What Equipment Does a Land Surveyor Use?

Any professional is only as good as their tools. This is especially true of land surveyors.

This profession requires extraordinary exactitude, and the surveying instruments that it requires need to be heavy duty and weatherproof, as well as provide speedy and accurate measurements with to-the-micron precision.

The practice of surveying land and buildings has been around for many centuries. While the technology behind the tools a surveyor uses has changed, their form and functions have, in many cases, remained largely the same.

As professional bodies like RICS implement new rules and standards, the need for transparent and accurate results becomes even more important for surveyors and they turn to new technological solutions to ensure that they align with best-practice benchmarks.

Here, we look at the various different land surveying equipment surveyors will use, and how it works. 

What’s in a surveyor’s toolkit?

What equipment does a land surveyor need? That depends largely on the task at hand.

A surveyor’s job is extremely multifaceted, encompassing everything from ascertaining land boundaries to settling disputes between neighbours, to assessing the viability of a plot for construction.

In real terms, however, a surveyor’s primary duties will include mapping and modelling environments and creating floor plans and other survey diagrams.

Simply put, a surveyor measures the distances, directions, angles, and elevations between different points in space. As such, their equipment primarily aims to record measurements in a range of different environments with pinpoint accuracy.

Let’s take a look through the different types of land surveying equipment and their uses.

Theodolites & Total Stations

A theodolite is an optical instrument used in topographical surveys that measures the angles of horizontal and vertical planes precisely.

While rarely in use today, it is widely considered the father of contemporary surveying equipment. It was used during the creation of the first ordnance survey map made in the early 19th century.

Its modern successor, the surveying total station (or total station theodolite) performs the same function using more sophisticated technology. It uses electronic distance measurement (EDM) and has an onboard microprocessor for the storage of data. 

A total station can measure multiple long distances, horizontal and vertical angles, and even calculate accurate measurements from a defined dataset. Many can also measure points remotely without having to travel to the tops of buildings, the summits of hills and other hard to reach points. 

Mounting Tripods

A mounting tripod will usually be used to support a total station, or other modern survey instruments to ensure consistency and accuracy.

Digital Levels

Simple yet highly versatile, a digital level is a common tool for both surveyors and builders. It works in much the same way as the spirit level that many of us have in our DIY kits.

digital levels use a spirit or laser in conjunction with a pivoting telescope to take horizontal readings and calculate the angles between two vertical points with exacting precision. 

They are commonly used to measure the heights of structures to track tiny movements over time. 

Prisms & Reflectors

Systems of prisms and reflectors are used in conjunction with electronic distance measuring equipment (e.g. a total station). These are typically attached to a surveying pole in an accessible area to measure distances with pinpoint accuracy. 

These systems are used to produce more accurate readings than older methods such as using a measuring wheel.


Aerial mapping drones are increasingly used by surveyors to survey large or inaccessible areas at height.

Point cloud data can be used in conjunction with terrestrial scanning to provide added accuracy, while simple drone photography can be used to create records and points of reference.

3D Laser Scanners

3D laser scanning can be used to record extremely granular topographical data in a short period of time. It is also extremely useful for surveying areas that are inaccessible or dangerous to access. 

Laser scanners gather information from millions of data points which is then used to form a point cloud image of the area. This can be used with compatible CAD or BIM software to create highly accurate models of the site.

Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS)

Surveyors may sometimes use global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) for mapping forms or boundaries. GNSS receivers and antennae send and receive signals from satellites in the same way as the maps app on your smartphone. 

A global navigation satellite system can be used in surveying to map the relative distance between objects or points in space with to-the-centimetre accuracy. 

Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR)

Ground penetrating radar may be necessary for geophysical surveys. It uses pulses of electromagnetic radiation for subterranean imaging without the need for intrusive and destructive digging.  

Field & Office Software

A surveyor’s job relies on a lot of specialist hardware. But like virtually all professions, the operational life of a land surveyor is also supported by specialist software. 

This works in tandem with surveying equipment to simplify workflows, ensuring that field data is stored quickly and accurately and put to use effectively when surveyors return to the office. 

Trimble, for instance, provides an excellent range of software packages designed to aid surveyors in the field and the office including Trimble Business Center (TBC), Trimble Access and Trimble RealWorks.

Survey Controllers & Data Collectors

Data collectors are used to collect and store field data. They can come in the form of a tablet or a handheld device that looks a little like a calculator with a smartphone screen. The data collected can then be imported into other software programs. 

What is the most important surveying instrument?

There’s no doubt that the theodolite is the most iconic and widely recognised tool a surveyor uses. It helped to re-triangulate Great Britain and shaped how we perceive the country today. 

However, its modern descendant, the total station, performs the same function with greater accuracy, precise measurements and the capability for digital data capture. 

The total station is arguably one of the most important surveying instruments in a surveyor’s toolkit, alongside the digital level. The total station and digital level are the bread and butter of a surveyor’s toolkit and play key roles in land surveying. 

Laser and satellite technologies are also widely used for surveying nowadays. However, these technologies are more likely to supplement these surveying instruments rather than supplant them. 

What is the most accurate surveying tool?

The total station theodolite is not only one of the most important pieces of land survey equipment, it’s also one of the most accurate.

Combined with 3D laser scanning, it can provide the comprehensive and high precision that surveyors need to do their job to the highest professional standards expected today. 

However, both a total station and laser scanner can only survey objects in their field of vision. As such, prism reflectors are used in order to overcome obstructions.

These reflect the microwave or infrared carrier signal emitted by the total station. Its onboard microprocessor then reads and interprets the return signal, eliminating the need for human calculations and the risk of human error. 

Essentially, any land surveyor will require a number of surveying instruments to produce the best results from their land survey, with many pieces of modern equipment designed to function with one another to elevate precision and accuracy.

The KOREC Group is proud to supply the highest quality surveying equipment to land surveyors, providing the accuracy, reliability and rugged capability for every eventuality of the trade. 

Our mission is to empower you to measure, map and manage the natural and built environment with ease.

If you have any questions about land surveying equipment or you’re interested in surveying equipment hire, our knowledgeable team is always on hand to help, just get in touch