University of California, Riverside

UCR GeoPad Digital Field Mapping System

UCR GeoPad Digital Field Mapping System



Trials & Tribulations

Tipping the Scales

UCR GeoPad System Components

Full Software List



We adapt the term "GeoPad" used by Science Education Research Center (SERC) to describe our iPad tablet-based field mapping system capable of integrated GPS/GIS/measurement/photo/data collection in a rugged field-ready format that can be held in one hand. This system is appropriate for field geology applications across teaching, research, and industry. Much of the technology and methods are also appropriate for other field-based disciplines such as environmental sciences and archaeology.

Trials & Tribulations

About a dozen tablet devices and several software suites were trialed (listed below) before we invested in a full class set of twenty tablets for student use. The trial process consisted of (1) self-trialing several different systems in the course of research fieldwork, and (2) selecting three undergraduates to trial the two most promising systems (iPad Mini 2, Microsoft Surface Pro 4) in the course of senior thesis projects.

Usability, functionality, robustness, and price were all key considerations. Each device and software combination has advantages and disadvantages that are beyond the scope of discussion here. Going into the project it was my hope was that a Windows-based product would give the greatest flexibility in and out of the field, but no such device currently exists that has reliable internal sensors capable of accurate structural measurements. In the Resources section you will find references to several software suites (both homegrown and third party) being utilized in field studies. If field collection of point-centric metadata is your primary concern, one of these other software suites may be better suited. For importing basemaps, point/line/polygon mapping of geologic features, measurements, annotated photos, and in-field stereonet visualization, I have found FieldMove to be the most powerful and intuitive software available. In the course of testing, an iPad Mini 2 in a ruggedized Lifeproof case running FieldMove emerged as the best compromise of available technology.

List of Devices Trialed


Getac Z710 (Android)

Samsung Galaxy Tab Active (Android)

Soten Technology T70 (Android)

Soten Technology T80 (Android)

Dell Venue 11 Pro (Windows)

Hewlett-Packard Stream 7 (Windows)

Panasonic Toughpad FZ-M1

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 (Windows)

iPad Air 2 (iOS)

iPad Pro (iOS)

iPad Mini 4 (iOS)

iPad Mini 2 (iOS)

(Partial) List of Software Trialed


ArcGIS 10 (Windows)

ArcPad (Windows)

iGIS (iOS)

Collector for ArcGIS (iOS / Windows / Android)

FieldMove Clino (iOS / Windows / Android)

FieldMove (iOS / Windows / Android)

Tipping the Scales


I will generalize that for the last 10+ years digital geologic field mapping has largely been treated as an expensive novelty with considerable promise that had difficulty delivering. With fast-moving technologies (tablets, GPS, UAVs, etc.) and the advent of new softwares, the last couple years have seen a dramatic shift that I'd argue have tipped the scales towards a digital field workflow.


Some of the key advantages and disadvantages of our GeoPad system are highlighted below. These can also be generalized as the current advantages and disadvantages of digital field mapping. I emphasize that both students and I agree that the advantages to this system outweigh the advantages of traditional paper-based mapping in most circumstances, both in research and teaching applications.

Key Advantages of the UCR GeoPad System


+ Shallow learning curve. Intuitive and user-friendly hardware and software.

+ Cost effective. Starting at $350 per unit ($1100 each if greater memory, more apps, and high precision GPS are desired).

+ All-in-one design. One handheld device is capable of instant geolocation, mapping, measurements, notes, photos, annotations, stereonets, etc. One software program (FieldMove) is capable of all essential functions. All data and linework is easily editable and exportable.

+ Efficient. Place a georeferenced measurement or photo on the map in less than five seconds. Allows for greater data collection over traditional means. More ground can be covered more thoroughly in less time.

+ Better geological understanding. The ability to instantly switch between multiple basemap layers, adjust scale, or view structural data on a stereonet encourages better visualization of geological data in the field.

+ Accurate. Better than 10 m positional accuracy is readily obtainable with the iPad's built-in GPS (appropriate for many teaching and research-based applications). With an external Bluetooth-enabled GPS, positional accuracies of 1 m, or even 10 cm, are obtainable. This technology is improving rapidly and becoming more cost-effective. The high resolution and high sensitivity capacitive screen allows for accurate linework.

+ Field ready. Low profile design, lightweight, waterproof, dirtproof, dropproof, mostly student-proof...

+ All-day battery life. Apple claims the iPad Mini 2's 6471 mAh battery yields a 10 hour battery life but this of course depends on how you use it (and the operating temperature). In Airplane Mode with programs and GPS running in the background I have observed remarkably little battery drain. Essentially the battery goes to power the bright 7.9 inch display so your battery performance will depend on how long you are actively mapping or viewing compared to walking or driving between field sites. With intensive use I (and many students) have not managed to run a battery empty in a long day of fieldwork. In two years of frequent use of the same iPad I have not noticed any significant degradation of battery performance.

+ Easy export. Field data readily exportable to CSV / Move / GIS / Google Earth formats. Exported data can quickly be viewed, manipulated and compiled in desktop GIS programs. This increases the ability to rapidly map adjoining tiles and crowdsource data into a single database.

+ Teaching ready. Students enjoy using the intuitive software. Greater efficiency means better use of precious field time. "Live" measurement and stereonet functions help students understand these spatial concepts. Ability to annotate photos helps highlight how to make effective field sketches. The many compatible apps provide both a tool kit (scanner, photo library, word processor, reference, etc.) and field library (add PDFs of relevant textbooks, journal articles, and maps). Exported projects are easier to rank and grade than paper-based maps.

Key Disadvantages


- Screen glare. This remains a key hindrance. Hide the screen in your shadow or use a jacket as a sunshade when in bright sun.

- Overheating. Continuous use in >90 F temperatures (or leaving out in the sun on hot rocks) causes iPad to overheat, rendering it useless until it cools to operating temperatures. Good practices (keeping the iPad in its case when not in use) allow problem-free use in >100 F temperatures. Student learned to avoid this problem altogether with time...

- Software glitches. FieldMove is not immune to program glitches. Sometimes the GPS turns itself off. Sometimes created units are not selectable. Both students and I have encountered several instances of the program crashing (automatically closing to return you to the iPad home screen) when editing map features or navigating. This seems particularly common for projects with a lot of data or layer files. While annoying, the upshot is I have yet to see or hear of an instance where one of these crashes has lost data. You simply re-launch FieldMove and start where you left off.

- Software limitations. The structure of iOS greatly inhibits the ability to share data between programs, which limits functionality. Apple's software policy does not support retroactive updates. Essentially once you update iOS you are committed to that software version or a newer one. Every iOS update can create glitches or total loss of functionality in apps, including BadElf and FieldMove. For these reasons any update to FieldMove or Apple iOS software must be treated with caution (trial a new version at length on one device before committing to updating the rest). Will FieldMove continue to be updated to maintain compatibility with iOS versions?

- Hardware limitations. The move away from technology allowing user-upgradable components and towards sealed devices purposely replaced by newer offerings every 1-2 years makes the hope of a 10 year investment a lot less secure. If the battery dies or the screen loses sensitivity it is unlikely either can readily be replaced five years from now. Are you hosed once the form-fitting waterproof cases are no longer manufactured and you run out of your stock of backups? A USB drive on an iPad would have been handy too. On the plus side Bluetooth and WIFI technology seem like they will change little and will continue to be supported.

- Importing. To make the best use of valuable field time you will have to invest some time in preparing all map layers that will be used to aid mapping (aerial photos, contours, hillshades, existing geologic maps, etc.) and importing them to the device. This may include selecting the correct area to export/import, converting between file formats, and manually georeferencing a older maps. Carrying this out admittedly can require more preparation time than just printing off a bunch of maps (but I would argue is time well spent if it leads to greater efficiency and understanding in the field.

- Exporting. To get full use out of the field data collected on a GeoPad it is necessary to "push" the data to a more fully featured laptop or desktop computer (e.g. Mac, PC) capable of running more intensive programs such as ArcGIS, Move, Illustrator, etc. As new device offerings continue to gain power and portability, it is conceivable that a single device could emerge capable of functioning as both the field and office device. The Microsoft Surface Pro 4 tablet/laptop hybrid (Intel i7 processor, 16GB memory, 1TB storage) is perhaps the best current effort towards this goal.

UCR GeoPad System Components


Click the arrows to expand the component's description. We issue one kit per student. Cost per kit starts at $350 each.



Kit starts at $350; $1100 with GNSS GPS and max iPad memory                  The GeoPad kit unboxed

The Kit


iPad Mini 2 Cellular 16-64GB  $250-450

  • We chose the iPad Mini platform (over generally more versatile Windows and Android based systems, including field-ready rugged tablets) because no other device tested had as reliable internal sensors (GPS, clinometer, compass, camera). Screen quality (sensitivity/brightness/resolution), size, battery life, ability to be ruggedized, and cost were also critical considerations that generally ruled in the iPad Mini's favor.

  • Avoid the iPad Mini 4 for the moment! We use the iPad Mini 2 which is still sold by Apple and is also available via online retailers. The iPad Mini 4 (newest version) has several technical improvements over the Mini 2 (8 vs. 5 MP camera, fingerprint sensor, anti-reflective screen, 1.3x faster CPU, 1.6x faster graphics) but a fatal flaw in that Apple designed the Mini 4 to be 3mm longer, which makes it incompatible with all completely enclosed cases on the market. I have not found a marked speed or stability advantage of the Mini 4 over the Mini 2. The Mini 2 starts at $150 cheaper and accessories are available online at closeout prices. A further caution that the screenless Lifeproof NUUD iPad Mini 4 case has frivolous metal components that deflect the internal compass up to 40 degrees and render internal measurements unusable!

  • I strongly recommend the "Cellular" version (specific carrier does not matter) as the "WIFI-only" versions do not have a GPS chip! The internal GPS on the cellular version can readily be used without phone contracts to obtain +/-10m positional accuracy. This is an A-GPS chip which relies partly on cell towers to locate you; in wooded or very remote areas it can take many minutes to get an initial satellite fix.

  • I suggest obtaining the largest internal memory possible (32GB for the iPad Mini 2) to allow plenty of large map layer files to be loaded and ensure room for apps and photos.


Lifeproof iPad Mini 2 Case  $30-60

  • These dustproof, waterproof, somewhat drop-proof cases allow full functionality of the touchscreen and all sensors. The all-plastic design ensures that the internal compass provides accurate measurements. The slim profile makes for easy handling. The iPad is charged via a flip port at the bottom. Once properly installed, there is no need to ever remove the case which keeps the iPad in pristine condition. If the case is dusty the easiest way to clean it is to run the whole case under a faucet. A neck strap (included) is a nice option many students preferred.

  • These cases (originally retailing at $100) can currently be found an excellent prices through online retailers. The cases built for iPad Mini 1 or Mini 2 are preferable as the iPad Mini 3 cases feature a weak spot over the home button to allow fingerprints to be scanned (I have already seen a screen shattered from rock chips hitting this improbable bull's eye). Buy extra if you can as they will likely become hard to find as Apple moves on to other products. They are "lifeproof" maybe, but not necessarily student-proof. The case's screen will become scratched but protect the tablet inside. Cases built for iPad Mini 4 are incompatible!


External Battery  $25

  • For the price an external battery pack is well worth the investment to be sure your tablet does not run out of battery at some critical moment while in the field. There are many robust and reliable options available on the market (we trialed several). Assuming you have access to electricity in the evenings, a good option is the RAVPower 13400mAh 3.5A portable charger bank ($25), which has a slim design and is capable of fully charging an iPad Mini once before needing to recharge.


Neoprene Case  $10

  • I tried about a half dozen exterior cases and found the "CaseLogic iPad mini 7" tablet" case to be the best. No sleeve-style case that I have found is designed to house an iPad Mini in a Lifeproof case (which adds thickness in all dimensions) but this neoprene case will stretch to barely allow it. The handy zippered front pocket is ideal for storing GPS, stylus and other key accessories. The size and texture makes it very convenient to hold in a hand while walking across the field area. This particular case has stood up well to field abuse.

  • This system actually has three layers of protection! The Lifeproof case (which should always be used), the neoprene case (which should always protect the iPad except when it is directly being used), and a large, sturdy plastic zip-lock bag (sized to contain the entire kit and protect from dust and rocks in backpacks).


Stylus  $15

  • Although a stubby finger works just fine for most applications, a stylus allows for near-pencil precision of linework and thus should be considered an important component of the kit. We like the Musemee Notier V2, which has a smart screw-on design that protects the delicate tip when not in use (and comes with a spare tip). The tip consists of a clear plastic conductive disc which precisely averages the screen's capacitive response to the pencil-thick center.

  • These tips do break from misuse and abuse so it is wise to emphasize proper use to students and purchase extra tips ahead of time.


Software  $30-80

  • FieldMove by Midland Valley ($30) is the critical "app" that makes the system work. A wide range of apps (both free and paid) are worth investing in to greatly expand the functionality of the GeoPads (word processing, pdf viewing, cloud sharing, wifi printing, geology reference, etc.).  A full list of suggested apps and their function is detailed in the software section.

  • Bonus! If all the iPad are linked to the same Apple account (detailed in the setup section), the software is a one-time expense (rather than per kit).


Bad Elf GPS  (optional)  $150-600

  • If you purchased the cellular iPad and 10m GPS positional accuracy is good enough (true of most undergraduate-level mapping projects as we found out), then you do not need to purchase this item. For greater accuracy Bad Elfs (elves?) are user-friendly stand-alone GPSs that can wirelessly connect to an iPad via bluetooth and override the iPad's internally derived location. Essentially this can enable an iPad to give positionally accurate locations down to 1m accuracy without compromising the integrity of the iPad case. The Bad Elf has all-day battery life with its rechargeable internal battery.

  • The Bad Elf Pro+ ($300 retail) is capable of 2.5m positional accuracy. The Bad Elf GNSS Surveyor ($600) is capable of out-of-the box 1.0m positional accuracy, and claims capability of 10-50cm accuracy with data post-processing ("coming soon" they say; watch out Trimble if they figure it out). For research-grade field mapping I have found the GNSS version to be a worthwhile investment.

  • Bonus! A single Bad Elf GPS can connect to five bluetooth devices at a time in an 30ft radius, meaning if you have students working in groups they may only need one device per group.


 $350-1100 per kit



A GeoPad kit. Everything is stored in a plastic bag. Field kit (at left) weigh 767g (1.7lbs) and can easily be held in one hand.

Group Gear


Power strips

  • Good quality power strips with surge protection capable of charging 6 outlet and 6 USB devices at the same time go for about $27. Buy as many as needed.


Storage container

  • I use Rubbermaid ActionPackers (rugged plastic bins) to store and transport the tablets. They can also be locked with luggage locks for peace of mind.


Laptop computer (optional)

  • While an instructor's laptop is perfectly suitable to interface with the GeoPads (setup/import/export), it may be preferable to have a dedicated laptop for this job. Anything with a USB port and Apple's iTUnes software will do. I use a Microsoft Surface laptop/tablet hybrid that also has ArcGIS loaded.


Solar generator system (optional)

  • If your field camp does not have electricity, a solar generator kit may be an option. The Goal Zero Yeti kit (~$2000) includes solar panels and generator and has energy storage for about 45 tablet charges. We have successfully charged over 15 tablets and UAV batteries overnight using only 20% of the Yeti's storage capacity.

generatorEvening field charging using a Goal Zero Yeti 1250 in our department trailer.

charge1charge2Two views of classroom charging. Organization and labeling is important!

Protecting Your Investment


I *hope* to get 10 years of life out of our digital mapping system. While the greatest unknowns are probably future Apple iOS updates, third-party software compatibilities and the longevity of the iPad Mini 2's internal components (e.g. battery, sensors), it pays to plan ahead by purchasing extra components that will be hard to find as the technology changes.


  • Spare stylus tips         (students will murder these if not properly instructed)
  • Spare Lifeproof cases     (a lot cheaper than iPads!, will be very hard to find once the technology has moved on)
  • Extra cables             (Apple charging cables, etc.)

goodokStudents demonstrating proper techniques for carrying GeoPads. Left: By hand in neoprene case (preferred; less GeoPad damage, less overheating). Right: Around neck using Lifeproof straps.

Looking Ahead


It's anyone's guess but here are some (wish-laden) anticipated improvements to this system that may be available soon if current trends continue.

  • FieldMove

    • less buggy as software continues to develop

    • better integration with other software

    • better exporting options

    • Bluetooth sharing between GeoPads in the field?

  • Bluetooth GPS

    • capable of 10 cm resolution

    • better integrated software

  • Wireless battery charging?

Full Software List


Software can be download through Apple's App Store using the instructor's GeoPad. See workflow section to set up software on multiple devices. Many but not all apps are available on Android systems. Email me if I'm not up with the latest and greatest app offerings.

Mouse over the app name for a brief description.
Software Company Price
 FieldMove Midland Valley $29.99
 Gaia GPS Gaia GPS $19.99
 Theodolite HD Hunter Research & Technology, LLC $5.99
  Bad Elf GPS  Bad Elf, LLC $0
  Tiny PDF  Appxy $0
  Tiny Scanner+  Appxy $4.99
  Avenza PDF Maps  Avenza PDF Maps $0
  ArcGIS  ESRI $0 
  Collector for ArcGIS  ESRI $0
  KMZ Loader  Casey Evanoff $0
  MBTiles GPS  Alan Pew $0
  iGIS  Geometry $0
  Drive  Google    $0
  Docs  Google $0
  Sheets  Google $0
  Slides  Google $0
  Google Maps  Google $0
  Google Earth  Google $0
  Snapseed  Google $0
  Ruler Free  Dmitriy Pushkarev $0
  VSCO  Visual Supply Company $0
  Oxford Dictionary of Geology and Earth Sciences  Mobile Systems $9.99
  Geotimescale Enhanced HD  Tasa Graphic Arts, Inc. $0.99
  Units Plus Converter  Alan Mrvica $0 
  First Aid  American Red Cross $0 
  Printer Pro  Readdle $6.99
  Mineral Database  Tasa Graphic Arts, Inc. $9.99
  FieldMove Clino  Midland Valley $4.99
  GeoID  Engineering Geology & GIS Lab $5.99
  Lambert  Peter Appel $2.99

More Information 

General Campus Information

University of California, Riverside
900 University Ave.
Riverside, CA 92521
Tel: (951) 827-1012

Contact Information

UCR GeoPad Digital Field Mapping System
Department of Earth Sciences

Tel: (951) 827-3183

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