US Navy Surveyor at work with a leveling instrument.
Tableis of Surveying, 1728 Cyclopaedia

Surveying or land surveying is the technique, profession, and science of accurately determining the terrestrial or three-dimensional position of points and the distances and angles between them. These points are usually on the surface of the Earth, and they are often used to establish land maps and boundaries for ownership or governmental purposes.

To accomplish their objective, surveyors use elements of mathematics (geometry and trigonometry), physics, engineering and law.

An alternative definition, per the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping (ACSM), is the science and art of making all essential measurements to determine the relative position of points and/or physical and cultural details above, on, or beneath the surface of the Earth, and to depict them in a usable form, or to establish the position of points and/or details.

Furthermore, as alluded to above, a particular type of surveying known as "land surveying" (also per ACSM) is the detailed study or inspection, as by gathering information through observations, measurements in the field, questionnaires, or research of legal instruments, and data analysis in the support of planning, designing, and establishing of property boundaries. It involves the re-establishment of cadastral surveys and land boundaries based on documents of record and historical evidence, as well as certifying surveys (as required by statute or local ordinance) of subdivision plats/maps, registered land surveys, judicial surveys, and space delineation. Land surveying can include associated services such as mapping and related data accumulation, construction layout surveys, precision measurements of length, angle, elevation, area, and volume, as well as horizontal and vertical control surveys, and the analysis and utilization of land survey data.

Surveying has been an essential element in the development of the human environment since the beginning of recorded history (about 5,000 years ago). It is required in the planning and execution of nearly every form of construction. Its most familiar modern uses are in the fields of transport, building and construction, communications, mapping, and the definition of legal boundaries for land ownership.


History of surveying

Surveying students with professor at the Helsinki University of Technology in the early 20th century.

Surveying techniques have existed throughout much of recorded history. In ancient Egypt, when the Nile River overflowed its banks and washed out farm boundaries, boundaries were re-established by a rope stretcher, or surveyor, through the application of simple geometry. The nearly perfect squareness and north-south orientation of the Great Pyramid of Giza, built c. 2700 BC, affirm the Egyptians' command of surveying.

A brief history of surveying:

  • The Egyptian land register (3000 BC).
  • A recent reassessment of Stonehenge (c. 2500 BC) suggests that the monument was set out by prehistoric surveyors using peg and rope geometry.[1]
  • The Groma surveying instrument originated in Mesopotamia (early 1st millennium BC).[2]
  • Under the Romans, land surveyors were established as a profession, and they established the basic measurements under which the Roman Empire was divided, such as a tax register of conquered lands (300 AD).
  • The rise of the Caliphate led to extensive surveying throughout the Arab Empire. Arabic surveyors invented a variety of specialized instruments for surveying, including:[3]
    • Instruments for accurate leveling: A wooden board with a plumb line and two hooks, an equilateral triangle with a plumb line and two hooks, and a reed level.
    • A rotating alhidade, used for accurate alignment.
    • A surveying astrolabe, used for alignment, measuring angles, triangulation, finding the width of a river, and the distance between two points separated by an impassable obstruction.
  • In England, The Domesday Book by William the Conqueror (1086)
    • covered all England
    • contained names of the land owners, area, land quality, and specific information of the area's content and inhabitants.
    • did not include maps showing exact locations

In the 18th century in Europe triangulation was used to build a hierarchy of networks to allow point positioning within a country. Highest in the hierarchy were triangulation networks. These were densified into networks of traverses (polygons), into which local mapping surveying measurements, usually with measuring tape, corner prism and the familiar red and white poles, are tied. For example, in the late 1780s, a team from the Ordnance Survey of Great Britain, originally under General William Roy began the Principal Triangulation of Britain using the specially built Ramsden theodolite. Large scale surveys are known as geodetic surveys.

  • Continental Europe's Cadastre was created in 1808
    • founded by Napoleon I (Bonaparte)
    • contained numbers of the parcels of land (or just land), land usage, names etc., and value of the land
    • 100 million parcels of land, triangle survey, measurable survey, map scale: 1:2500 and 1:1250
    • spread fast around Europe, but faced problems especially in Mediterranean countries, Balkan, and Eastern Europe due to cadastre upkeep costs and troubles.

A cadastre loses its value if register and maps are not constantly updated. Because of the fundamental value of land and real estate to the local and global economy, land surveying was one of the first professions to require Professional Licensure. In many jurisdictions, the land surveyors license was the first Professional Licensure issued by the state, province, or federal government.

Surveying techniques

A standard Brunton Geo compass, still used commonly today by geologists and surveyors for field-based measurements.
Example of modern equipment for surveying (Field-Map technology): GPS, laser rangefinder and field computer allows surveying as well as cartography (creation of map in real-time) and field data collection.

Historically, distances were measured using a variety of means, such as with chains having links of a known length, for instance a Gunter's chain, or measuring tapes made of steel or invar. To measure horizontal distances, these chains or tapes were pulled taut according to temperature, to reduce sagging and slack. Additionally, attempts to hold the measuring instrument level would be made. In instances of measuring up a slope, the surveyor might have to "break" (break chain) the measurement- use an increment less than the total length of the chain.

Historically, horizontal angles were measured using a compass, which would provide a magnetic bearing, from which deflections could be measured. This type of instrument was later improved, with more carefully scribed discs providing better angular resolution, as well as through mounting telescopes with reticles for more-precise sighting atop the disc (see theodolite). Additionally, levels and calibrated circles allowing measurement of vertical angles were added, along with verniers for measurement to a fraction of a degree—such as with a turn-of-the-century transit.

The simplest method for measuring height is with an altimeter — basically a barometer — using air pressure as an indication of height. But surveying requires greater precision. A variety of means, such as precise levels (also known as differential leveling), have been developed to do this. With precise leveling, a series of measurements between two points are taken using an instrument and a measuring rod. Differentials in height between the measurements are added and subtracted in a series to derive the net difference in elevation between the two endpoints of the series. With the advent of the Global Positioning System (GPS), elevation can also be derived with sophisticated satellite receivers, but usually with somewhat less accuracy than with traditional precise leveling. However, the accuracies may be similar if the traditional leveling would have to be run over a long distance.

Triangulation is another method of horizontal location made almost obsolete by GPS. With the triangulation method, distances, elevations and directions between objects at great distance from one another can be determined. Since the early days of surveying, this was the primary method of determining accurate positions of objects for topographic maps of large areas. A surveyor first needs to know the horizontal distance between two of the objects. Then the height, distances and angular position of other objects can be derived, as long as they are visible from one of the original objects. High-accuracy transits or theodolites were used for this work, and angles between objects were measured repeatedly for increased accuracy.

Turning is a term used when referring to moving the level to take a elevation shot in a different location. When land surveying, there may be trees or other obstructions blocking the view from the level gun to the level rod. In order to "turn" the level gun, you mush first take a shot on the rod from your current location and record the elevation. Keeping the level rod in exactly the same location and elevation you may move the level gun to a different location where the level rod is still visible. Record the new elevation seen from the new location of the level rod and use the difference in elevations to find the new elevation of the level gun. Turning is not only used when there are obstructions in the way, but also when drastically changing elevations. You can turn up or down in elevation but the gun must always be at a higher elevation than the base of the rod. A level rod can usually be raised up to 25 feet high which enables the gun to be set much higher. However, if the gun is lower than the base of the rod, you will not be able to take a shot because the rod cannot be lowered beyond the ground elevation.

Surveying equipment

A German engineer surveying during the First World War, 1918

As late as the 1990s, the basic tools used in planar surveying were a tape measure for determining shorter distances, a level to determine height or elevation differences, and a theodolite, set on a tripod, to measure angles (horizontal and vertical), combined with the process of triangulation. Starting from a position with known location and elevation, the distance and angles to the unknown point are measured.

A more modern instrument is a total station, which is a theodolite with an electronic distance measurement device (EDM). A total station can also be used for leveling when set to the horizontal plane. Since their introduction, total stations have made the technological shift from being optical-mechanical devices to being fully electronic.

Modern top-of-the-line total stations no longer require a reflector or prism (used to return the light pulses used for distancing) to return distance measurements, are fully robotic, and can even e-mail point data to the office computer and connect to satellite positioning systems, such as a Global Positioning System. Though real-time kinematic GPS systems have increased the speed of surveying, they are still horizontally accurate to only about 20 mm and vertically accurate to about 30–40 mm.[4]

Total stations are still used widely, along with other types of surveying instruments. However, GPS systems do not work well in areas with dense tree cover or constructions. One-person robotic-guided total stations allow surveyors to gather precise measurements without extra workers to look through and turn the telescope or record data. A faster but expensive way to measure large areas (not details, and no obstacles) is with a helicopter, equipped with a laser scanner, combined with a GPS to determine the position and elevation of the helicopter. To increase precision, surveyors place beacons on the ground (about 20 km (12 mi) apart). This method reaches precisions between 5–40 cm (depending on flight height).[5]

Types of surveys and applicability

  • ALTA/ACSM Survey: a surveying standard jointly proposed by the American Land Title Association and the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping that incorporates elements of the boundary survey, mortgage survey, and topographic survey.
  • Archaeological survey: used to accurately assess the relationship of archaeological sites in a landscape or to accurately record finds on an archaeological site.
  • As-built survey: a survey carried out during or immediately after a construction project for record, completion evaluation and payment purposes. An as-built survey also known as a 'works as executed survey' documents the location of the recently constructed elements that are subject to completion evaluation. As built surveys are typically presented in red or redline and overlayed over existing design plans for direct comparison with design information.
  • Bathymetric survey: a survey carried out to map the topography and features of the bed of an ocean, lake, river or other body of water.
  • Boundary survey: a survey that establishes boundaries of a parcel using its legal description, which typically involves the setting or restoration of monuments or markers at the corners or along the lines of the parcel, often in the form of iron rods, pipes, or concrete monuments in the ground, or nails set in concrete or asphalt.
  • Deformation survey: a survey to determine if a structure or object is changing shape or moving. The three-dimensional positions of specific points on an object are determined, a period of time is allowed to pass, these positions are then re-measured and calculated, and a comparison between the two sets of positions is made.
  • Engineering surveys: those surveys associated with the engineering design (topographic, layout and as-built) often requiring geodetic computations beyond normal civil engineering practise.
  • Foundation survey: a survey done to collect the positional data on a foundation that has been poured and is cured. This is done to ensure that the foundation was constructed in the location, and at the elevation, authorized in the plot plan, site plan, or subdivision plan.
  • Geological survey: generic term for a survey conducted for the purpose of recording the geologically significant features of the area under investigation. .
  • Hydrographic survey: a survey conducted with the purpose of mapping the coastline and seabed for navigation, engineering, or resource management purposes.
  • Measured survey : a building survey to produce plans of the building. such a survey may be conducted before renovation works, for commercial purpose, or at end of the construction process "as built survey"
  • Mortgage survey or physical survey: a simple survey that delineates land boundaries and building locations. In many places a mortgage survey is required by lending institutions as a precondition for a mortgage loan.
  • Soil survey, or soil mapping, is the process of determining the soil types or other properties of the soil cover over a landscape, and mapping them for others to understand and use.
  • Structural survey: a detailed inspection to report upon the physical condition and structural stability of a building or other structure and to highlight any work needed to maintain it in good repair.
  • Tape survey: this type of survey is the most basic and inexpensive type of land survey. Popular in the middle part of the 20th century, tape surveys while being accurate for distance lack substantially in their accuracy of measuring angle and bearing. Standards that are practiced by professional land surveyors.
  • Topographic survey: a survey that measures the elevation of points on a particular piece of land, and presents them as contour lines on a plot.

Surveying as a career

The pundit (explorer) cartographer Nain Singh Rawat (19th century) received a Royal Geographical Society gold medal in 1876.
An all-female surveying crew in Idaho, 1918

The basic principles of surveying have changed little over the ages, but the tools used by surveyors have evolved tremendously. Engineering, especially civil engineering, depends heavily on surveyors.

Whenever there are roads, railways, reservoir, dams, retaining walls, bridges or residential areas to be built, surveyors are involved. They establish the boundaries of legal descriptions and the boundaries of various lines of political divisions. They also provide advice and data for geographical information systems (GIS), computer databases that contain data on land features and boundaries.

Surveyors must have a thorough knowledge of algebra, basic calculus, geometry, and trigonometry. They must also know the laws that deal with surveys, property, and contracts.

In addition, they must be able to use delicate instruments with accuracy and precision. In the United States, surveyors and civil engineers use units of feet wherein a survey foot is broken down into 10ths and 100ths. Many deed descriptions requiring distance calls 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 such as this will vary from project to project, in the field and day to day usage beyond a 100th of a foot is often impractical.

In most of the United States, surveying is recognized as a distinct profession apart from engineering. Licensing requirements vary by state, but they generally have components of education, experience and examinations. In the past, experience gained through an apprenticeship, together with passing a series of state-administered examinations, was required to attain licensure. Now, most states insist upon basic qualification of a degree in surveying, plus experience and examination requirements.

The licensing process typically follows two phases. First, upon graduation, the candidate may be eligible to take the Fundamentals of Land Surveying exam, to be certified upon passing and meeting all other requirements as a surveyor in training (SIT). Upon being certified as an SIT, the candidate then needs to gain additional experience to become eligible for the second phase. That typically consists of the Principles and Practice of Land Surveying exam along with a state-specific examination.

Licensed surveyors usually denote themselves with the letters P.S. (professional surveyor), L.S. (land surveyor), P.L.S. (professional land surveyor), R.L.S. (registered land surveyor), R.P.L.S. (Registered Professional Land Surveyor), or P.S.M. (professional surveyor and mapper) following their names, depending upon the dictates of their particular jurisdiction of registration.

In Canada, land Surveyors are registered to work in their respective province. The designation for a land surveyor breaks down by province, but follows the rule whereby the first letter indicates the province, followed by L.S. There is also a designation as a C.L.S. or Canada lands surveyor, who has the authority to work on Canada Lands, which include Indian Reserves, National Parks, the three territories and offshore lands.

In many Commonwealth countries, the term Chartered Land Surveyor is used for someone holding a professional license to conduct surveys.

A licensed land surveyor is typically required to sign and seal all plans, the format of which is dictated by their state jurisdiction, which shows their name and registration number. In many states, when setting boundary corners land surveyors are also required to place survey monuments bearing their registration numbers, typically in the form of capped iron rods, concrete monuments, or nails with washers.

Building surveying

Building surveying emerged in the 1970s as a profession in the United Kingdom by a group of technically minded General Practice Surveyors.[6] Building surveying is a recognised profession in Britain, Ireland, Australia and Hong Kong. In Australia in particular, due to risk mitigation and limitation factors, the employment of surveyors at all levels of the construction industry is widespread. There are still many countries where it is not widely recognized as a profession.

Building Surveyors are trained to some extent in all aspects of property but with specific training in Building Pathology, as such they have a wide understanding of the end implications of decisions taken by more specific professions and trades during the realisation process, thus making them ideal Project and Property Managers on the client side.

Services that building surveyors undertake are broad but can include:

  • Construction design and building works
  • Project management and monitoring
  • Property Legislation advice
  • Insurance assessment and claims assistance
  • Defect investigation and maintenance advice
  • Building surveys and measured surveys
  • Handling planning applications
  • Building inspection to ensure compliance with building regulations
  • Pre-acquisition surveys
  • Negotiating dilapidations claims[7]

Building surveyors also advise on many aspects of construction including:

  • design
  • cost
  • maintenance
  • sustainability
  • repair
  • refurbishment
  • restoration and preservation of buildings and monuments[8]

Clients of a building surveyor can be the government agencies, businesses and individuals. Surveyors work closely with architects, planners, quantity surveyors, engineers, homeowners and tenants groups. A building surveyor may be called to act as an expert witness. It is usual for building surveyors to earn a college degree before undertaking structured training to become a member of a professional organisation.

With the enlargement of the European community, the profession of the building surveyor is becoming more widely known in other European states, particularly France,[9] where many English-speaking people buy second homes.

Lidar Surveying – Three-dimensional laser scanning provides high definition surveying for architectural, as-built, and engineering surveys. Recent technological advances make it the most cost-effective and time-sensitive solution for providing the highest level of detail available for interior and exterior building work.

Land surveyor

The job of the land surveyor is to find and mark certain locations on land. A typical location of interest, for example, is the boundary of a person's property. That boundary is described in legal documents and the land surveyor follows that description and locates the boundary on the physical land and marks it, so the owner knows what land he can legally use. As an example, such a legal description may refer to a point as being 120.25 feet south of some existing marker. The land surveyor in that case would find the existing marker and use measuring instruments to find the point 120.25 feet south of that, and place a new marker at that location. These markers are called monuments.

Over time, development, vandalism, and acts of nature often wreak havoc on monumentation, so the land surveyor is often forced to consider other evidence such as fence locations, woodlines, monuments on neighboring property, recollections of people, and other evidence.[citation needed]

Reference monumentation refers to actual physical points on the ground that define location of boundary lines that divide neighboring parcels as well as their respective corners. Also called survey control, they are most often 1/2" or 5/8" iron rebar rods or pipes placed at 18" minimum depth. These rods and/or pipes usually have an affixed plastic cap over the top bearing the responsible surveyors' name and license number. In addition to rods and pipes, surveyors often use 4x4" concrete posts at corners of large parcels or anywhere that would require more stability (e.g. beach sand). They place them three feet deep. In places where there is asphalt or concrete, it is common to place nails or aluminum alloy caps to re-establish boundary corners. Marks are meant to be durable, stable, and as "permanent" as possible. The aim is to provide sufficient marks so some marks will remain for future re-establishment of boundaries. The material and marking used on monuments placed to mark boundary corners are often subject to state laws.[citation needed]

F.V. Hayden's map of Yellowstone National Park, 1871. His surveys were a significant factor toward establishing the park in 1872.

Cadastral land surveyors are licensed by governments.[citation needed] In the United States, cadastral surveys are typically conducted by the federal government, specifically through the Cadastral Surveys branch of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), formerly the General Land Office (GLO).[10] They consult with USFS, Park Service, Corps of Engineers, BIA, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Reclamation, etc. In states that have been organized per the Public Land Survey System (PLSS), surveyors carry out BLM Cadastral Surveys in accordance with that system.

A common use of a survey is to determine a legal property boundary. The first stage in such a survey is to research relevant title records such as deeds, survey monumentation (marks on the ground), and any public or private records that provide relevant data.[citation needed]

In order to properly establish the position for survey markers, the surveyor must then take measurements. To do this, the surveyor usually places a total station over various points on the ground and records distances taken with the EDM.[citation needed]

The surveyor analyses the data and makes comparisons with existing records to determine evidence that can be used to establish boundary positions. The surveyor calculates the bearing and distance of lines between the boundary corners and total station positions and uses them to set out and mark the corners in the field. He may check measurements by measuring directly between places using a flexible tape.[citation needed]

The art of surveying

Many properties have considerable problems with regards to improper bounding, miscalculations in past surveys, titles, easements, and wildlife crossings. Also many properties are created from multiple divisions of a larger piece over the course of years, and with every additional division the risk of miscalculation increases. The result can be abutting properties not coinciding with adjacent parcels, resulting in hiatuses (gaps) and overlaps. The art plays a role when a surveyor must solve a puzzle using pieces that do not exactly fit together. In these cases, the solution is based upon the surveyor's research and interpretation, along with established procedures for resolving discrepancies.[citation needed]


  1. ^ Johnson, Anthony, Solving Stonehenge: The New Key to an Ancient Enigma. (Thames & Hudson, 2008) ISBN 978-0-500-05155-9
  2. ^ Hong-Sen Yan & Marco Ceccarelli (2009), International Symposium on History of Machines and Mechanisms: Proceedings of HMM 2008, Springer, p. 107, ISBN 1402094841 
  3. ^ Donald Routledge Hill (1996), "Engineering", pp. 766–9, in Rashed, Roshdi; Morelon, Régis (1996), Encyclopedia of the History of Arabic Science, Routledge, pp. 751–795, ISBN 0415124107 
  4. ^ National Cooperative Highway Research Program: Collecting, Processing and Integrating GPS data into GIS, p. 40. Published by Transportation Research Board, 2002 ISBN 0309069165, 9780309069168
  5. ^ Toni Schenk1, Suyoung Seo, Beata Csatho: Accuracy Study of Airborne Laser Scanning Data with Photogrammetry, p. 118
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^!eipaL?idno=121&state=showocc
  9. ^
  10. ^ A History of the Rectangular Survey System by C. Albert White, 1983, Pub: Washington, D.C. : U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management : For sale by Supt. of Docs., U.S. G.P.O.,


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