Robotic total stations allow the operator to control the instrument from a distance via remote control. This eliminates the need for an assistant staff member as the operator holds the retroreflector and controls the total station from the observed point.
Most total station instruments measure angles by means of electro-optical scanning of extremely precise digital bar-codes etched on rotating glass cylinders or discs within the instrument. The best quality total stations are capable of measuring angles to 0.5 arc-second. Inexpensive "construction grade" total stations can generally measure angles to 5 or 10 arc-seconds.
Measurement of distance is accomplished with a modulated infrared carrier signal, generated by a small solid-state emitter within the instrument's optical path, and reflected by a prism reflector or the object under survey. The modulation pattern in the returning signal is read and interpreted by the computer in the total station. The distance is determined by emitting and receiving multiple frequencies, and determining the integer number of wavelengths to the target for each frequency. Most total stations use purpose-built glass prism (surveying) reflectors for the EDM signal. A typical total station can measure distances with an accuracy of about 1.5 millimeters (0.0049 ft) + 2 parts per million over a distance of up to 1,500 meters (4,900 ft).
Reflectorless total stations can measure distances to any object that is reasonably light in color, up to a few hundred meters.
The coordinates of an unknown point relative to a known coordinate can be determined using the total station as long as a direct line of sight can be established between the two points. Angles and distances are measured from the total station to points under survey, and the coordinates (X, Y, and Z or easting, northing and elevation) of surveyed points relative to the total station position are calculated using trigonometry and triangulation. To determine an absolute location a Total Station requires line of sight observations and can be set up over a known point or with line of sight to 2 or more points with known location, called Resection (Free Stationing).