Comparison of the u-blox M8T to the u-blox M8P

I recently acquired a couple of  u-blox C94-M8P receivers and so I am now able to do a direct comparison between the u-blox M8T and M8P modules, something I’ve been wanting to do for a while.

I believe the hardware between the two receivers is identical, the differences are only in firmware.  The most significant difference in firmware is that the M8P includes an internal RTK solution.  In order to squeeze this into the firmware, however, they had to remove support for the Galileo and SBAS constellations, so this is another fairly significant difference.

Cost, of course, is also different.  The M8T receivers I usually use are available from CSGShop for $75.  CSG sells an M8P receiver for $240 or you can buy a kit with two C94-M8P eval boards from u-blox for $400.  The C94-M8P boards also include on-board radios.

In this post, I will describe how I used RTKLIB and a cell phone hot spot to connect the M8Ps rather than using the internal radios.  I will also compare the RTKLIB solutions for a pair of M8T receivers with the internal u-blox RTK solution for a pair of M8P receivers. I hope to compare the RTKLIB solution to the internal solution for a pair of M8Ps in a future post.  If you are mostly interested in the M8T to M8P comparison results, you can jump directly to the end of this post.

To set up the experiment I first connected both a C94-M8P receiver and a CSG M8T receiver to the GPS survey antenna on my roof using a signal splitter.  I then connected both receivers to a laptop with USB cables.  I configured the M8P using u-center following instructions in the C94-M8P Setup Guide with a few modifications.  First of all, I normally use an NTRIP caster over a cell phone hot spot for my real-time data link so didn’t want to bother with the on-board radios.  I disabled the radios following the instructions in the setup guide.  This involves removing a plastic cover, soldering a wire to a capacitor, drilling a hole in the plastic cover to run the wire, then plugging the other end into a pin on the connector.  It is also possible to do this by connecting an external voltage and ground to the correct pins on the connector, but a simple jumper option would have been a lot more convenient.

The setup instructions are intended to run the setup and solution output messages over the USB port while running the RTCM raw observation messages between receivers over the UART interface.  The UART interface is internally connected to the radios.  Since I am not using the radios, I wanted to run all communication over the USB interface to avoid extra cables.  To do this, I disabled the UART interface and configured the USB interface for UBX messages in and RTCM messages out using the UBX-CFG-PRT configure command from u-center.  Following the C94-M8P setup instructions, I then specified a fixed base station location with the UBX-CFG-TMODE3 command and enabled 1005,1077,1087, and 1230 RTCM messages which include the raw observations, base station location, and GLONASS biases.

I setup the base station M8T receiver as I usually do to output the raw observations using the UBX-RXM-RAWX messages.

I then started two copies of the RTKLIB STRSVR app on the base station laptop and streamed both sets of base observations to an NTRIP server as I’ve described in an earlier post using the free RTK2GO.com community NTRIP server.  With this setup, I can receive the NTRIP streams anywhere I can get cell phone coverage, using a cell phone hot spot and a laptop connected to the two rovers and I can test over much longer distances than the radios would allow.

One thing to be aware of is that there are separate versions of the receiver firmware for the M8P base and M8P rover.  I didn’t realize this at first.  It turned out that both of my receivers came loaded with the rover firmware so I spent an embarrassingly long time unsuccessfully trying to configure one of them as a base station.  Once I realized the problem, I was able to fairly quickly download the base firmware from the u-blox website, then use u-center to download the base station firmware to the receiver.

Next, I attached the two rover receivers to a laptop using USB cables and to a single antenna using a signal splitter.  To make the results more comparable to some of my other recent experiments I used the same GPS-500 L1/L2 antenna from SwiftNav that I used for those experiments.  This is a more expensive antenna than generally would be used with these receivers but I wanted to avoid mixing differences between antennas with differences between receivers.

The M8P rover does not need much configuration since it will by default process any incoming RTCM messages as inputs to an RTK solution.  I did configure the USB port  to support NEMA, UBX, and RTCM messages in and UBX and NMEA messages out.  For the static rover test, I left the position message output rate at the default 1 Hz, but increased it to 5 Hz for the dynamic rover test.  I suspect this only affects the message output rate, and not the solution itself since the solution is probably run at a faster internal rate.

The only other setting I modified in the M8P rover receiver was the dynamic model of the navigation mode using the UBX-CFG-NAV5 message.  I set it to “Pedestrian” for my static rover test and “Automotive” for my moving rover test.

I then started another copy of STRSVR on the rover laptop to stream the M8P base station data from the NTRIP server to the M8P rover over the USB COM port.

At this point, getting the solution output messages from the M8P rover is a little tricky.  Only a single user can attach to a Windows COM port at one time and the STRSVR app is not fully bi-directional.  One solution might be to use u-center to stream the NTRIP data and receive the rover messages but I did not verify if this is possible.

Instead, I used a feature of STRSVR that allows you to pipe the data coming from the other direction to a TCP/IP port which can then be processed by either another copy of STRSVR, or plotted with RTKPLOT, or used as an input to RTKNAVI, or all three at once.  Below, on the left, I show how I modified the STRSVR setup that streams the base data from the NTRIP client to the rover by checking the “Output Received Stream to TCP Port” and selecting port 1000.  On the right, I show the STRSVR setup necessary to stream this incoming data from the rover to a file.  This is a convenient work-around for the problem of only being able to connect one user at a time to a COM port.

strsvr2

In my case I configured the rover receiver to send both the M8P internal solution position using NMEA messages and the raw observations using UBX messages so that I could post-process the raw observations later with RTKLIB.  In general though, it is only necessary to send the NMEA messages.  I configured the rover to send GGA and RMC NMEA messages, but others will work as well.

For the M8Ts, I ran a real-time RTKLIB solution using RTKNAVI and my normal kinematic solution configuration for both static and moving rover tests.  As usual, I used the demo5 version of RTKLIB for this test.

So, how did they compare?  First of all, a few differences to consider between the solutions.   The M8P solution only uses GPS and GLONASS satellites since the SBAS and Galileo satellites have been disabled in the M8P firmware as I mentioned earlier.  This should give the M8T solution an advantage.  The M8P also has limited processing power relative to the laptop running the RTKLIB solution, so this may also give the M8T solution an advantage.  On the other hand, I’m sure that u-blox has lots of smart people that know all the internal details of the hardware which should give the M8P solution an advantage.

For my first comparison, I did a a static rover test with the antenna located on a tripod a few meters from the house and partially obstructed by trees.  To avoid different starting conditions between the two receivers, I connected both receivers to the antenna and waited till they both converged to fixed solutions before starting the test.  I then disconnected the antenna for about 30 seconds, and then reconnected it.  This will cause both receivers to lose lock with all satellites and the solutions will have to re-converge from scratch so this should be a fair comparison.  I disconnected and reconnected the antenna several times to compare the times to re-acquire fix and the accuracies of the fixes.

The results are plotted below, the M8P internal solution on the top, and the real-time RTKLIB M8T solution on the bottom.  I re-connected the antenna five times.  Once, the internal M8P solution re-acquired fix slightly quicker than the RTKLIB M8T solution, once the M8T re-acquired fix slightly quicker than the M8P.  The other three times, the M8T re-acquired fix significantly quicker than the M8P.   The M8P times to re-acquire varied from 52 to 220 seconds.  The M8T took from 50 to 76 seconds.

The M8T RTKLIB solutions had no false fixes, the M8P internal solutions had false fixes with several meter errors for over five seconds in two of the five tests.  The false fixes are circled with red in the plot below.

m8p1

The E-W and N-S axes matched within one centimeter between the two solutions.  The U-D axis at first appears to differ by 21.5 meters between the two solutions but this is because I specified the RTKLIB vertical solution to be relative to the ellipsoid, while the M8P solution is relative to the geoid.  If I subtract the geoid to ellipsoid offset (available in the GGA message from the M8P), then the two solutions match in the vertical axis as well.

Overall, I would have to say that in this particular run,  the RTKLIB M8T solution out-performed the M8P internal solution by a fairly significant amount.

One other observation about the M8P solution is that the precision reported (at least in the GGA message) is only to one centimeter in the horizontal axes and 10 cm in the vertical accuracy.  I didn’t see any obvious way to get outputs with better precision than this, at least with the NMEA messages.  [Note 8/16/18: It turns out that the UBX-CFG-NMEA message can be used to enable high precision mode to fix this.  Thanks to Charles Wang for pointing this out in a comment]

Next I mounted the same antenna on the roof of my car and drove around the neighborhood.  The sky view varied from nearly unobstructed to moderate tree canopy.  Here are the results of that test, the MP internal RTK solution on the left, and the M8T real-time RTKLIB solution on the right.

m8p2

The fix rate for the M8P solution was 52.4%.  The M8T solution was noticeably better with a 95.2% fix rate.

Here’s a plot of the difference between the two solutions (green indicates both solution are fixed, yellow indicates that at least one is float).  The U-D axis differences are fairly large, mostly because of the 10 cm vertical precision of the M8P position messages.  There is also a fairly large discrepancy between the two solutions around 22:55:00.  This corresponds to a 15 second gap in base station data, probably due to a loss of cell phone reception.  This seems to be a large error for such a short base outage but I was not able to narrow down the cause beyond this or determine which receiver contributed more to this combined error.  This probably deserves more investigation in a future post.

m8p2d

Again, the real-time RTKLIB M8T solution appeared in this test to be better than the internal M8P solution.

The most likely reason the M8T is getting a better solution is that it is using more satellites.  Here are the rover raw observations for the M8P on the left, and the M8T on the right.  With the GPS and GLONASS constellations, both receivers are seeing 13 satellites.  With Galileo and SBAS, the M8T is seeing an additional 7 satellites.  One of these Galileo satellites is not fully operational yet and so is not used in the solution, but that still gives 6 extra satellites, nearly 50% more than the M8P solution.

m8p3

If the extra satellites are what is improving the M8T solution, then running a solution with the M8T data without the SBAS and Galileo satellites should give a solution similar to the M8P solution.

This is easy to do, so let’s try it.  Here’s a post-processed solution for the M8T data using only the GPS and GLONASS satellites.

m8p4

Fix rate is 66.5%, reasonably close to the 52.4% fix rate from the M8P internal solution.  This suggests that a large part of the improvement for the M8T solution is coming from the additional satellites and not from any differences in the solution algorithms.

As in all my comparisons, this is intended to be one user’s initial experience, and not any kind of rigorous comparison test.  Please interpret these results with that in mind.  If you have experiences that differ from these I would be very interested to hear about them.

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PPP solutions with SSR corrections for a single frequency receiver

In my last post, I demonstrated some PPP solutions using real-time SSR corrections from the CLK93 data stream with various dual frequency receivers.  Results were quite good with errors after four hours generally below six centimeters in each axis.

Many of my experiments are done using RTK solutions with short baselines where the differences between dual frequency receivers and single frequency receivers can be fairly small.  With PPP solutions however there are significant differences between single frequency and dual frequency receivers.  This is because the ionospheric errors increase with increasing baseline and the dual frequency measurements are much more effective at coping with these errors.

To demonstrate this, I duplicated the previous experiment with a single frequency receiver, collecting twelve hours of raw observations with a u-blox M8T receiver along with the CLK93 real-time data stream for SSR corrections.   I processed the data with the same configuration settings as last time, except using “L1” instead of “L1+L2” for frequencies and ionospheric corrections set to  “broadcast” instead of “ionospheric-free” (dual-freq) corrections.

As expected, the errors, even after 12 hours were fairly large.  Here is the result.   Even after 12 hours, the vertical error was nearly two meters.

ssr4

Presumably the single frequency PPP/SSR results will improve if RTKLIB is extended to support the RTCM SSR Phase 2 and Phase 3 ionospheric correction messages.

Using SSR corrections with RTKLIB for PPP solutions

If you have been following recent announcements in precision GNSS, you may have been hearing a lot about SSR (State State Representation).  SwiftNav recently announced their Skylark corrections service, and u-blox announced a partnership with Sapcorda to provide correction service for their upcoming F9 receivers.  Both of these services are based on SSR corrections.

So, what is SSR?  Very briefly, it refers to the form of the corrections.  In traditional RTK with physical base stations or virtual reference stations (VRS), the corrections come in the form of observations in which all of the different error source are lumped together as part of the observation.  This is referred to as OSR (Observation Space Representation).  In SSR corrections, the different error source (satellite clocks,  satellite orbits, satellite signal biases, ionospheric delay, and tropospheric delay) are modeled and distributed separately.  There are many advantages to this form but what seems to be driving industry towards it now is that it allows the current VRS model where each user requires a unique data stream with observations tailored for their location to be replaced with a single universal stream that can be used by all observers.  This is a requirement if the technology is going to be adopted for the mass-market automotive industry for self-driving cars, since it is not practical to provide every car with it’s own data stream.

For more detailed information on SSR, Geo++ has a one page summary here and IGS has an 18 minute video presentation on the topic here.  Both are excellent.

Below is an image I borrowed from the IGS presentation which shows the flexibility of the SSR format.  It is intended to show how the same SSR data stream can be used globally for PPP quality corrections and also regionally for RTK quality corrections but it is also a good visual for understanding the message details I describe below.

ssr1

The RTCM standards committee is still in the process of finalizing the messages used to send the different correction components.  They have split the work into three phases.  Phase 1 includes the satellite clock, orbit, and code biases.  Phase 2 includes satellite phase biases and vertical ionosphere corrections, and phase 3 includes ionospheric slant corrections and tropospheric corrections.

There are several real-time SSR streams accessible for free today.  Unlike the paid services, they do not contain enough detailed regional atmospheric corrections to use as a replacement for a VRS base but they can easily be used for static PPP solutions.

I used the CLK93 stream from CNES for an experiment to test how well RTKLIB handled the SSR corrections.  It includes the Phase 1 and Phase 2 RTCM messages but not the Phase 3 messages.  Here is the format of the the messages in the CLK93 data stream:

clk93

You can register for free access to the CLK93 (and other) streams from any of these locations:

Unfortunately, RTKLIB currently only supports the Phase 1 RTCM messages and even this is not complete in the release version.  I have gone through the code and made a few changes to make the Phase 1 SSR functional and have checked those changes into the demo5 Github repository.  I also added some code to handle the mixed L2 and L2C observations from the ComNav and Tersus receivers.  After a little more testing I plan to release this code into the demo5 executables, hopefully in the next week or two.

With only phase 1 measurements, the RTKLIB PPP solutions will work much better with dual frequency receivers than with single frequency receivers.  This is because single frequency receivers require ionospheric corrections for longer baselines.  For this reason, I did not bother with collecting any single frequency data.  Instead, I collected both L1/L2C data with a Swiftnav Piksi Multi receiver and L1/L2/L2C data with a ComNav K708 receiver and a Tersus BX306 receiver.

RTKLIB is usually used to calculate PPP solutions without SSR corrections but this requires downloading multiple correction files for orbital errors, clock errors, and code bias errors and it is usually done with post-processing rather than real-time, after the corrections are available.  With SSR, the process is simpler because the solution can be done real-time and there is no need to download any additional files.  It does, however, require access to the internet to receive the real-time SSR data stream from an NTRIP caster.  The solution can be calculated real-time or the SSR corrections and receiver observation streams can be recorded and the solution post-processed.

To enable the use of SSR corrections in RTKLIB, you need to set the “Satellite Ephemeris/Clock (pos1-sateph) input parameter to either “Broadcast+SSR APC” or “Broadcast+SSR CoM”.  Note that CoM stands for Center of Mass and APC for Antenna Phase Center.  They refer to the reference point for the corrections.  The CLK93 corrections are based on antenna phase centers.

To generate my PPP solution I set the solution mode to “PPP-Static”,  ephemeris/clock (pos1-sateph) to “brdc+ssrapc”, ionosphere correction (pos1-ionopt) to “dual-freq”, and troposphere correction (pos1-tropopt) to “est-ztd”.  I also enabled most of the other PPP options including  earth tides,  satellite PCVs, receiver PCVs, phase windup, and eclipse rejection.

RTKLIB PPP solutions don’t support ambiguity resolution so the ambiguity resolution settings are ignored.  I specified the satellite antenna file as “ngs14.atx” which is the standard antenna correction file and is available as part of the demo5 executable package.  I also needed to include the CLK93 data stream as one of the inputs in addition to the receiver observations (and navigation file if post-processing).

I collected a couple hundred hours of observations with the SwiftNav receiver connected to a ComNav AT-330 antenna on my roof with moderately good sky visibility.  I then ran many four hour static solutions over randomly selected data windows.  I also collected a small amount of raw data from a ComNav K708 receiver and a Tersus BX306 receiver.

Below is a typical 12 hour static solution for a SwiftNav and a ComNav receiver.  The SwiftNav solution is in green and the ComNav solution is in purple.  Zero in these plots represents an online PPP solution from CSRS from data collected over a month earlier.  In this particular example, the SwiftNav solution is slightly better but this was not always the case.

 

ssr2

Here is a shorter data set from a Tersus BX306 receiver.  With the relatively small amount of Tersus and ComNav data I collected, I did not notice any differences in convergence rates or final accuracy between any of the three receivers.

ssr3

The solutions generally all converged to less than 6 cm of error in each axis after 4 hours with one or two minor exceptions that seemed to involve small anomalies at the day boundary.  Since the RTKLIB PPP solutions don’t include ambiguity resolution they do take longer to converge but the eventual accuracy should be similar.

I’ve uploaded some of the raw observation data for the different receivers and the CLK93 data stream as well as the config file that I used for the solution here.

This seems like a good start and I hope that RTKLIB will support phase 2 and phase 3 corrections in the future.

Swiftnav experiment: Improvements to the SNR

In my previous couple of posts, I evaluated the performance of a pair of dual freqeuncy SwiftNav Piksi multi receivers in a moving rover with local base scenario.  I used a pair of single frequency u-blox M8T receivers fed with the same antenna signals as a baseline reference.

It was pointed out to me that the signal to noise ratio (SNR) measurements of the rovers were noticeably lower than the bases, especially the L2 measurements and that this might be affecting the validity of the comparison.  This seemed to be a valid concern so I spent some time digging into this discrepancy and did indeed find some issues.  I will describe the issues as well as the process of tracking them down since I think it could be a useful exercise for any RTK/PPK user to potentially improve their signal quality.

Previously , in another post, I described a somewhat similar exercise tracking down some signal quality issues caused by EMI from the motor controllers on a drone.  In that case, though, the degradation was more severe and I was able to track it down by monitoring cycle slips.  In this case, the degradation is more subtle and does not directly show up in the cycle slips.

Every raw observation from the receiver generally includes a signal strength measurement as well as pseudorange and carrier phase measurements.  The SwiftNav and u-blox receivers both actually report carrier to noise density ratio (C/NO), rather than signal to noise ratio (SNR) but both are measures of signal strength.  They are labelled as SNR in the RTKLIB output, so to avoid confusion I will refer to them as SNR as well.  I will only be using them to compare relative values so the difference isn’t important for this exercise, but for anyone interested, there is a good explanation of the difference between them here.  Both are logarithmic values measured in dB or dB-Hz so 6 dB represents a factor of two in signal strength.

Since the base and rover have very similar configurations we would expect similar SNR numbers between the two, at least when the rover antenna is not obstructed by trees or other objects.  I selected an interval of a few minutes when the rover was on the open highway and plotted SNR by receiver and frequency for base and rover.  Here are the results, base on the left and rover on the right.  The Swift L1 is on the top, L2 in the middle, and the u-blox L1 on the bottom.  To avoid too much clutter on the plots, I show only the GLONASS SNR values, but the other constellations look similar.

snr1

Notice that the L1 SNR for both rovers is at least 6 dB (a factor of 2) lower than the base, and the Swift L2 SNR is more like 10 dB lower.  These are significant enough losses in the rover to possibly affect the quality of the measurement.

The next step was to try and isolate where the losses were coming from.  I set up the receiver configurations as before and used the “Obs Data” selection in the “RTK Monitor” window in RTKNAVI to monitor the SNR values in real time for both base and rover as well as the C/NO tracking window in the Swift console app.  I then started changing the configuration to see if the SNR values changed.  The base and rover antennas were similar but not identical so I first swapped out the rover antenna but this did not make a difference.  I then moved the rover antenna off of the car roof and onto a nearby tripod to see if the large ground plane (car roof) was affecting the antenna but this also did not make a difference.  I then removed the antenna splitter, but again no change.

Next, I started modifying the cable configuration between the receivers and my laptop.  To conveniently be able to both collect solution data and be able to collect and run a real-time solution on the raw Swift observations, I have been connecting both a USB serial cable and an ethernet cable between the Swift board and my laptop.  My laptop is an ultra-slim model and uses an etherent->USB adapter cable to avoid the need for a high profile ethernet connector.  So, with two receivers and my wireless mouse, I end up having more USB cables than USB ports on my computer and had to plug some into a USB hub that was then plugged into my laptop.

The first change in SNR occured when I unplugged the ethernet cable from the laptop and plugged it into the USB hub.  This didn’t affect the L1 measurements much but caused the Swift L2 SNR to drop another 10 dB!  Wrong direction, but at least I had a clue here.

By moving all of the data streams between Swift receiver and laptop (base data to Swift, raw data to laptop, internal solution to laptop) over to the ethernet connection I was able to eliminate one USB serial port cable.  This was enough to eliminate the USB hub entirely and plug both the USB serial cable from the u-blox receiver and the ethernet->USB cable from the Swift receiver directly into the laptop.  I also plugged the two cables into opposite sides of the laptop and wrapped the ethernet->USB adapter with aluminum foil which may have improved things slightly more.

Here is the same plot as above after the changes to the cabling from a drive around the neighborhood.

snr2

I wasn’t able to eliminate the differences entirely, but the results are much closer now.  The biggest difference now between the base configuration and the rover configuration is that I am using a USB serial cable for the base, and a ethernet->USB adapter cable for the rover so I suspect that cable is still generating some interference and that is causing the remaining signal loss in the rover.  Unfortunately I can not run all three streams I need for this experiment over the serial cable, so I am not able to get rid of the ethernet cable.

I did two driving tests with the new configuration, similar to the ones I described in the previous posts.   One was through the city of Boulder and again included going underneath underpasses and a parking garage.  The second run was through the older and more challenging residential neighborhood.  Both runs looked pretty good, a little better than the previous runs but it is not really fair to compare run to run since the satellite geometry and atmospheric conditions will be different between runs.  The relative solutions between Swift and u-blox didn’t change much though, which is probably expected since the cable changes improved both rovers by fairly similar amounts.

Here’s a quick summary of the fix rates for the two runs.  The fix rates for the residential neighborhood look a little low relative to last time but in this run I only included the most difficult neighborhood so it was a more challenging run than last time.

Fix rates

City/highway Residential
Swift internal RTK 93.60% 67.50%
Swift RTKLIB PPK 93.70% 87.90%
U-blox RTKLIB RTK 95.70% 92.80%
U-blox RTKLIB PPK 96.10% 91.10%

Here are the city/highway runs,  real-time on the top, post-process on the bottom with Swift on the left and u-blox on the right.  For the most part all solutions had near 100% fix except when recovering from going underneath the overpasses and parking garage.

snr4

Here are the same sequence of solutions for the older residential neighborhood.  This was more challenging than the city driving because of the overhanging trees and caused some amount of loss of fix in all solutions.

snr5

Here’s the same images of the recovery after driving under an underpass and underneath a parking garage that I showed in the previous post.  Again, the relative differences between Swift and u-blox didn’t change much, although the Swift may have improved a little.

snr1

Overall, the improvements from better SNR were incremental rather than dramatic, but still important for maximizing the robustness of the solutions.  This exercise of comparing base SNR to rover SNR and tracking down any discrepancies could be a useful exercise for anyone trying to improve their RTK or PPK results.

Initial look at the ComNav K708 receiver

ComNav was kind enough to recently lend me two of their K708 receivers for evaluation.   I also have a Tersus BX306 receiver that was given to me earlier by Tersus for evaluation.  Both of these are relatively low-cost dual frequency receivers that offer full GPS L2 support., unlike the SwiftNav receiver I evaluated in my previous posts which is GPS L2C only.  I have described the Tersus BX306 before in a previous post but last time I was not able to evaluate it with a local base since I did not have a second dual frequency receiver that supported L2.  Tersus has also just recently released their new V1_19 firmware so I included that in this evaluation.   As usual I’ve also included  a pair of u-blox M8T receivers to use as a baseline.

Here’s a photo that shows the three receivers each with their associated serial port and power cabling.  The u-blox M8T is on the left, Tersus BX306 in the center, and ComNav K708 on the right.  The ComNav receiver is actually only the smaller daughter board in the center of the larger board, everything else is part of the very sturdy but rather clunky dev kit.

rcvrs3

The Tersus BX306 is priced at $1699 but lower priced versions are available. For example, the BX305 supports GPS L1/L2 but Glonass G1 only, and the BX316R is GPS L1/L2 and Glonass G1/G2 but provides only raw observations for post-processing.  Both of these options are priced at $999.

The ComNav K708 is similar to the better known K501G but newer and more capable.  ComNav doesn’t list their prices on their website but they have told me that both the K501G and the K708 configured to be equivalent to the K501G (GPS L1/L2 and GLO G1/G2) are available for less than $1000.

Both the Tersus and the ComNav receivers come with GUI console apps which are good for initially getting familiar with the receivers.  However each had their unique quirks and I found myself fairly quickly abandoning them for the more familiar quirks of the RTKLIB apps.  Managing three simultaneous real-time solutions involving five separate receivers while also logging raw observations for all five was actually quite challenging and I made a couple of unsuccessful runs before I got everything working at the same time.

I found that the key to turning this into a manageable and automated process was replacing each of the different manufacturer’s GUIs with an RTKLIB stream server (STRSVR) and a plotter (RTKPLOT) each with it’s own dedicated .ini file.  Eliminating the GUIs also gave me a better understanding of exactly what the receivers were doing and what the GUIs were doing.

STRSVR provides a standardized, always visible red/yellow/green indicator for each stream along with a continuously updated bps number that indicates not only that the connection is alive, but that data is flowing.  This allowed me to tell at a glance that all streams were flowing and that all the log files were being updated.  Using the “-t” option in the command line to specify a title for each window also helped keep things straight.

Both receivers are configured by sending Novatel-like ASCII commands over the serial port and these can be added to the STRSVR Serial “Cmd” window and saved to a “.cmd” file, similar to configuring the u-blox receiver.  Notice in this example, I also sent a reset to the receiver every three minutes which was a convenient way to automate the testing of acquisition times.

strsvr1

I connected both dual frequency rover receivers to my laptop, using two COM ports for each one and using a USB hub to get enough ports.  I set up both receivers to output NMEA solution messages and raw RTCM observation messages on COM1 at 5 Hz and accept RTCM base station data on COM2.  Both receivers have decent reference manuals to describe their command set but I also found this Hackers Guide to the K501G from Deep South Robotics quite useful for getting started.

For reference, here are the commands I used to configure the Tersus rover:

fix none
unlogall
log com1 gpgga ontime 1 nohold
rtkcommand reset
log com1 gpgga ontime 0.2

log com1 rtcm1004 ontime 0.2
log com1 rtcm1012 ontime 0.2
log com1 rtcm1019 ontime 1
log com1 rtcm1020 ontime 1
interfacemode com2 auto auto on

saveconfig

and here are the commands I used for the ComNav rover:

interfacemode compass compass on
unlogall com1
fix none
refautosetup off
set cpufreq 624
rtkobsmode 0
rtkquality normal
set pvtfreq 5
set rtkfreq 5
log com1 gpgga ontime 0.2 0 nohold
log com1 gprmc ontime 2 0 nohold
log com1 rtcm1005b ontime 10
log com1 rtcm1004b ontime 0.2
log com1 rtcm1012b ontime 0.2
log com1 rtcm1019b ontime 2
log com1 rtcm1020b ontime 2
interfacemode com2 auto auto on

saveconfig

My intent was to setup the receivers in default RTK mode with a 5 Hz output for NMEA solution messages and RTCM raw observation and navigation messages.  The one exception to default was that I found the “rtkquality” setting on the ComNav receiver defaulted to “quick” which was giving me false fixes, so I changed this to “normal” and that seemed to fix the problem.

By setting things up this way, I only need to click on the correct combination of icons (each tied to it’s own .ini file) from my RTKLIB menu to bring up the correct windows and a few more clicks to start the streams in a simple and repeatable way.

dualFreq3

I’m jumping ahead a little bit, but here is a screen capture of the rover-connected laptop streaming two NTRIP sets of base station data to the rovers while simultaneously logging and plotting the computed solutions for all three rovers along with raw observations for all five receivers,  and also computing an RTK solution for the M8T receivers with RTKNAVI.

Capture3

I should mention that there was one very annoying bug that was introduced to STRSVR in one of the recent RTKLIB releases that gives an error if a data file already exists instead of an overwrite dialog but I did fix this and add it to a new demo5 b29b code release available at the download page on rtkexplorer.com.  The new release also includes a fix for another bug that prevented the “-i” command line option to specify a config file for RTKPLOT from working properly.

I then setup the second ComNav receiver as a base station for both dual frequency rovers and used a single COM port to stream RTCM messages from the receiver to a PC.  I used an STRSVR window on the PC to stream the messages to a NTRIP caster using the free RTK2GO NTRIP caster service as I have previously described.  I used ComNav AT330 antennas for both the base and rovers with the rover antenna shared by all three rover receivers.   I did not have enough connector hardware to share the base antenna so used a separate u-blox antenna for the M8T base receiver.

The next step was to collect some data.  I started with a relatively simple challenge, a static rover with a reasonably open sky view and a short baseline.  The ComNav and Tersus solutions both assume the rover may be moving so I set up the M8T solution as kinematic as well.

Let’s first look first at the ComNav solution compared to the M8T solution.  Both solutions were computed real-time.  RTKPLOT will plot NMEA data but it did not seem to like the mix of NMEA and RTCM data in the same file.  To deal with this, I wrote a simple matlab script to strip the NMEA messages from the log file and put them in a separate file.  Below I have plotted only the Up/Down axis for both receivers just to avoid too much data,  the M8T is on top, and the ComNav below.  Each of the larger breaks in the fix was caused by me disconnecting then reconnecting the antenna to force a re-acquire.

comnav1

The M8T configuration was identical in the left and right plots, but the ComNav “rtkquality” parameter was set to “quick” in the left plot, and “normal” in the right plot.  It’s not as obvious here as it is in the other axes but the third ComNav fix in the left plot is a false fix and had over 0.2 meters of error in the N/S axis.  Changing the “rtkquality” parameter to “normal” seemed to help and I did not notice any more false fixes after making that change.

The ComNav receiver typically achieved a fix very quickly regardless of the “rtkquality” setting, usually in less than 30 sec although in one case it took a minute and a half.  This was noticeably faster than the M8T receiver, which took from 1 to 3 minutes each time in this example to achieve a first fix.

The scales are the same in the two sets of plots, so as you can see, the ComNav fixes are a fair bit noisier than the M8T fixes.  I don’t know why this is but it is something that I hope to investigate more.

Unfortunately I got a mix of good and not so good results from the Tersus receiver.   I did not see this behavior in my previous evaluation so I’m fairly certain this is not a problem with the hardware.  I suspect it has something to do either with my setup or with the new firmware.  I am going to hold off on sharing any of the Tersus data until I understand better what is going on.

Next, for a more challenging test, I moved the rover antenna to a spot with fairly poor sky views located between several large trees.  The sky view directly above the antenna was clear but a large percent of the overall view was blocked.   Again, I just plotted the Up/Down axis with the M8T position solution on the top and the ComNav solution on the bottom.

comnav2

I disconnected and reconnected the antenna three times in this experiment.  The M8T did not get a fix in the first try before I gave up after 12 minutes, but it did after 13 and 11 minutes in the second two tries after briefly getting a false fix in the second try.  Definitely marginal conditions for the M8T.  The ComNav receiver did significantly better with two fixes in less than 3 minutes and one in 9 minutes.  The errors were relatively large in the first fix but based on the other two axes it was not a false fix.  You can also see that the ComNav third fix was noticeably noisier than any of the other fixes on either receiver, again for unknown reasons.

For the third part of the experiment I moved the receivers into my car and attached the antenna to the roof and collected data for three spins around the neighborhood.  The results are plotted below.  In each case the M8T real-time solution is on the left, and the ComNav is on the right.  In the data in the first row, I shared a single antenna for all three receivers.  For the data in the second and third row I used separate antennas.  I did not change any of the config settings for any of the receivers between these runs and the above runs except that the rtkquality setting was still set to “quick” for the ComNav receiver for the second and third rows.

 

 

 

comnav5

 

comnav6

comnav7

I have not had a chance to look at this data closely but at first glance, from a fix percentage perspective only, I don’t see significant differences between either of the receivers.  The obvious advantages the ComNav receiver demonstrated in faster fixes in the static tests did not seem to carry over to the moving rover case.  I do plan to look at the raw data more carefully to see if I can understand better why this is.  For whatever reason, the Tersus receiver seemed to perform better with a moving rover than it did with a static rover, and was very similar in fix percentage to the other two receivers in this part of the experiment.

Next I planned to post-process the raw data through RTKLIB to better understand what is going on but as usual, nothing is as simple as you hope for, and I ran into another issue.

Both the Tersus and the ComNav receiver report a mix of 2W and 2X  measurements for the raw GPS L2 measurements.  If the satellite supports the newer L2C code it locks to that and reports a 2X code, if not, it locks to the older L2  and reports a 2W code.   You can see this in this example observation epoch from the Rinex conversion of the ComNav receiver RTCM output.  The left three columns are the L1 measurements, the middle three columns are the L2 (2W) measurements and the right three columns are the L2C (2X) measurements.  You can see that all the GLONASS satellites report L2 measurements only but that the GPS satellites are a mix of L2 and L2C measurements.

comnav4

This is new for the Tersus receiver, it did not do this when I evaluated it with the older firmware.  For the ComNav receiver, this is the default behavior but it is possible to change this through a command to specify L2 only, no L2C.  As far as I can tell, the Tersus only supports the mixed L2/L2C mode.  All the data I collected for this experiment was in the mixed L2/L2C mode.

Unfortunately RTKLIB does not like this format and throws away all of the L2C measurements.  It is possible to fool RTKLIB into using all the measurements by changing the 2X’s in the “Obs Types” list in the file header to 2W’s but I haven’t looked yet at to what extent mixing the code types affects the solution or how to avoid throwing away the L2C data without editing the header.

I will leave a more detailed analysis of the data to a future post.  My initial impression from these results though, is that although there are some obvious advantages with the ComNav receivers, replacing a pair of low cost single frequency receivers with a pair of low cost dual frequency receivers does not magically make the challenges of precision GNSS go away and that it will still require close attention to the details and recognition of their limits to get good results with either set of receivers.

 

 

PPK vs RTK: A look at RTKLIB for post-processing solutions

The “RTK” in RTKLIB is an abbreviation for “Real-time Kinematics”, but RTKLIB is probably used at least as often for “PPK” or “Post-Processed Kinematics” as it is for real-time work.  In applications like precision agriculture, where the solution is part of a real-time feedback loop, RTK is obviously a requirement, but in many other applications there is no need for a real-time solution.  For example, drones are often used for collecting photographic or other sensor data but only need precision positions after the fact to process the data.  PPK is simpler than RTK because there is no need for a real-time data link between GPS receivers and so is often preferable if there is a choice.  The downside of course is that if there is something wrong with the collected data, you may not find out until it’s too late.

For the most part, RTKLIB solutions are identical regardless if they are run on real-time data (RTK) or run on previously collected data (PPK).  The most significant exception to this rule is what RTKLIB calls the “Filter Type”.  This is selected in the configuration and can be set to forward, backward, or combined.  Forward is the default and this is the only mode that can be used in real-time solutions.  In forward mode, the observation data is processed through the kalman filter in the forward direction, starting with the beginning of the data and continuing through to the end.  Backward mode is the opposite,  data is run through the filter starting with the end of the data and continuing to the beginning.  In Combined mode, the filter is run both ways and the two results are combined into a single solution.   This mode is set using the “Filter Type” box in the Options menu if using one of the GUI apps, or with the “pos1-solytpe” input parameter in the configuration file if using a CUI app.

There are two advantages to a combined solution over a forward solution.  First of all, it gives two chances to find a fix for each data point.  Let’s say there is an anomaly in the middle of the data set that causes the solution to switch from fix to float and not come back to fix for some period of time.   It may cause both the forward and backward solutions to lose fix but they will lose fix on opposite sides of the anomaly.  By combining the two solutions we are likely to get a fix for everywhere except right at the anomaly.  Another case where it often helps is in recovering the beginning of a data set.  Let’s say the first fix didn’t occur until five minutes into the data set.  With a forward solution, you would need to guarantee that nothing important happened during that five minutes, but with a combined solution, the backward pass will normally provide a fix all the way to the very beginning of the data set so there is no lost data.

The second advantage of the combined solution is that it provides an extra level of validation of the results.  To understand how this happens, it’s important to understand how RTKLIB combines the forward and reverse solutions.  For each solution position point there are three possibilities; both passes are float, one is float and one is fix, or both are fixed.  If both passes generate a float position, then the combined result will be a float with a value equal to the average of the two positions.  If one is float, and the other is fix, the float is thrown away and the fix is used.  In the case where both are fixed, then RTKLIB will attempt to validate the result by comparing the two values.  If they differ by less than four sigma, then the result will be a fix, otherwise it will be downgraded to a float.  Either way, the value will be the average of the two positions.  This degrading the solution type when the answers from opposite directions differ provides an increased confidence in the solution, at least for points for which we got two fixed values.

I will show a couple examples of the differences between forward and combined modes.  The first example is a more typical case and demonstrates how combined mode will normally give you a higher fix percentage while at the same time increasing confidence in the solution.

The plots below were taken from an M8N receiver on a sailboat using a nearby CORS station as base.  With ambiguity resolution mode set to fix-and-hold, I was able to get a solution with nearly 100% fix except for the initial convergence, but I would prefer to use continuous ambiguity resolution because of the higher confidence of the solution.  In the position plots below, the top was run in forward mode, the middle in backwards mode, and the bottom in combined mode, all in continuous ambiguity resolution mode.

combined1

As you can see the forwards and backwards mode solutions are not bad but both have gaps of float in the middle as well as floats during the initial acquisition.  The combined solution though has almost 100% fix rate and in addition includes the additional confidence knowing that every point found the same solution when running the data in opposite directions.

This second example comes from a data set posted on the Emlid Reach forum with a question on why the combined solution was worse than the forward solution.  In the plots below, the top solution is forward, the middle is backward, and the bottom is combined.

combined2

This data was GPS and SBAS only, so had a fairly low number of satellites, also included a mix of poor observations and the solution was run with full tracking gain (i.e fix-and-hold with the default gain).  Both forward and backward runs found fixed (green) solutions and tracked them all the way through the data set.  However, at least one of them was most likely a false fix, causing the fix to be downgraded to float (yellow) for most of the combined solution as can be seen be seen in the bottom plot.

To confirm this, the plot below shows the difference between the forward and backward solutions.  As you can see, the two differ by a fairly substantial amount and it is not possible from this data to know which one is correct.

combined3

In this case, turning off fix-and-hold and running ambiguity resolution in continuous mode sheds some light on what may be going on.  The plots below are again forward, backward, and combined.  This time the forward solution loses fix early on and never recovers it, whereas the backwards solution maintains a fix through the whole data set and is probably correct since without fix-and-hold enabled, it is very unlikely to stay locked that long to an incorrect solution.  The backward solution is also consistent with the beginning of the forward solution, since the combined solution remains fixed in the early part of the data set where both forward and backward solutions are fixed.

combined4

Again, this can be confirmed by looking at the difference between the forward and backward solutions.  In this case they agree everywhere that both are fixed.

combined5

As this example demonstrates, if post-processing is an option, it often makes sense to run in combined mode with continuous ambiguity resolution instead of forward mode with fix-and-hold enabled.  The additional pass will increase the chances of getting a fixed solution without the risk of locking onto a false fix that fix-and-hold can cause.  Even if you find you can not disable fix-and-hold completely, it may allow you to reduce the tracking gain (pos2-varholdamb)

So one last question is why are there still some float values in the middle of the combined solution? We would expect that since the backwards solution is fixed and the forward solution is float, that the combined solution should just become the backwards solution and all but the very end should be fixed.

The answer to this question turns out to be the way the reverse pass of the kalman filter is initialized.  I have chosen in the demo5 code to not reset the filter between forward and reverse passes if continuous ambiguity resolution is selected.  If fix-and-hold is selected then the demo5 code does re-initialize the kalman filter between passes.  This is different from the release code which always resets the filter between passes.

In this case, the results would have been slightly better if the filter were re-initialized but most of the time I find that allowing the filter to stay converged avoids a large gap in the backwards solution during the active part of the data set where the filter is reconverging. With fix-and-hold enabled I have found the chance of staying locked to an incorrect fix is too high and so it is better to reset the filter.  This is a recent change and hasn’t yet made it into the released version of demo5 but I should get it out soon.  The current version of the demo5 code (b28a) does not reset the filter for either case.

Modifying the if statement in the existing code in postpos.c to match the line below will give you the newest behavior.  Removing the if statement altogether will cause the filter to always be reset and will match the release code.

combined6

The other factor to consider when deciding whether to run the filter type in forward or combined mode is that combined mode will take nearly twice as long to run since it is processing each data point twice.  Most of the time this shouldn’t be an issue since it is not being run in real-time.

So to summarize, my recommendation would be to use combined mode if you do not need a real-time solution as the only real cost is a small amount of additional computation time and it will give you both higher fix percentages and more confidence in those fixes.

Real-time solutions with RTKLIB and NTRIP using a cell phone as data link

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve recently acquired access to some low cost dual frequency receivers, specifically a Tersus Precis BX306 and a pair of Swift Piksi Multis.  I have been playing with them over the past few weeks and plan to share my experiences with them over a series of posts.

Both receivers provide internal RTK solutions as well as raw measurements that can be processed with RTKLIB.  I’m interested in how the RTKLIB solutions compare to the internal solutions as well as how both of these compare to solutions derived from single frequency data collected simultaneously with the dual frequency data.

The first issue I ran into with this experiment, however, is that both receivers will only provide an RTK solution for real-time data, neither have the capability to post-process previously collected data.  This meant that I needed a way to provide a real-time stream of dual frequency base station data to the receivers.  I wanted to be able to  do this while driving a car around the local area so I needed more range than a low cost set of radios would give.

Fortunately, I have fairly good cell phone coverage in this area so I was able to rely on my cell phone for the data link.  In this post I will explain how I did that, both for an external CORS reference station and for my own base station.  In both cases I used  NTRIP server/caster/clients to do this.  NTRIP is a protocol for streaming of DGPS or RTK correction data via the internet using TCP/IP.  The NTRIP server sends out the data to an NTRIP caster and the NTRIP client receives it. For more details, there is a good description here.

Using this setup I was able to run real-time solutions with RTKLIB as well as with the intenal RTK engines in the Swift and Tersus receivers.  Here’s a diagram from the RTKLIB manual showing the setup I used for running a real-time RTKLIB solution using RTKNAVI.  When I ran a Swift or Tersus solution, the configuration was similar, but the NTRIP caster streamed the base station data to STRSVR instead of RTKNAVI, and STRSVR then streamed it to the receiver where it was combined with the raw receiver observations to create an internal RTK solution.  Also missing in this diagram is the cell phone which should be in between the internet and the rover PC.

ntrip.rtklib

The amount of free base station reference data that is available online on a real-time basis is a fair bit more limited that what is available after the fact for post-processing.  Fortunately I was able to find a CORS reference station about 17 km away that is available real-time through the UNAVCO NTRIP caster.  The service is free if the data is used for educational purposes and appropriately attributed.   Most of their stations are on the west coast of the U.S. but they do have some scattered across the rest of the country as you can see in this map from their site.  There are other networks available in other parts of the world that can be found by searching online.

unavco_map

To access the UNAVCO data I had to request access through email but the process was very simple and within a couple hours of my request I was all setup with an account and password.

Once I had my account set up, I used RTKLIB on my laptop computer to collect the data from the internet and stream it to the rover receiver over a serial port.  If I were doing this experiment within range of a wireless router then I could leave the computer connected to the wireless.  In this case though, I wanted to roam outside the range of my home wireless.  To do this, I enabled a hot spot on my cell phone and logged into that with my computer.

I was able to access the raw observation data stream from the UNAVCO NTRIP caster directly using the NTRIP client option in RTKLIB.  If I had wanted to generate a real-time RTKLIB solution, I would have configured the input streams of RTKNAVI but in this case I want to stream the raw data directly to the receiver so it can use the observation data for it’s internal solution.  I did this using the STRSVR app in RTKLIB.  I specifed the “NTRIP Client” option as input type and then entered the information from my UNAVCO account into the “Ntrip Client Options” as shown below.

ntrip_client

In this case I wanted the data from station P041 in RTCM3 format so I had to specify the Mountpoint as “P041_RTCM3”.  For other networks, the mountpoint details may be a little different.  Most NTRIP casters use Port 2101, and that was the case for this one.  For the STRSVR output type, I specified “Serial” and then configured the serial port options for whichever rover receiver I was using.  Before doing the configuration, I had connected the receiver to the laptop using a USB cable.

I then had to configure the receiver to tell it to get its base station data from the COM port and specify that it is in RTCM3 format.  The details for doing this on the two receivers are a little different but fairly straightforward in both cases.  You may also need to specify the exact base station location manually or the receiver may be able to get it from the data stream depending on the receiver and NTRIP stream details.

And that’s it.  With this configuration, either receiver was able to fairly quickly lock to a fixed RTK solution and continue to receive base data as long as I stayed in range of cell reception.  Any lag in the base station observations appeared to be less than a second.

That worked great for using an existing external reference as base station.  However, I also wanted to run another real-time experiment where I used one Swift receiver as base and the other as rover.   To do this, I needed to set up an NTRIP server to stream the data to  a caster on the internet as well as an NTRIP client to receive it.

I started by connecting the second Swift receiver to an old laptop with a USB cable and then downloading RTKLIB, the Swift console app,  and the right USB drivers.  The base station antenna is on top of my roof and the laptop is in the house so I was able to connect the laptop to the internet using my home wireless.

For the NTRIP caster, I found it convenient to use RTK2GO which is a community caster available for anyone to use at no cost.  To send the data to the caster, I used the “NTRIP Server” as the STRSVR output type and configured it as shown below.

strsvr_server

Again, the port is 2101.  You can choose any name for the mountpoint.  If that name is already in use, then rtk2go will assign a suffix to it, so it is best to choose a name that is unlikely to already be in use.  The password at the current time is BETATEST but that may change from time to time so it’s worth verifying it is still correct.

For the STRSVR input, I selected “Serial” and specified the correct COM port for the base station receiver.  In this case the raw observations are in Swift binary format which RTKLIB does not support so it sends them unaltered.  If they were in a format that RTKLIB did support, then they could be converted to RTCM3 to reduce bandwidth and make them more easily usable by someone else not using a Swift receiver as rover.  You can specify the conversion to RTCM3 using the “Conv” menu on the STRSVR output.

Start STRSVR and your base station observations are now accessible to anyone in the world through RTK2GO.com!

On the rover side, the NTRIP client is set up as I previously described using STRSVR except you want to use the same caster/mountpint/password as you just did on the base station.  In this case the user-id is left blank.  Again, set the STRSVR output to “Serial” to send it to the receiver.   Then set up the receiver to get it’s base station data from the serial port and, in this case, specify that it is in the Swift Binary Protocol (sbp).  Start the receiver and it should fairly quickly get a fix.  If you are seeing baseline data but not a solution, then most likely you have not specified the base station location to the rover.

I was now able to drive around almost anywhere and get continuous real-time RTK solutions using either my own base station or the CORS reference station as base.  In the next post I will discuss some of the data I collected and analyzed.