A total station is an electronic/optical instrument used in modern surveying. It is also used by archaeologists to record excavations as well as by police, crime scene investigators, private accident reconstructionists and insurance companies to take measurements of scenes. The total station is an electronic theodolite (transit) integrated with an electronic distance meter (EDM) to read distances from the instrument to a particular point. Some models include internal electronic data storage to record distance, horizontal angle, and vertical angle measured, while other models are equipped to write these measurements to an external data collector, which is a hand-held computer.
Angles and distances are measured from the total station to points under survey, and the coordinates (X, Y, and Z or northing, easting and elevation) of surveyed points relative to the total station position are calculated using trigonometry and triangulation.
Data can be downloaded from the total station to a computer and application software used to compute results and generate a map of the surveyed area.
Some total stations also have a GNSS interface which combines the advantages of these two technologies (GNSS - line of sight not required between measured points; Total Station - high precision measurement especially in the vertical axis compared with GNSS) and reduce the consequences of each technology's disadvantages (GNSS - poor accuracy in the vertical axis and lower accuracy without long occupation periods; Total Station - requires line of sight observations and must be set up over a known point or with line of sight to 2 or more points with known location).
Most modern total station instruments measure angles by means of electro-optical scanning of extremely precise digital bar-codes etched on rotating glass cylinders or discs within the instrument. The best quality total stations are capable of measuring angles to 0.5 arc-second. Inexpensive "construction grade" total stations can generally measure angles to 5 or 10 arc-seconds.
Measurement of distance is accomplished with a modulated microwave or infrared carrier signal, generated by a small solid-state emitter within the instrument's optical path, and refected by a prism reflector or the object under survey. The modulation pattern in the returning signal is read and interpreted by the computer in the total station. The distance is determined by emitting and receiving multiple frequencies, and determining the integer number of wavelengths to the target for each frequency. Most total stations use purpose-built glass Porro prism reflectors for the EDM signal. A typical total station can measure distances with an accuracy of about 1.5 millimetres (0.0049 ft) + 2 parts per million over a distance of up to 1,500 metres (4,900 ft).
Reflectorless total stations can measure distances to any object that is reasonably light in color, to a few hundred meters.
Robotic total stations allow the operator to control the instrument from a distance via remote control. This eliminates the need for an assistant staff member as the operator holds the reflector and controls the total station from the observed point.
Vehicular Accident Reconstruction applications
Total stations are used by police, crime scene investigators, private accident reconstructionists and insurance companies to take measurements of scenes. Software is used to process the data and produce maps and 3D animation.
Total stations are the primary survey instrument used in mining surveying.
A total station is used to record the absolute location of the tunnel walls (stopes), ceilings (backs), and floors as the drifts of an underground mine are driven. The recorded data is then downloaded into a CAD program, and compared to the designed layout of the tunnel.
The survey party installs control stations at regular intervals. These are small steel plugs installed in pairs in holes drilled into walls or the back. For wall stations, two plugs are installed in opposite walls, forming a line perpendicular to the drift. For back stations, two plugs are installed in the back, forming a line parallel to the drift.
A set of plugs can be used to locate the total station set up in a drift or tunnel by processing measurements to the plugs by intersection and resection.