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Four Basic Total Station Functions

total station basics

A total station consists of a theodolite with a built-in distance meter, enabling it to simultaneously measure angles and distances and determine the positions and heights of points. How does it work? Here are some of the basics.

Some electronic total stations have an opto-electronic distance meter (EDM) and electronic angle scanning. The coded scales of the horizontal and vertical circles are scanned electronically, and the angles and distances are displayed digitally.

The horizontal distance, height difference, and coordinates are calculated automatically, and all measurements and additional information is recorded.

Reflectorless Distance Measurement

Some total stations include not only a conventional infrared distancer that measures to prisms, but also an integrated laser distancer that requires no reflector, giving you the ability to switch between these two options.

Reflectorless distance measurement is particularly beneficial in situations where points are difficult or impossible to access – when positioning pipes or measuring across fences or gorges, for example. Some systems have a co-axial visible red laser dot that can be used to mark targets in connection with the recording of tunnel profiles or indoor work.

Automatic Target Aiming with a Total Station

Total stations that are equipped with an automatic target aiming system make targeting faster and easier. All you have to do is point the telescope at the reflector and push a button that then automatically triggers the fine pointing, angle, and distance measurements, and records all of the values.

This technology makes it possible to carry out fully automatic measurements. After establishing initial contact with the target, automatic target aiming can also be switched to a mode that allows moving targets to be accurately followed and measured independent of the observer.


Describing the position of a point requires two coordinates. Polar coordinates need a line and an angle. Cartesian coordinates need two lines within an orthogonal coordinate system.

polar coordinates and cartesian coordinates
The total station measures polar coordinates, which are then recalculated as cartesian coordinates within the given orthogonal system – either within the instrument itself or back at the office.

recalculation of coordinates with a total station
Measuring Angles

An angle represents the difference between two directions. Under ideal conditions, the horizontal angle between the two directions leading to the points P1 and P2 is independent of the height difference between those points, provided the telescope always moves in a strictly vertical plane when tilted, whatever its horizontal orientation.
measuring angles with a total station

The vertical angle (also called the zenith angle) is the difference between a prescribed direction (namely the direction of the zenith) and the direction to the point under consideration.

Under ideal conditions, the vertical angle is therefore correct only if the zero reading of the vertical circle lies exactly in the zenith direction. (Deviations from ideal conditions are typically caused by axial errors in the instrument and by inadequately “leveling up.”)

Need more assistance with total stations? Just ask our knowledgeable staff. You can also browse the selection of robotic total stations and manual total stations in the Allen Precision Equipment Online Marketplace.