What is a Total Station?

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  • Written By: Malcolm Tatum
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 30 November 2019
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Total stations are types of electronic equipment that makes it possible to accurately assess slope distances between the location of the stations and a specifically identified geographical point. Devices of this type may be operated manually onsite or controlled via remote access. The ability of a total station to provide accurate measurements, including the slope of land, is invaluable to the process of surveying land for future building projects as well as a number of scientific applications.

The function of a total station involves use of electrical components that include optical equipment as part of the measurement process. As part of the collection of measurements, the device allows for angles as well as distances in completing the surveying tasks. The internal computation of the coordinates involves the use of formulas related to trigonometry and triangulation, both essential mathematical strategies that are common with this type of measurement process. In many cases, the link between the location of the station and the end point for the assessment is established by the use of microwave transmissions or some other type of infrared signal that allows the device to pinpoint the reflection device that is placed at the opposing point.


One of the benefits of using a total station is that the device can be used by a single surveyor rather than requiring the presence of two individuals. The main unit can be placed into position, allowing the operator to walk to the opposite point of the area that needs to be measured. While using a reflector to allow the total station to lock in on that point of destination, the operator can use a remote control to initiate and monitor the data collected and the resulting feedback derived from the processing of that data. This is in contrast to methods used in the past that required a minimum of two people to manage the process. Along with minimizing the number of people required to complete a project, the total station also produces calculations and data that would have been processed manually in times past.

Today, there are even total station equipment options that allow for the inclusion of a navigation system that can interface with satellites. This addition makes it possible to collect measurements and other relevant data even if the point of origin and the point of destination are not in a direct line of sight. There is some controversy regarding the use of this type of approach, since the calculations do take longer and some professionals question the accuracy of the data that is obtained using the satellite technology.


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