In construction, engineering and many other industries, it’s essential to have a way to validate the accuracy of measuring and surveying data. Even minuscule inaccuracies can lead to flaws, project delays, higher costs and unhappy clients — design errors in construction, for example, can increase costs by around 7%.

Fortunately, total stations provide a solution. These lightweight and portable machines help you get the correct data you need to ensure quality construction and timely project completion.

But how does a total station work, and what is the use of a total station? In the guide below, we’ll explain what total stations are, how they are used, what features they offer and how to decide what kind of total station is right for your business. 

What Is a Total Station?

A total station is an optical instrument commonly used in construction, surveying and civil engineering. It is useful for measuring horizontal angles, vertical angles and distance — it does this by analyzing the slope between itself and a specific point.

A high-quality total station camera combines surveying, imaging and high-speed 3D scanning into one precise and reliable instrument. It blends the latest field technologies with advanced technical features to create a tool that is trusty and dependable in demanding field situations while producing accurate results for analysis and engineering.

Total stations often contain a few different components:

  • Electronic transit theodolite
  • Electronic distance meter (EDM)
  • Microprocessor
  • Electronic data collector and storage system

Operators often use total stations with additional equipment as well, including tripods, tribrachs, reflector poles and prisms.

Using total stations for measurements provides several unique advantages:

  • Accuracy: How accurate is a total station? Total stations are highly accurate — to a fraction of an arc second as well as measure distances to hundredths of a foot over thousands of feet.
  • Ease of use: Total stations are easy and intuitive to use. They can take simultaneous distance and horizontal measurements, and they make it easy to calculate coordinates. So, operators can spend more of their time and energy on critical engineering and analytical problems that demand their attention.
  • Speed: Total stations collect information quickly, so operators can get in and out of the field efficiently.
  • Convenience: Total stations offer quick and convenient setup. With a total station, an operator can take multiple surveys from one location.
  • Effortless CAD interface: It’s easy to download survey data to a computer-assisted drawing (CAD) program to avoid time-consuming data manipulation.

What Are the Types and Features of Total Stations?

How many types of total stations are there? There are a few different types of total stations, each with unique features for use in various applications.

  • Mechanical total stations: Mechanical total stations are reliable and accurate, and they make surveying quick and easy. They do not offer remote control operation or automated features, however, and operation typically requires two people.
  • Robotic total stations: These total stations allow for more technological convenience. They offer extended remote control abilities, they need only one operator, and they allow for increased safety in challenging terrain because of their unique ability to operate at a distance.
  • Prism total stations: Both mechanical and robotic total stations come in prism models. Prism models are more traditional than reflector-less models, and they are still more commonly used. They use prisms to reflect infrared waves and then determine angles and distance by measuring the prism’s location.
  • Reflector-less total stations: Both mechanical and robotic total stations come in reflector-less versions, as well. These newer models of total stations are useful for taking measurements in challenging circumstances. They can work in difficult terrain or in places you can’t reach on foot, and they don’t require the use of a prism.

So, what are the features of a total station? Total stations also offer many different features to enhance their usefulness in different applications, such as:

  • Superior EDM for high accuracy and long-range prism measurements.
  • High-accuracy scanning and scanning range technology.
  • High-resolution site imagery technology.
  • Imaging solutions like video robotic control and photogrammetric measurements.
  • Integrated surveying with global navigation satellite system (GNSS) receivers.
  • Seamless field-to-office integration with software for data processing, analysis and use.
  • Optional solutions for locating lost or stolen equipment.

How Are Total Stations Used?

How is a total station camera used on the job site? Surveyors and civil engineers can use total stations to assess topography, record existing natural features, or plan for buildings, roads and land boundaries. These impressive and accurate instruments are also useful in mining, meteorology, archaeological digs, forensic investigations and building information modeling (BIM).

Total stations are particularly useful for performing functions like these:

  • Topographic surveys
  • Land and title surveys
  • Roadway and corridor surveys
  • Design surveys
  • Infrastructure surveys
  • Volumetric surveys to measure stockpile volumes
  • Power line inspections
  • Utility design surveys
  • Crash scene investigations
  • Crime scene investigations
  • Mine and quarry surveys
  • Tank calibration or inspection

How to Find the Right Total Station

To find the right total station for your GPS surveying, you can follow these steps:

Step 1: Research Brands

It’s important to do research to determine which brands provide the features you require and have a reputation for quality and dependability. You can visit different brand websites, pore over online reviews and talk to colleagues about their experience with different brands. Your choice will depend on your particular requirements. If you’re looking for a high-performance, reliable overall total station, a reputable brand like Trimble will likely fit your needs.

Step 2: Analyze Needs

Here are a few factors to consider when you’re searching for the right total station for your needs:

  • Accuracy: The accuracy of your total station is an essential consideration. In many construction projects, angular accuracy to a few arc seconds is sufficient, but for some specialized projects, you may require accuracy to the tenth or hundredth of an arc second.
  • Speed: The speed of your total station will make a tremendous difference in your work efficiency. You’ll want to choose a model that offers quick and convenient setup and superior data collection speed.
  • Price: Price matters as well. Flashy features are fun and useful, but if you wouldn’t use them regularly, figure out the best compromise between the features you want and a reasonable price for your budget.
  • Applications: What will you most often use your total station for? How you plan to use your total station will help you determine what level of distance and angular accuracy you need, what range you need, how portable your total station should be and how easy it should be to set up.

Step 3: Perform a Cost-Benefit Analysis

Your comparison of different brands and models doesn’t have to be convoluted. It’s best to delve into the details, figure out what benefits specific features will provide for your company and determine whether they are worth the price.

Find the Right Equipment With Allen Instruments & Supplies

To see the benefits of high-quality total stations in your work, partner with Allen Instruments & Supplies. We offer a variety of geospatial solutions for a range of industries, and our extensive catalog of total stations means you’ll be able to find the model that best fits your business. Plus, we back our products with a team of trustworthy, reliable experts you can trust to help you find the right answers every time.

Contact us today to learn more.