the way Chris, I’m doing a paleomag problem in southwest Montana for my Master’s thesis. I’d be interested in hearing about your work. Feel free to get in touch

  9. Nick says:

    I just bought Trimble’s new Juno hand-held GPS/Notepad/etc… I’ll let you know how it works.
    Quantitative field work more and more needs a laser rangefinder etc… to collect the quantity and precision of data. Otherwise, I’d be happy to stick with a Brunton (or Silva) and a pen and notebook.
    Oh, btw. 3 Megapixels is now standard on a lot of field gadgets, but this won’t cut if for publications that need slightly higher resolution (4 MP gives a good 300 dpi image).

  10. Cian says:

    Well, I don’t do hydrogeophysics field work anymore, but I have an iPhone and have been thinking about this question recently. My answer at the moment is no, for two main reasons: it’s not rugged enough & the battery life is too short.
    That said, it could be useful for:
    – downloading/backing up data from equipment in the field
    – previewing data collected in the field
    – sending field/equip photos, screenshots, or sample data to someone else to help troubleshoot issues or send status updates while still in the field
    The other cons are:
    – low quality photos (although, I don’t have the newest one)
    – slow for typing much of anything
    – location isn’t accurate enough & can be slow.
    – don’t know how accurate the accelerometer is (I frequently have to tap it hard to get it to re-orient)
    However, if I’m somewhere where I had to haul geophysics equipment, then it’s probably not much more to haul a laptop along, so a small handheld provides few benefits.
    BTW, the current and last generation of iPhone do allow for real GPS, not just assisted GPS. You can get your location via GPS without a phone signal or wifi (I’ve tried). What you can’t get without a secondary app or phone/wifi is the base map on which the basic phone plots the location.

  11. Rob says:

    iPhone for iGeologists, and you know what the “i” stand for?
    Rob 🙂

  12. Lab Lemming says:

    The NTGS went paperless at the beginning of the 2008 field season. The folks up there I’ve talked to about it said it took getting used to, but not spending a month linking and typing everything up was worth it.

  13. Kim Hannula says:

    Is there a stereonet app? I don’t think I would use an iPhone in the field (due to the ruggedness factor), but I think it would be really cool to have a stereonet on a phone. 😀

  14. I don’t think iPhone is vulnerable to damage. I have drop my iphone many times and only little scratches are on it. But generally it’s a phone so I think it’s not good hardware for collecting field data.

  15. Dan Doctor says:

    I use my iPhone 3G regularly in the field in suburban and rural areas of Virginia, where cell reception is good. It is an excellent resource for locating myself within the high-res photo imagery provided in the Maps app. I also use it as a data-collection backup for my Trimble, when satellite reception is poor. I’ve tested the accuracy of the iPhone assisted GPS and it is +/- 5 m, as good as the Trimble.
    I use the “drop a pin” feature of the Maps app to collect data points and send them to myself in an email along with geologic notes. I also use the app “Locations” to collect geotagged photos in a running list, them send them all at once to my desktop in an email.
    An app that can collect azimuth and dip data in KML format for rapid plotting in Google Earth would be most welcome.

  16. Dennis Grady says:

    We have been using Field assets for the iphone it is a great tool for field data collection. Here is the site and they are on twitter @field_assets.
    Made our surveys alot easier!

  17. You might want to take a look at the geology apps for the iPhone such as Geology CA and Geology WA/OR, which contain the USGS geological map for the states, along with a whole bunch of other layers (terrain, hydrography, earthquakes, mineral resources, K/Ar data points, USGS quads, etc…). Something like 15 states covered so far (mostly in the West).
    I also second the opinion about Field Assets — looks very good.

  18. Paul Evins says:

    I’ve been using only digital mapping for fieldwork for geological surveys in remote areas for over 3 years. I carry a notebook backup, but have scarcely written in it, save for sketches. It usually takes 2 excursions (each 2 weeks of field data collection) to get comfortable with. Everything goes slow for the first trip, and this is the time when many give up. You learn from your mistakes and implement new methods during the second trip and things go much faster, but as with everything, new problems arise. By the third trip, most problems are sorted and I can enter all of my observations (including full field note descriptions) roughly 80% as fast as on paper. And then there is all the time saved in not converting your notes to digital. Back up on an external HD or 2 every night and the data is safe.Of course, I always carry paper as a backup in case the battery dies or something screws up, but this has only happened a few times and at most, 1 days work was lost.
    The hardware available today is ready. Currently I use a Fujitsu Lifebook P1620 with extended battery. It is the size and weight of a couple of field notebooks. It has a reversible tablet screen and the battery will last a full day if you turn off the backlight between outcrops. I run a full version of ArcMap and the surveys’ own field note software. I have also used a Samsung Q1 running ArcPad with similar success.
    I have never had a problem with robust(ness?) of the equipment, but you have to choose carefully.
    A reflective or transflective screen is an advantage as you can turn off the backlight on sunny days and save heaps of power.
    The most important aspect of a digital field system is software. If it annoys the user, they will quit on the first week. Keep it simple and standardized with drop-downs and easy to fill in fields and leave all the rest for a simple text entry notes field.
    Text input is based on preference. I prefer the FITALY keyboard or MS tablet’s handwriting recognition.
    Sketches are still best done on paper, then photographed.
    I think everyone can appreciate the advantage of seeing your position in realtime over whatever imagery you like (orthophoto, aeromag, etc.) that paper cannot provide. Furthermore, you can see and query your previous observations and structural readings instantly from the map.
    The decision to go digital mostly depends on how much you are mapping. If it is only a few weeks every summer for a PhD, then you are probably better off with paper. If it is your job (> 5 weeks every year), you should go digital.

  19. Ted Haeger says:

    I recently posted “iPhone Apps for Field Science.” It’s more of an examination of the layperson apps and the potential they show for professional apps.

  20. We have developed an application that integrates several features of the iPhone to provide a useful utility for scientists in the field. Camera, GPS, Email, note Taking and Storage.

  21. Dick van der Wateren says:

    Lambert is an app for iphone that turns it into a geological compass. You will like it.

  22. damoe says:

    try iGIS allows ovelay of your own shape files on google maps, with transparency, and you can change colours and linewidth.
    there is a basic point entering system, but no track mapping or caching of googlemaps/ upload of located image data like aeromag as yet.