A laptop on a trolley is promising to solve the problems of Wi-Fi site surveys - despite wireless vendors' assertions that surveys are rarely needed.

A trolley with calibrated wheels combines with laptop software to give accurate positioning for a continuous range of readings, in the Wireless Recon product which Helium Networks is bringing to the UK. It's based on work by Alex Hills, a former CIO of Carnegie Mellon University and now chief scientist at Helium.

"Our tool does a survey two to three times faster, and collects 16 to 20 times more data than 'lug-and-click' site survey tools," said Walt Halasowski, chief operating officer of Helium. Lug-and-click is his description for the market-leading tools from AirMagnet and Ekahau, which rely on the user carrying a laptop and clicking on the position on a floorplan, for each signal reading. GPS is not accurate enough indoors for site survey, he explains.

In the face of the difficulties of site surveys, wireless switch vendors have been downplaying the need for them (read Can you ditch the site survey?), arguing that switches are now so intelligent and access points so cheap that it is easier to put up a lot of access points and sort the signals out after the fact (in particular Aruba's vaunted wireless grid concept).

"Some people say you no longer need site surveys," said Halasowski. "We're finding that is marketing hype." At waste disposal company Von Roll in Ohio, Helium put in a full coverage WLAN over million square foot campus, in two and a half days, saving $14,000 over competing approaches, he said.

The problem for wireless LAN companies like Aruba and Cisco/Airespace, said Halasowski, is they are now selling applications like voice (which needs continuous cover) and asset tracking (which needs accurate location), and so the need for a site survey has increased.

The problem for Helium is that the switch vendors' marketing has made the site survey so unfashionable, that LAN switch vendors can't endorse it without a big U-turn. "We're talking to all the manufacturers about using our output to help their network," said Halasowski. "We're making good progress - they see the value of the product. Networks require superior design from the start."

The system costs $5444 in the US, not including the laptop, and will be on sale from Black Box in the UK soon. Halasowski expects enterprises to buy their own for periodic scanning. "The number of moves and changes on a site can be mind-boggling," he explained. "People are using it to audit their network on a periodic basis. They tell us they get a return on investment with two scans, from the ability to run a better network."

Techworld suggested a more localised version for the UK, featuring a tea urn and biscuit dispenser. More seriously, we asked if the scanning software and optical wheels could be installed in other things that regularly move round an office, such as mail carts, to give a continuous audit. Halasowski reckoned these would be pushed in a non-precise way: "It would be nice to integrate it into a forklift for warehouse use, though."