Science of determining the positions of points and the distances and angles between them

Surveying has been an element in the development of the human environment since the beginning of recorded history. The planning and execution of most forms of construction require it. It is also used in transport, communications, mapping, and the definition of legal boundaries for land ownership, and is an important tool for research in many other scientific disciplines.

A surveyor is a professional person with the academic qualifications and technical expertise to conduct one, or more, of the following activities;

In medieval Europe, beating the bounds maintained the boundaries of a village or parish. This was the practice of gathering a group of residents and walking around the parish or village to establish a communal memory of the boundaries. Young boys were included to ensure the memory lasted as long as possible.

A map of India showing the Great Trigonometrical Survey, produced in 1870

Advances in electronics allowed miniaturization of EDM. In the 1970s the first instruments combining angle and distance measurement appeared, becoming known as total stations. Manufacturers added more equipment by degrees, bringing improvements in accuracy and speed of measurement. Major advances include tilt compensators, data recorders, and on-board calculation programs.

Surveying equipment. Clockwise from upper left: optical theodolite, robotic total station, RTK GPS base station, optical level.

The gyrotheodolite is a form of theodolite that uses a gyroscope to orient itself in the absence of reference marks. It is used in underground applications.

GPS surveying differs from other GPS uses in the equipment and methods used. Static GPS uses two receivers placed in position for a considerable length of time. The long span of time lets the receiver compare measurements as the satellites orbit. The changes as the satellites orbit also provide the measurement network with well conditioned geometry. This produces an accurate baseline that can be over 20 km long. RTK surveying uses one static antenna and one roving antenna. The static antenna tracks changes in the satellite positions and atmospheric conditions. The surveyor uses the roving antenna to measure the points needed for the survey. The two antennas use a radio link that allows the static antenna to send corrections to the roving antenna. The roving antenna then applies those corrections to the GPS signals it is receiving to calculate its own position. RTK surveying covers smaller distances than static methods. This is because divergent conditions further away from the base reduce accuracy.

Surveyors use ancillary equipment such as tripods and instrument stands; staves and beacons used for sighting purposes; PPE; vegetation clearing equipment; digging implements for finding survey markers buried over time; hammers for placements of markers in various surfaces and structures; and portable radios for communication over long lines of sight.

Surveyors determine the position of objects by measuring angles and distances. The factors that can affect the accuracy of their observations are also measured. They then use this data to create vectors, bearings, coordinates, elevations, areas, volumes, plans and maps. Measurements are often split into horizontal and vertical components to simplify calculation. GPS and astronomic measurements also need measurement of a time component.

Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services staff member conducts tide station leveling in support of the US Army Corps of Engineers in Richmond, Maine.

The primary way of determining one's position on the earth's surface when no known positions are nearby is by astronomic observations. Observations to the sun, moon and stars could all be made using navigational techniques. Once the instrument's position and bearing to a star is determined, the bearing can be transferred to a reference point on the earth. The point can then be used as a base for further observations. Survey-accurate astronomic positions were difficult to observe and calculate and so tended to be a base off which many other measurements were made. Since the advent of the GPS system, astronomic observations are rare as GPS allows adequate positions to be determined over most of the surface of the earth.

A survey using traverse and offset measurements to record the location of the shoreline shown in blue. Black dashed lines are traverse measurements between reference points (black circles). The red lines are offsets measured at right angles to the traverse lines.

Few survey positions are derived from the first principles. Instead, most surveys points are measured relative to previously measured points. This forms a reference or control network where each point can be used by a surveyor to determine their own position when beginning a new survey.

Survey points are usually marked on the earth's surface by objects ranging from small nails driven into the ground to large beacons that can be seen from long distances. The surveyors can set up their instruments in this position and measure to nearby objects. Sometimes a tall, distinctive feature such as a steeple or radio aerial has its position calculated as a reference point that angles can be measured against.

Offsetting is an alternate method of determining the position of objects, and was often used to measure imprecise features such as riverbanks. The surveyor would mark and measure two known positions on the ground roughly parallel to the feature, and mark out a baseline between them. At regular intervals, a distance was measured at right angles from the first line to the feature. The measurements could then be plotted on a plan or map, and the points at the ends of the offset lines could be joined to show the feature.

Many surveys do not calculate positions on the surface of the earth, but instead, measure the relative positions of objects. However, often the surveyed items need to be compared to outside data, such as boundary lines or previous survey's objects. The oldest way of describing a position is via latitude and longitude, and often a height above sea level. As the surveying profession grew it created Cartesian coordinate systems to simplify the mathematics for surveys over small parts of the earth. The simplest coordinate systems assume that the earth is flat and measure from an arbitrary point, known as a 'datum' (singular form of data). The coordinate system allows easy calculation of the distances and direction between objects over small areas. Large areas distort due to the earth's curvature. North is often defined as true north at the datum.

For larger regions, it is necessary to model the shape of the earth using an ellipsoid or a geoid. Many countries have created coordinate-grids customized to lessen error in their area of the earth.

Surveyors avoid these errors by calibrating their equipment, using consistent methods, and by good design of their reference network. Repeated measurements can be averaged and any outlier measurements discarded. Independent checks like measuring a point from two or more locations or using two different methods are used, and errors can be detected by comparing the results of two or more measurements, thus utilizing redundancy.

The surveyor must be able to distinguish between accuracy and precision. In the United States, surveyors and civil engineers use units of feet wherein a survey foot breaks down into 10ths and 100ths. Many deed descriptions containing distances are often expressed using these units (125.25 ft). On the subject of accuracy, surveyors are often held to a standard of one one-hundredth of a foot; about 1/8 inch. Calculation and mapping tolerances are much smaller wherein achieving near-perfect closures are desired. Though tolerances will vary from project to project, in the field and day to day usage beyond a 100th of a foot is often impractical.

Local organisations or regulatory bodies class specializations of surveying in different ways. Broad groups are:

Based on the considerations and true shape of the earth, surveying is broadly classified into two types.

The basic principles of surveying have changed little over the ages, but the tools used by surveyors have evolved. Engineering, especially civil engineering, often needs surveyors.

Licensing requirements vary with jurisdiction, and are commonly consistent within national borders. Prospective surveyors usually have to receive a degree in surveying, followed by a detailed examination of their knowledge of surveying law and principles specific to the region they wish to practice in, and undergo a period of on-the-job training or portfolio building before they are awarded a license to practise. Licensed surveyors usually receive a post nominal, which varies depending on where they qualified. The system has replaced older apprenticeship systems.

A licensed land surveyor is generally required to sign and seal all plans. The state dictates the format, showing their name and registration number.

In many jurisdictions, surveyors must mark their registration number on survey monuments when setting boundary corners. Monuments take the form of capped iron rods, concrete monuments, or nails with washers.

Most countries' governments regulate at least some forms of surveying. Their survey agencies establish regulations and standards. Standards control accuracy, surveying credentials, monumentation of boundaries and maintenance of geodetic networks. Many nations devolve this authority to regional entities or states/provinces. Cadastral surveys tend to be the most regulated because of the permanence of the work. Lot boundaries established by cadastral surveys may stand for hundreds of years without modification.

One of the primary roles of the land surveyor is to determine the boundary of real property on the ground. The surveyor must determine where the adjoining landowners wish to put the boundary. The boundary is established in legal documents and plans prepared by attorneys, engineers, and land surveyors. The surveyor then puts monuments on the corners of the new boundary. They might also find or resurvey the corners of the property monumented by prior surveys.

In states organized per the Public Land Survey System (PLSS), surveyors must carry out BLM cadastral surveys under that system.

Inō Tadataka produced the first map of Japan using modern surveying techniques starting in 1800, at the age of 55.