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Surveying on a busy runway

October 2, 2023  - By
Image: NV5 Geospatial

Image: NV5 Geospatial

NV5 Geospatial, a large geospatial data company, provides services for airport projects across the United States and U.S. territories — mainly supporting airport planning and engineering firms that must meet FAA survey and mapping requirements for data collection at airports. “We generally are a sub-consultant to them, helping them achieve those survey standards for collecting the data and submitting it to the FAA,” said David Grigg, the company’s Aviation Program Director. Typically, this is around planning projects such as airport layout plans and master plans, but also engineering projects such as runway extensions and runway reconstructions.

As an example, Grigg cited the extension of a runway, which requires new flight procedures to be established. “Two survey missions are required for runway extensions. The primary mission is to establish control for the aerial imagery. Using the imagery, control and design data, we check for obstacles photogrammetrically. That data is sent to the FAA and procedures are developed. After construction is complete, we go back to the airport to survey the changed runway and navigational aids (NAVAIDS) to verify that what was designed was ultimately built.”

Another way in which NV5 Geospatial supports airport clients is by conducting obstruction studies around them for vegetation management. “That’s generally where we pull in the lidar surveys,” said Grigg. The FAA’s standards for relative and absolute positioning accuracy for trees are “rather generous” by surveying standards, he said. “We’re talking two to three feet vertically and twenty feet horizontally. It’s not like a typical mapping job where you’re guaranteeing it to one foot or better horizontally and half foot or better vertically.”

The FAA, he points out, has published guidance on how lidar may be used. “We mostly use aerial photogrammetry to support projects in the FAA’s airports GIS program. When we collect lidar at an airport, we do it to generate contours and to identify individual tree canopies. Our lidar-derived data is most often developed to benefit airports for tree mitigation not for FAA airports GIS survey projects.”

Image: NV5 Geospatial

Image: NV5 Geospatial

On the other hand, the FAA has strict requirements regarding metadata to document when, where, and how each control point is collected. “At the time of the survey, photographs are taken of the GPS units from different angles and cardinal directions,” Grigg said. “This is visual documentation for NGS that the surveyed point is at the location described. ”

Another challenge for surveyors working at airports is that they are required to pull back for incoming aircraft. “Obviously, you will have some logistical issues at busy airports,” said Grigg. Surveyors are required to have special lights and markings on any vehicles that enter the airport property to ensure ground and air visibility. Aircraft movement also impacts surveyors as they must move away from the runway safety area (RSA) for take-offs and landings. Busier airports are surveyed at night, when air traffic is reduced or runways are closed.

Image: NV5 Geospatial

Image: NV5 Geospatial

A typical project for a small airport takes about nine months, while for bigger airports — such as Chicago O’Hare, Dallas-Fort Worth, or Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta — they can take up to twice as long. “The large hubs update their master plan on a more reoccurring basis, such as every three to five years,” said Doug Fuller, NV5 Geospatial’s Airport Solutions Specialist. “As the airports get smaller, you start stretching out that timeframe.”

Airport survey requirements

[The following was written by NV5 Geospatial and only lightly edited by GPS World.]

Airports have surveys conducted for many different reasons. However, all survey types require the collection, classification and reporting of accurate data about the project. The methodology selected to gather the information is up to the professional surveyor’s judgment. Some features require observation through ground field methods, while others lend themselves to collection via remote sensing technologies.

All surveys start with a search for existing airport control, which are called Primary Airport Control Points (PACS) and Secondary Airport Control Points (SACS). These are points on the airport that have been adjusted by the National Geodetic Survey (NGS). This ensures that the survey is done on the National Spatial Reference System (NSRS).

A typical survey includes surveying the runway, the end points, any displaced thresholds, and a profile along the centerline of the runway. If the centerline marker is not in the correct location or if it is not there at all, the surveyor will make the necessary measurements to establish the proper location and set a new marker. Next the surveyor must locate all NAVAIDS and survey them at the proper location as described in FAA Advisory Circular 150/5300-18B.

After the NAVAIDS are located, the photo control survey will be done. This still requires the PACS and SACS to be the points of origin of the survey. The base requirement as described in FAA Advisory Circular 150/5300-16C is to survey ten photo control points and five check points. The check points are sent to NGS’s Online Positioning User Service (OPUS). This is used to check that the survey was done on the NSRS and that the compilation meets FAA standards.

The standards the surveyor must meet vary depending on the equipment type or photo control point. Examples of the accuracy requirements for the NAVAIDS are as follows:

Point Horizontal Vertical
Distance measuring equipment +/- 1 ft +/- 1 ft
Glideslope +/- 1 ft +/- 0.25 ft
Inner marker +/- 10 ft +/- 20 ft
Localizer +/- 1 ft +/- 0.25 ft
Runway end point +/- 1 f ft +/- 0.25 ft
Runway profile points +/- 1 f ft +/- 0.25 ft
Photo control +/- 1 ft +/- 1 ft




X Y Z Ellip.
Inverse from PACS to SACS

surveyed relative to published

0.09 ft 0.09 ft 0.15 ft 0.13 ft

When surveying on airport property, the largest challenge is always accessing the runway safety area to locate the runway ends and profiles. At small airports Surveyors must work when the runway is not busy; at airports with FAA control towers when the runway is closed. Frequently this is done overnight. Other challenges include access to the FAA NAVAIDS. Some of them must be turned off to be surveyed and others require survey points on which it is not possible to set an instrument. When we are not able to occupy a point, we collect it by surveying multiple equidistant locations around the NAVAID and averaging them.

Image: NV5 Geospatial

Image: NV5 Geospatial

NV5 Geospatial surveyors use a combination of real-time (R/T) and post-processing techniques. We also use OPUS with the PACS and SACS and the five check points. Once the PACS and SACS have been determined to be stable, the proper coordinates are applied to them and the R/T points are adjusted using Trimble Business Center (TBC). NV5 Geospatial uses Trimble TRM-R8s and we recently added TRM-R12i receivers to our equipment. We use ground control points to orient the photography and to calibrate the lidar.

About the Author: Matteo Luccio

Matteo Luccio, GPS World’s Editor-in-Chief, possesses more than 20 years of experience as a writer and editor for GNSS and geospatial technology magazines. He began his career in the industry in 2000, serving as managing editor of GPS World and Galileo’s World, then as editor of Earth Observation Magazine and GIS Monitor. His technical articles have been published in more than 20 professional magazines, including Professional Surveyor Magazine, Apogeo Spatial and xyHt. Luccio holds a master’s degree in political science from MIT. He can be reached at or 541-543-0525.