Satellite positioning

A 1960s surveying text book consulted in 1980 would reveal little change in twenty years. That is not true today, with modern technology, systems and software are being continually updated. Nowhere is this more obvious than with satellite positioning.

It has exploded onto the construction market changing some operations beyond all recognition. As technology improves, accuracy increases and costs come down it becomes more economical to employ it on smaller and smaller jobs.

Setting Out Construction Works with Satellite Positioning

Real-time kinematic (Image courtesy: The Pennsylvania State University)

What is it?

Satellite positioning is the determination of the position of a point using a satellite receiver. Satellite positioning is generally known as GPS or global positioning system after the American military system, which was first available for public use.

Unlike most surveying and setting out tasks, the skill required of the operator is minimal. The skill with GPS is with the management of the system’s input and output data. The satellite receiver does all the work in gathering the data and outputting or storing it as required. With setting out it can provide the operator with predetermined setting out coordinates.

How accurate is it?

Accuracy depends on the methods employed and the equipment used. For construction setting out centimetre level accuracy is achievable. This makes it suitable for many setting out tasks. Unlike traditional survey methods, each point is independent of the points around it, and therefore each point is of a similar accuracy. Degradation of accuracy (due to creep) with distance from the main station is no longer a problem.

If used in unsuitable conditions, accuracy may be compromised. An error in one point is not passed on to adjacent points.

What are the advantages?

When used for setting out, a single engineer with a setting out pole equipped with a satellite receiver can set out points almost as fast as he can mark them. With a road centre-line for example, the operator can walk the route and mark centre-line points at whatever frequency is required. The setting out information can be taken straight from the design on disk without the need to input a mass of figures. Work is unaffected by weather or daylight or a lack of it. Visibility between points is not required, so local obstructions (shrubbery, mechanical plant, low buildings, walls etc.) do not hinder the process. Productivity increases are considerable. As well as giving plan coordinates (Eastings and Northings), it will automatically provide heights as a matter of course. Satellite systems can also be integrated into computer-controlled plant, in which, for example, a grader has the road design in its memory. The grader blade is automatically adjusted to give the correct earthwork profile. This eliminates the need for a complete setting-out team along with their instruments, forest of timberwork, chainmen and their transport.

What are the disadvantages?

Cost is always an issue, but this has to be balanced against productivity. GPS is not suited to all locations. Due to the fact the position of the receiver is derived from observing a number of satellites, a clear view of the sky is necessary. This may make GPS unsuitable for city centre sites shielded by adjacent tall buildings. A received signal may give inaccurate results if deflected off the side of a building.

GPS is not suitable for tunnelling work. However GPS can be used very efficiently to establish a control either side of an obstruction under which tunnelling is required. GPS does not work well in tree-covered areas, again due to the need for a clear line of sight to the sky.

The height element of the output is of a lower order of accuracy than the plan coordinates. Additionally, heights given are not above mean sea level (as with traditional levelling), but above the mathematical model of the Earth, WGS84 (World Geodetic System 1984). Unfortunately, for Europe this does not run parallel to mean sea level. However the GPS output can be configured to give correct information.

GPS is not sufficiently accurate enough to obtain the 1mm precision that can be achieved with a theodolite.


  • Is the site suitable for using GPS?
  • Are there obstructions to the horizon?
  • Can design information be obtained on disk?
  • Can the GPS system accept design information in the given format?
  • Is the output configured in such a way as to give heighting information that is correct for the site? If necessary check known benchmarks using GPS.
  • Will GPS give the required accuracy for the task?


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