Topographical survey for a planning application for a new religious building

Topographical Surveys: The Key to a Successful Project

What is a topographical survey?

Topographical surveys, ground surveys, or Topo Surveys are accurate surveys produced by Land Surveyors to precisely depict the topography or terrain of an area of interest or parcel of land and its structures and features. Traditionally, topographical surveys have been measured with a theodolite, total station, or GNSS receiver, but laser scanners and drones are increasingly playing an increasing role in data collection. Large sites used to be the domain of manned aircraft that measured a topographical survey with Lidar or Photogrammetry. More recently, these large sites are being surveyed with a drone at a much-reduced cost compared to a manned aircraft and a traditional land survey.

A utility survey depicts underground and overground features and services with their connections overlaid upon a topographical survey. These services can be located with radio detection or ground penetrating radar. Services and their attributes (size & depth) are marked on the surface with paint and measured in the same way as a topographical survey.

Land surveyor carrying out an integrated total station and RTK GPS topographical survey

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What is included in a topographical land survey?

A topographical survey can be a 3d model, a 2d map or a plan showing physical features. Topographical features surveyed could be structures, utility covers, areas of ground cover, trees or vegetation. Spot levels are shown with breaklines to control the shape of the surface model and contours to join points of equal level.

Typically, utility service covers and other service markers are identified, sometimes with underground services traced and marked with overhead services, depending on client specifications. Adjacent or overlooking features can be included to assist in assessing the setting of a site in the wider landscape, in a street scene or in assessing the proximity of critical topographical features. For example, picking up adjacent overhanging trees so that root protection areas can be calculated.

A topographical survey is the foundation of a boundary survey
This topographical survey was used to accurately sub-dive land

Typical equipment used on a project site to gather topographic data

  • Theodolites / Robotic Total Stations:
    A total station (pictured below) can be used by a team of surveys (or just a surveyor in the case of one-man robotic total stations) to measure horizontal and vertical angles, as well as distances. The surveyor or assistant surveyor walks around the site with a detail pole. Codes are recorded on a data logger at the survey pole or instrument end.
  • GNSS satellite positioning systems:
    Often referred to as ‘GPS,’ this is the American global positioning system. It is just one of several satellite constellations in orbit around the Earth. A Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) base station or receiver collects positions relative to the satellite positions.
  • Levels/Precise levels:
    Often referred to as Dumpy Levels, these devices transfer height or level information from one point to another.
  • 3d laser scanners:
    Terrestrial laser scanners or mobile laser scanners can gather large amounts of data per second. This is far quicker than the above tools. Increasingly these scanners are hand-held, mounted on vehicles or on a drone. Ground-based LiDAR can have limitations due to restricted sight lines. Most survey equipment needs a clear line of sight to make accurate measurements.
  • Drones:
    Drones are at the cutting edge of topographical mapping and collect data quickly, safely, and cost-effectively. They can be integrated with traditional equipment. Drones carry various sensors to measure points using photogrammetry or LiDAR. Due to the clearer site lines, drones have a significant advantage over ground-based survey equipment. Drones are the fastest way to gather survey data—up to 80% faster, in fact!
    See how drones can supplement a survey with improved deliverables, safety, and speed of data acquisition.

Why do you need a topographic survey?

A topographical survey provides a comprehensive overview of the land, helping identify potential problems and plan future development. This type of survey is also helpful in determining where construction can and cannot occur. Additionally, a topographical survey can help with the design process, allowing engineers and architects to envision the project accurately before breaking ground. Topographic surveys form one of the critical starting points whenever land is to be developed or redeveloped.

Typical uses for topographic surveys

Topographical Survey for a residential development adjacent to a small river with sections
Topo Survey for residential development
adjacent to a small river with sections
to help the client assess flooding
Topographic map from drone survey
Example topographic map from a drone survey
Topographical Survey of a farm dwelling and adjacent land
Topo Survey of a farm showing
the dwelling and adjacent land

Add clarity, context and understanding with a topographic survey

For many projects, a topographical land survey can be combed with a hydrographic survey, a measured building survey, or an underground utility survey, adding flexibility, understanding and context to a topo survey. As a result, usability can be vastly improved. Our surveyors can add various kinds of spatial data to a topo survey.

Highway access and visibility assessments:

Add data beyond a site to include adjacent highways or other rights of way to assess safety, overlooking etc.

Street scene surveys:

Add elevation of frontages around a site to enable a fuller understanding of how a project sits within adjoining properties. Newtown survey for a planning application

Planning applications:

A Land Surveyor can employ various techniques to acquire offsite data, in a discrete, non-invasive way. Overlooking can be an important factor. We can use remote survey methods to measure roof and window heights. We can accurately measure offsite trees to indicate the Root Protection Areas of overhanging trees.

A topographical survey in a wooded valley for a planning application
This topographical survey sample was used for a planning application for a replacement dwelling located in a wooded valley
Topographical survey for a residential development showing overlooking features and the railway line
Topographical survey example for residential development on a sloping site showing overlooking features and the railway line at the bottom of the hill

Landscape setting:

Understanding the wider landscape setting of a site can be important in planning applications. Assessing views into the site from adjacent land or rights of way can be a critical factor. More: How can drone surveys help with planning applications

Visual line of sight assessments:

For telecommunications having a clear line of sight can be very important. A survey can help you understand how a new building could impact existing telecoms. For acoustic surveys, a line of sight of sight model can help an acoustic engineer understand the propagation of sound.

Utility mapping:

A service trace survey can help map buried services using radio detection or ground-penetrating radar. Understanding the impact of critical wayleave or safety distances can be a lifesaver.

Flood impact assessment and prevention:

Understanding the topography of the land and how water accumulates and runs off the land can be critical

Asset management:

A robust inventory of assets could save you time and money. This could be for a local authority logging their street furniture onto their GIS system. An accurate plan of a site showing where and how your assets are located and connected could make your site operation more efficient.

Boundary surveys:

Topo surveys can provide the backbone of a boundary survey. They are more accurate than land registry data and OS data. In the event of a dispute between neighbours, a boundary survey will be related back to title plans, Ordnance Survey data, historic aerial images and any other data about the site. When suitably compared and overlayed, the intended boundary position can be determined and compared to natural and built topo features on the ground.

topographic survey for a planning application showing site boundaries and site features

Initial site survey after the site was purchased

Drone mapping: topographical surveys with drones

Updated site survey after extensive renovation works. Survey update produced from a drone survey

Drone mapping: topographical surveys with drones

Extract of the topo survey around the dwelling produced from a drone survey

3d model of drone survey for a planning application

3d model of drone survey for the creation of topo survey and measured survey

Frequently asked questions about topographic surveys

Why do you need a topographic survey?

A topo survey is important for land planning, engineering, and construction. It accurately represents a piece of land’s physical features, such as its contours or elevation, water bodies, roads, and other features. This information is essential for a wide range of projects, from creating detailed maps of a golf course to building a bridge. A topo survey can also map natural resources such as minerals and land management activities.

Do I need a topographical survey for planning permission?

No, not always, but it can help planners understand a planning application site. On a simple site, a topo survey might not be needed. A small, flat, and square with a potential building in the middle of the site and away from other features may only need a simple site location plan.

What is the purpose of topographic surveys?

The primary purpose of topographic surveys is to accurately represent a piece of land’s physical features. Accurate land measurements are used for various applications, including engineering, construction, and land management planning. Topographic surveys can also be used to map natural resources such as minerals and create detailed terrain maps for recreational activities.

What is a topographic survey?

A topographic survey is a detailed and accurate map of a land area’s physical features, such as its contours or elevation, water bodies, roads, and other features. It is typically used for engineering and design purposes, such as planning roads, buildings, landscapes, or dams.

What type of data is collected during a topographic survey?

During a topographical survey, data is collected regarding the location and elevation of points above sea level or a local site datum and any permanent man-made features, such as roads, buildings, fences, and rivers. Topographical surveys also may measure slope, aspect, and land cover characteristics.

Boundary survey vs topographic survey. Are they the same?

Yes, they are essentially the same. However, a boundary survey will have less information because its focus is different, with less emphasis on the shape of the terrain and more on the shape and position of boundaries. Both are land surveys carried out by a professional land surveyor.

How much does a topographical survey cost?

This question can be complex as it depends on several factors. The size and complexity of the site will determine the amount of time spent on site; your specifications and the types of details you need us to measure all play a part in calculating cost. A base price for a day on site for a typical topographical survey could be £500. Using a drone for the survey will save time on site — cutting a day to an hour. This can save on the cost. Contact us today with your needs, and we can give you a bespoke quote that matches the same day.

Safer, quicker & cheaper