Using the iPad for habitat mapping and ecological field surveys

This document was prepared by Wetland Surveys Ireland and Foss Environmental Consulting on use of the iPad for ecological surveying, highlighting the system we have develop and use on ecological surveys for the past 5 years. This material was presented at a CIEEM training day workshop presentation “Advances in technology and analysis in ecological assessment” in February 2016.

You can download PDF of document here.

The use of the Apple iPad and selected applications for field surveys, species and habitat mapping


by Peter J Foss & Patrick Crushell

Wetland Surveys Ireland & Foss Environmental Consulting 

CIEEM Conference Workshop 10 – 11 February 2016, Glen of the Downs, Wicklow  


1.        Introduction

2.        Advantages of using iPad/iPhone/Android for ecological field survey

3.        Limitations of using iPad/iPhone/Android for ecological field survey

4.        Hardware Requirements

5.        Useful Sample Software Applications

6.        Factors to Consider

7.        Field Survey Ecological Data Recording Software

8.        Field Survey Mapping Software

9.        Useful links

1.     Introduction

Since 2011 Dr. Peter Foss and Dr. Patrick Crushell have used a range of software packages designed to operate on the Apple iPad (or iPhone/Android) for ecological survey work on a wide range of projects. These have included county wetland and species surveys and habitat mapping projects, as well as general field surveys to inform EcIA. This workshop aims to; demonstrate the hardware and software applications used to undertake this ecological survey and mapping work, illustrate the advantages and limitations of the systems developed, highlight factors that need to be considered, and outline the hardware and software application requirements.

Our demonstration focuses on the use two different software applications running on the iPad:

  • FileMaker go: Used to record site and ecological data within a specially designed database.
  • iGIS: GIS software used to record spatial data during field survey.


We do not endorse the use of any of the specific products below but make recommendations based on our own experience of using them. There are many different products available that are likely to carry out the same functions and we recommend that you carry out your own research to determine the product that best suits your individual requirements.

2.     Advantages of using iPad/iPhone/Android for ecological field survey

  • Eliminates the requirement for paper based recording (except in the event of power failure);
  • Ability to run GIS applications in the field for orientation, navigation, and capturing field data;
  • Large colour screen size; large layouts; ease of data entry and typing; quick  transfer between different data recoding layouts;
  • Competitive price compared to specialist field survey equipment;
  • Large range of different applications available for iPad/iPhone/Android device;
  • Ability to standarise data recording amongst different surveyors;
  • No post survey data entry required (time saving / error reduction);
  • Data export directly to pre defined report layouts or excel files (time saving / data sharing / report preparation);
  • GPS tagging of survey photographs via apps (standard project requirement / time saving / automatic geotagging / error reduction);
  • Availability of iPad Camera with in-built geotagging for photo location and angle of view (less equipment to be carried / disadvantage is quality of image to date);
  • On-line options allow immediate back-up to cloud / email;
  • On-line facility provides an additional health and safety resource (communication / navigation);  and
  • Potential use of other iPad apps to assist with field surveys (i.e. NBDC/ Inland Fisheries species recording apps; Species identification / key apps; GPS recording apps; inter alia).

3.     Limitations of using iPad/iPhone/Android for ecological field survey

  • GPS accuracy – typically accurate to less than 5m - suitable for most ecological survey requirements but does not offer sub-metre accuracy (without additional hardware) that may be required for some work;
  • Glare and screen reflectance. Can be an issue during bright weather when viewing dark layouts. Stand with back to sun allowing shadow to cover screen. Can also be overcome by; working on white background, polaroid sunglasses and viewing in landscape;
  • Device not designed for use in field therefore necessary to ruggedise / weatherproof the device;
  • Risk (very low from our experience) of power failure means that paper back-up recording forms / maps are still required; and
  • Battery power lasts 1 day during intense use therefore nightly charging required.

4.     Hardware Requirements

  • Apple iPad (including Wi-Fi (standard) and Cellular function (optional)). NB: Only the sim version has GPS capability. Depending on the complexity of the data to be recorded, the applications listed below can also be run on iPhone or Android devices.
  • PC – desktop or laptop for initial database creation and subsequent data backup / data management on completion of days field survey work.
  • Weatherproofing and impact protection for iPad. Many different case options (cost; numerous options – Otterbox cover 90 Euro to ruggedise; carrying strap 40 Euro (strap very useful as carrying pack in 1 hand all day gets very tiring); Addition of Aquapaq gives 100% waterproof protection cost 60 Euro). See various links below for further information.

5.     Useful Sample Software Applications

  • FileMaker Go for iPad by FileMaker (free app), allows data entry to database during field surveys on iPad (but not database creation). Use of this application will be demonstrated use during workshop (see Section 6 below).
  • Requires FileMaker Pro – PC / desktop (required to setup initial database prior to upload to iPad; cost approx Euro 400 for a single license).
  • iGIS for iPad/iPhone by Geometry (free app, professional version €20), allows target notes and mapping work to be undertaken during field surveys on iPad. Use of this application will be demonstrated use during workshop (see Section 7 below).
  • For full capability requires desktop GIS software that recognises ESRI shapefiles (such as ArcGIS).
  • Geotag Photos Pro for iPad/iPhone/Android by TappyTaps SRO (cost Euro 3.99), allows geotagging of survey photographs taken on a traditional digital camera. Works on basis of iPad and camera having data and time synchronised.

6.     Factors to Consider

  • FileMaker Pro desktop application - training and familiarity with operation of database package.
  • FileMaker Go 13 for iPad/iPhone – training and familiarity with operation of database package.
  • Desktop GIS software. Cost, training, and familiarity with operation of package.
  • Regular daily direct backups to PC (via iTunes)/ or via email file transfer / cloud storage is recommended (cost / internet access considerations).
  • Regular charging of devices required (maximum 8 hour intensive field survey use; followed by overnight re charge). Careful power management (less background apps running) can extend time.
  • Continue to carry paper forms and maps in unlikely case of power failure.

7.     Field Survey Ecological Data Recording Software

FileMaker Pro database running on the FM Go application on the iPad/iPhone.


Two main database packages developed for the iPad:

  • County Wetland Survey Database (used on wetland surveys in Monaghan, Louth, Kildare, Wicklow, Kerry, Waterford)
  • Releve Database (flexible and easily adapted to specific projects by the addition/deletion of data fields and/or layouts; this database has been used on more than 15 larger survey projects to date)


Other databases have been developed specific to survey requirement of individual projects. Examples of such projects include:

  • Wild Atlantic Way. Ecological Study of Visitor Movement Areas 2015.
  • Provision of Scientific Basis for Raised Bog Conservation in Ireland – Raised Bog Surveys 2013.
  • Bellacorick to Crossmolina 110 kV Power Line uprate works. Ecological assessment of structure locations within designated sites 2013.
  • Web surveys and habitat assessment for the Marsh Fritillary. South and East Ireland 2012.
  • The Kerry Invasive Species Survey -  Mapping of the River Lee Catchment 2011.

8.     Field Survey Mapping Software

  • Number of different GIS options now available on the iPad. Two that we have used and would recommend for use in ecology surveys include; iGIS and ESRI Collector. We will demonstrate the use of iGIS.
  • iGIS (by Geometry)
  • Very useful application that enables you to load, view, create, edit, and export ESRI shapefiles in the field.  Spatial data is overlaid on Google map basemap.

Key features of software

  • Option to digitize boundaries / lines etc in the field but probably more efficient to have these done beforehand and just edit the attributes in the field and annotate with points.
  • Generally we record point notes in the field and interpret these afterwards to inform our habitat maps.
  • Allows you to preload shapefiles such as: preliminary habitats, site boundaries, site layouts, designated site boundaries etc.
  • Allows you to customize data entry forms (pop-up menus / code lists).
  • Can attach photos to points recorded in the field.
  • Shows your spatial data overlaid on Google maps as basemap.
  • Distance / area measuring tool.
  • Facility to import rasters (aerial photos etc).
  • Easy upload via dropbox, usb etc.
  • Easy export / backup via dropbox / email etc.
  • Works off-line or on-line. Cache memory of basemaps when off-line (view site on pad prior to going off-line).
  • Ability to load rasters.
  • Google maps basemaps.

Limitations of software (based on our experience)

  • Some of the more useful features such as customized data entry, raster uploading is quite complex / technical.
  • Difficult to see Google maps in bright sunshine. Can be overcome by turning off the basemap or using topography map rather than aerial.
  • Limited help and support. Learn as you go.
  • Google maps – poor resolution in some parts of county.
  • iOS version only. No android version.
  • Co-ordinate systems. Recommend using ITM as the coordinate reference system. We have come across some issues with using Irish Grid – select ‘OSNI 1952 / Irish National Grid’ to project in Irish Grid.


9.     Useful links

Following are a selection of links for further information on the various hardware and software options mentioned above.


Shockproof and weatherproof case options

Gumdrop case


Otterbox case



Aquapaq (waterproof cover)



Useful Carrying Strap



GIS Software

iGIS by Geometry



ESRI Collector for ArcGIS

Requires current ArcGIS licensed software and access to ArcGIS online.



Geotag Photos Pro

Very useful iOS / Android application for geotagging photos taken with a traditional digital camera. Geotag Photos Pro for iPad/iPhone/Android by TappyTaps SRO



FileMaker Pro and Go



© Peter Foss 2012