Theodolites and total stations are two of the most important and common pieces of equipment that you will see at a survey site.  But what are the features that separate these two devices and which is the right choice for the jobs that you do?

What do they both do?

These instruments are used to take measurements that calculate the elevation of a target point from a benchmark point.  By doing this they calculate the vertical and horizontal angles of a specific point.  These instruments offer high accuracy, a display friendly optical system, and the capability to take electronic readings that many other leveling devices can’t offer.  These features greatly decrease the times that you would need to take a repeat reading for a point by helping you be sure that you got it right the first time.

What type of Theodolites are used and what do they do?

There are two types of theodolites, non-digital and digital.  The non-digital is completely manual and its usage has 

plummeted to the point where you will rarely ever see one in use nowadays.  On the other hand, digital theodolites are one of the most commonly used pieces of equipment for surveying. Utilizing a screen that displays the horizontal and vertical angles, it provides a clear display to help the surveyor accurately record the measurements. 

How do the Variations of Total Stations Differ?

When it comes to total stations, there are several types of variations.  There are prism, robotic, and reflectorless total stations.  While many of the core features stay the same for these different types of total stations, the main differences are the equipment you need to accompany it or the size of the crew you need.  

One of the most common types of Total Stations you will encounter is the prism total stations, this type of total station relies on a prism to calculate the distance and angle.   If you don’t want to incorporate the use of a prism, then a reflectorless total station would be a great choice for you.  They are a great choice if you are surveying in difficult terrain that is hard to traverse, the main downside of using the reflectorless mode is that it usually doesn’t have the range of a total station using a prism. 

Robotic total stations are the most expensive option, the primary difference that separates it from the rest is that it only takes one person to

operate it and it can be used with a prism or reflectorless. The robotic total station can automatically follow the user as they move with the prism, eliminating the need for someone to man the instrument.

What are the differences between a Theodolite and a Total Station?

While the display on the digital theodolite makes this task less daunting, it still leaves room for user error when recording the data as they require the user to know basic trigonometry to accurately record the points manually.  With the Total Station being a more intricate device, its utilization of technology allows it to read and record down the information automatically, be accurate at longer distances, and it can measure horizontal and vertical angles along with taking the distance.

The total station retains the features of a theodolite, while also adding the feature of a distance meter. While technologically the total station is superior, it is also significantly higher in price.

Which device is better for you?

This depends on both the type of jobs you do and your budget.  If you do not need to take the distance of the point or you have another device that can measure the distance then a theodolite would be a great fit for you.  However, should you only want one device that can do both of those features, decrease the times you need to retake a measurement, and can automatically read and record the data; then a total station is the device for you.


Of course, should you choose to purchase a total station instead of a theodolite then it will cost you more money.  However, the degree of price increase can be lessened based on what type of total station you get.  That is why it is important to figure out the specific features you want from the total station so that you don’t pay for a device that does more than what you need.

To check out all of the Total Stations and Theodolites that SiteSurv offers, click on the links below. 

Total Stations

Robotic Total Stations


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