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What Does a Topographical Surveyor Do?

A topographical surveyor might employ a theodolite.
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  • Written By: Jeffrey L. Callicott
  • Edited By: Angela B.
  • Last Modified Date: 24 August 2014
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A topographical surveyor is a professional who specializes in establishing the location of physical features and dimensions on the Earth. This can include items such as waterways, roads, bridges, utilities and the elevation of terrain. The topographic surveyor’s undertaking lies not only in the actual survey work done in the field, often referred to as fieldwork, but also in the documentation of the features in a format that can serve as a reliable basis for design documentation.

Most civil engineering projects are heavily reliant on accurately locating proposed project features in the real world. For example, the movement of the profile of a road by only a few feet (less than 1 meter) can have dramatic impacts on the amount of dirt generated during construction. In a similar manner, land ownership can dictate where a project must physically be constructed. The value a topographical surveyor can provide is realized in the two-dimensional (2D) and three-dimensional (3D) location information necessary for the analysis and planning of almost all civil engineering endeavors.

Topographical surveyors supply two key pieces of information. First, they are responsible for determining the physical lay of the land. This consists of recording the elevation and physical features of the terrain, examples of which are hills, washes, roads and fences. Though the primary function of the topographical surveyor is to document and measure the layout of the area of interest, legal land ownership also is usually verified.

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Second, a topographic surveyor ensures that a design will properly fit the real world. As part of their work, topographical surveyors locate existing monumentation and control points such as section corners, as well as setting their own control points for field use. The existing survey monuments are then recorded as part of the field survey work, so they may be compared to previous documents that show their location. While the use of older survey instruments such as the theodolite and rod is not uncommon, the use of total stations and global positioning system (GPS) equipment is usually preferred.

Once fieldwork is complete, the topographical surveyor is usually tasked with presenting the information in a format that can be used for the purposes of design. There exist a variety of text-based filetypes capable of storing the data, but the more commonly used format is a computer-aided design and drafting (CADD) file. These data types are capable of graphically storing the information in 2D or 3D and also can be exported for use in geographic information systems (GIS) programs. In some cases, a topographical surveyor may provide more information than the CADD file by building 3D surface models based on the survey data.

Anyone seeking to become a topographical surveyor typically begins with the study of civil engineering and an internship under a registered land surveyor (RLS). A degree in civil engineering is not a requirement to become a topographic surveyor, but employers usually anticipate the earning of one. Like engineers, surveyors — including topographic surveyors — are able to earn professional registration once they have gained enough working experience and passed a state-sanctioned exam.

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