Tablet Geologizing

While old school mineral explorationists still swear by the reliable map clipboard and field notebook, the popularity of mobile geographic information system (GIS) apps is undoubtedly on the rise. The power to reference and collect geospatial data in the field increases efficiency and facilitates smarter exploration. Best of all, it removes the tedium of manual data entry from notebooks at the end of a long field day and frees up geoscientists to analyze and interpret results.

Mobile geospatial applications can be run on GPS-enabled tablets with full Windows operating systems or Android/iOS systems. Generally, commercial tablet mapping apps (e.g. FieldMove) lack versatility and customization. GIS tablet apps for ArcGIS (Collector) and MapInfo (Datamine Discover) are commonly used in mineral exploration, but both require expensive desktop licenses to use.

QField is an Android app based on QGIS - both app and desktop GIS are free and open source (see recent QGIS review here). QField is flexible and configurable – users collect the data they want in the format they want – but it does take a bit of work to set up.

QField use

QField uses custom projects with geopackage files set up and managed through QGIS with the QField Sync plugin. Customizing field data entry can be a lengthy process of building tables and setting attributes forms in QGIS; these options allow users to customize drop-down lists, set conditions on fields, and enter default values or expressions (e.g. create project-specific drop-down lists; x/y coordinates that auto-populate from GPS coordinates). Point, line, and polygon data can be collected in the field and attributed with these customized attribute options.

In addition to field data, vector and raster data like geophysics and historic geochemistry included in QField projects allows in-field spatial comparison of datasets with current field data. Want to know where you are relative to that mag anomaly or what that historic sample ran? This is easy to display on QField, along with your current GPS location.

Advantages and disadvantages

One advantage of QField is its remarkable $0 price tag, but the app also works smoothly with a good user interface and is configurable. I have heard of some instability issues, which will hopefully be improved over time. Supplementary data collection widgets (e.g. external data collectors that incorporate results as QField table attributes; geologic compass like FieldMove Clino) are on the radar for developers and would greatly increase QField’s functionality for mineral exploration. QField users are encouraged to support continued development through crowdfunding campaigns and sponsorship of feature development. 

The main disadvantage, particularly for users accustomed to well-established software, is the lack of immediate tech support. Unlike an Arc platform, there isn’t a 1-800 number you can dial when things don’t quite work. Technical issues may take hours of research on StackExchange and trial/error to resolve.

Final words

QField is a customizable geospatial Android app that is useful for mineral exploration applications, but…the learning curve is somewhat steep and help resources aren’t up to the level of commercial GIS apps. The free, open source QField app and its sister desktop QGIS are a boon to mineral exploration and mining, particularly to budget-conscious junior companies and students keen to learn on the cheap.