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Techniques and Methods 11–D1

Methods of Practice and Guidelines for Using Survey-Grade Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) to Establish Vertical Datum in the United States Geological Survey

By Paul H. Rydlund, Jr., and Brenda K. Densmore

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF (20 MB)Abstract

Geodetic surveys have evolved through the years to the use of survey-grade (centimeter level) global positioning to perpetuate and post-process vertical datum. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) uses Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) technology to monitor natural hazards, ensure geospatial control for climate and land use change, and gather data necessary for investigative studies related to water, the environment, energy, and ecosystems. Vertical datum is fundamental to a variety of these integrated earth sciences.

Essentially GNSS surveys provide a three-dimensional position x, y, and z as a function of the North American Datum of 1983 ellipsoid and the most current hybrid geoid model. A GNSS survey may be approached with post-processed positioning for static observations related to a single point or network, or involve real-time corrections to provide positioning “on-the-fly.” Field equipment required to facilitate GNSS surveys range from a single receiver, with a power source for static positioning, to an additional receiver or network communicated by radio or cellular for real-time positioning. A real-time approach in its most common form may be described as a roving receiver augmented by a single-base station receiver, known as a single-base real-time (RT) survey. More efficient real-time methods involving a Real-Time Network (RTN) permit the use of only one roving receiver that is augmented to a network of fixed receivers commonly known as Continually Operating Reference Stations (CORS). A post-processed approach in its most common form involves static data collection at a single point. Data are most commonly post-processed through a universally accepted utility maintained by the National Geodetic Survey (NGS), known as the Online Position User Service (OPUS). More complex post-processed methods involve static observations among a network of additional receivers collecting static data at known benchmarks. Both classifications provide users flexibility regarding efficiency and quality of data collection.

Quality assurance of survey-grade global positioning is often overlooked or not understood and perceived uncertainties can be misleading. GNSS users can benefit from a blueprint of data collection standards used to ensure consistency among USGS mission areas. A classification of GNSS survey qualities provide the user with the ability to choose from the highest quality survey used to establish objective points with low uncertainties, identified as a Level I, to a GNSS survey for general topographic control without quality assurance, identified as a Level IV. A Level I survey is strictly limited to post-processed methods, whereas Level II, Level III, and Level IV surveys integrate variations of a RT approach. Among these classifications, techniques involving blunder checks and redundancy are important, and planning that involves the assessment of the overall satellite configuration, as well as terrestrial and space weather, are necessary to ensure an efficient and quality campaign. Although quality indicators and uncertainties are identified in post-processed methods using CORS, the accuracy of a GNSS survey is most effectively expressed as a comparison to a local benchmark that has a high degree of confidence. Real-time and post-processed methods should incorporate these “trusted” benchmarks as a check during any campaign.

Global positioning surveys are expected to change rapidly in the future. The expansion of continuously operating reference stations, combined with newly available satellite signals, and enhancements to the conterminous geoid, are all sufficient indicators for substantial growth in real-time positioning and quality thereof.

First posted September 21, 2012

For additional information contact:
Chief, Office of Surface Water
U.S. Geological Survey
12201 Sunrise Valley Drive
Reston, VA 20192

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Suggested citation:

Rydlund, P.H., Jr., and Densmore, B.K., 2012, Methods of practice and guidelines for using survey-grade global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) to establish vertical datum in the United States Geological Survey: U.S. Geological Survey Techniques and Methods, book 11, chap. D1, 102 p. with appendixes.




Conversion Factors

Abbreviations and Acronyms



Purpose and Scope


Mission Planning and Error Sources

Real-Time GNSS

Static GNSS

GNSS Quality


GNSS Campaign

Future Direction of GNSS

Selected References


Appendix 1. Benchmark Recovery and Establishment Form

Appendix 2. Static Observation Form

Appendix 3. Real-Time GNSS Example Approaches

Appendix 4. Static GNSS Example Approaches

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