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Surveying questions for a short story

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Hello everyone!

Since recently I'm trying to write fiction stories and I currently am writing something about a land surveyor (I guess Pynchon's Mason & Dixon has made me become interested in this beautiful profession).

Now I'm only not sure if the whole setup and background of my story makes sense. Not that it has to in a work of fiction. But I want to know whether it is totally ridiculous or not. There are also some blanks as to why the piece of land in my story is being surveyed. So I have some questions: 


  • At this moment the story is about a land surveyor who has been hired by the council of a small town to survey a local nature reserve. Not sure if it makes sense (this is the blank I was talking about) but the background is that the town is about to be part of a municipal fusion. The reserve however covers ground that belongs to more than one town (a town that will be part of a different fusion) - a resurvey has to be done (but not sure if this would be necessary in real life).                                       
  • If the above wouldn't be necessary, what other reason could there be to have a surveyor survey a domain like this? (it's not really important for my story, the surveyor just needs to be there, but it would be nice for me to have a more clear incentive in mind).


  • Would it be possible that a surveyor works on a project like this on his own (without a crew or partner)?


  • And that he works on this project for a long period of time (anywhere between 3 weeks to 2 months)?


  • The story also features a theodolite. Is this a dated tool? 


  • Can a surveyor work at night? Would or could a theodolite be used at night?  


Hopefully you will excuse me for barging in like this (not making an introduction post, etc). I'm fascinated by surveying but do not have a lot of knowledge on what the actual surveying proces is like. I would greatly appreciate it if someone could help me out :).

Best regards,



Posted : January 10, 2023 2:19 pm
Jitterboogie reacted
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I see your profile says you are on Belgium. That could affect any regulatory/political aspects, as rules differ from country to country and in the US from state to state.

I can't think of a compelling reason for the survey as described, but maybe someone else can. My idea would be that the preserve is adjacent to private land and that owner is arguing over the boundary before building an apartment complex or commercial site.

It is very likely someone works alone on this. The measurement tools would be GNSS (global navigation satellite system) receiver on a pole, and robotic total station (today's version of a theodolite) measuring to a reflecting prism on a pole or tripod. You can look up those tools to understand their use.

It is possible to use those tools at night, but rarely done, so you would have to invent some special reason.

A project like this would probably need only a day or few days of field work. There could be a search for old corner monuments, some found and some not. It might involve measuring temporary markers that are only an approximation of the boundary, to be corrected after analysis of the found markers, measurement data, and history of ownership records.

There would be research beforehand and a little office work after, and a return trip to set more permanent markers as needed. If an adversarial owner of the adjoining land ripped out the boundary markers some field work would have to be repeated to reset them.

We have one or two participants on this forum from Belgium who might help with local regulations and describe typical boundary markers there.

Posted : January 11, 2023 6:22 am
Hiroa and FL/GA reacted
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The theodolite is a dated tool for a one man survey crew.

We use a Robotic Total Station (RTS), that allows one man crews to survey. 

And when necessary night surveys are possible, headlamps and often a really good relationship with local police is a must (hint kinda of use them as security).  

You might call the fusion an annexation which locally would require a survey of the lands being annexed. 

Months would be involved depending on the complexity of the boundary and because getting through all the meetings, boards and legal processes involved is normally a slow process, sometimes lasting years. Usually, the surveyor will be involved with the meetings and planning stages of an annexation. 

Posted : January 11, 2023 6:34 am
Hiroa reacted

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Norman Oklahoma
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  • When a nature reserve is established it is commonly desirable to determine its boundaries and have them conspicuously and permanently marked, so that people (ie/hunters) will know when they have passed into the preserve.
  • Also, these things typically have some infrastructure (such as parking lots, walking paths, "interpretive centers", etc. that needs to be designed and built. This involves surveying. So, sure, there is plenty of reasonable opportunity to have a surveyor engaged in such a thing. I've done a couple myself.   
  • Modern survey instruments are "robotic total stations" and can be operated by a single person. Yes, it is not only possible but quite common for surveyors to work solo.
  • A perambulation of a large irregular tract can easily take weeks or months to complete. This work doesn't all take place in the field, either. There is much to be done in the office and in various records repositories such as county recorders offices.
  • Technically, these robotic instruments are theodolites with electronic digital readouts and electronic distance measuring (EDM) units incorporated into them.  The data is recorded to a handheld computer (typically called a "data collector" in the US & Canada, and a "data logger" in other parts of the world). So the term is dated in common usage, although it is still technically correct.
  • Surveyors can work at night. Modern instruments are self aiming. They emit waves and detect the reflected return. That works well after dark - perhaps better than it does during the day, in fact.  I've done night work on airports to avoid disrupting the air traffic.  Stumbling around the woods in the dark would be difficult, but the instruments will work fine. All these comments apply to the optical total station instruments. I haven't mentioned GPS, which is commonly used for boundary work these days. It too will work fine in the dark.         
Posted : January 11, 2023 8:50 am
Hiroa reacted
Andy J
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Good responses above... if you need the surveyor to be on site at night, you could have them forget a piece of equipment, maybe a tripod and prism backsight setup.   That's certainly happened to me!  


theodolite is very dated.  I'd use "total station" or just "robot" and "robotic instrument".

This post was modified 3 weeks ago by Andy J
Posted : January 11, 2023 9:19 am
Hiroa reacted
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I could be your Surveyor; I do all of those, except theodolite. If you are in Belgium, your surveyor would be using a cell based GNSS satellite receiver or an SBAS based GNSS satellite receiver. Please make him handsome and have the female protagonist fall for him.

Posted : January 11, 2023 9:23 am
Hiroa, RADAR and Andy J reacted

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feel free to use my likeness for your swarthy protagonist....



Posted : January 11, 2023 9:25 am
Hiroa, RADAR and JPH reacted
Duane Frymire
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Could take years if it goes to court. Probably would be done with GNSS during daytime, but could be at night.  nature reserve or other public use property could be donated by private individuals, or by developers in exchange for project approvals, etc..

Here's one (maybe more complicated than you wished for):

Posted : January 11, 2023 9:25 am
Hiroa reacted
Mike Berry
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Posted by: @hiroa

If the above wouldn't be necessary, what other reason could there be to have a surveyor survey a domain like this?

Surveying the boundary could be very necessary in a case like this. Many tracts of land were granted by deed but never "laid out", or surveyed on the ground with permanent monuments. We surveyors take that old deed and begin retracing its calls on the ground, searching for earlier evidence of corner monuments along the way (corners that define the subject tract or the abutting properties) and then, once the deed elements and found evidence is evaluated, return to set the corners of the tract.

Also, if the original tract was surveyed at the time it was deeded, many of the original corners may have been destroyed by fence or road construction, utility work, agricultural field clearing, logging or a zillion other causes. So a surveyor retraces the boundary to find the survivors and reset the missing corners.

Posted : January 11, 2023 12:20 pm
Hiroa reacted

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christ lambrecht
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Hi Hiroa

you already received some decent answers here ...

not that it matters a lot but does the story happen in Belgium?

I have been blogging here about my surveying in Belgium, but that's about 10 yrs ago, there were al lot of pictures involved but due to site modifications most of these links are lost.

surveying in Belgium #23



Posted : January 11, 2023 12:45 pm
Hiroa reacted
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Didn't you get hit in the face with a goose!?!

Posted : January 11, 2023 12:55 pm
Hiroa reacted
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Posted by: @oldpacer

have the female protagonist fall for him.


Posted : January 11, 2023 12:58 pm
Hiroa reacted

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Topic starter

Wow, thanks for all the helpful and elaborate replies everyone!


Good to know there is something involved called a GNSS satellite receiver since communication and space are important motives in this story.

Are the total station and the GNSS receiver used side by side (or during the same days of surveying) or is one tool used at a later moment than the other?


@mightymoe I like the angle of the surveyor having to take part in board meetings, etc. I would probably write it so that the character is irritated by the slow procedures and bureaucratic elements. Not sure if this is something a real surveyor would experience in this way.

And thanks for the tip on using annexation instead of fusion – need to look into this a bit.

The police element also is interesting.


@norman-oklahoma: “They emit waves and detect the reflected return.” – would the effect be the same as with a night vision camera?

And a surveyor will often switch between field work and ‘non-field’ work, right?

In your Cooper Mountain example, these infrastructures were being built to make the land more accessible to visitors? Or where they already there and needed to be upgraded? (So a possible reason for the surveyor being there – besides the annexation/fusion angle – could be that the council wants to turn this piece of land into something more open to the public for example)


@andy-j thanks for the suggestion! In the story the surveyor decides to return at night since he had to cancel his workings throughout the day (he was not informed about an event taking place at the site of his survey). It is his last day of surveying there and he wants to get it over with J. Again, not sure if a real surveyor would be bothered, but it’s kind of a way for him to regain control.


@oldpacer Cool! There is in fact a female protagonist that is involved with the surveyor J.


@duane-frymire and @mike-berry very interesting! I only do not have a clear view of the parties that would be involved in this legal matter (in my instance). I do like the idea of the surveyor having to trace those corner monuments based on the old deed.


@christ-lambrecht The story takes place in a fictional village. But since I’m from Belgium and I will be writing in Dutch and the village has a Dutch sounding name, it is assumed the story takes place in Belgium J. I will definitely check out your posts to learn a bit more about the ins and outs and particulars of surveying in Belgium. If you don’t mind it would be great if I could message you in case I have more questions related to surveying in Belgium?

Posted : January 11, 2023 1:35 pm