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Automatic Level Compensators

A utomatic levels have been with us
since the middle of the twentieth
century. Today, they are so common
through the compensator. The effect of
passing the light through the compen-
sator is to alter the reading at the reticle
sudden quivering type movement caused
by wind or vibration, it is also possible
for a frequency or amplitude to be
place that the adjective “automatic” is so as to be corrected for the level error. reached that makes a stable line of sight
frequently not even used. But this ad- The compensator optical components impossible.
vance in technology has been the single shown in Figure 1 in schematic form de- Technology for damping is quite often
most significant feature in the history of pict a mirror suspended from fine wires magnetic. However, pneumatic or air
vertical distance measurement. like a pendulum to compensate for level- damping is also used. They both have
The basic principle of optical leveling ing error. Many modern instruments actu- their advantages and neither has been
is to create a line of sight through the tel- ally use a prism for the moving element. shown to be superior to the other.
escope that is normal to the direction of
gravity at that point (i.e. horizontal). Be-
fore automatic levels, this was done by
ensuring that the vertical axis of the lev-
el (i.e. the axis of rotation) was truly ver-
tical. Other adjustments ensured that the
line of sight was perpendicular to this Directed to the
vertical axis. The basic advance of the Level Line center of the reticle
automatic level is that the level of per-
fection in verticality of the axis is no Figure 1: Schematic of a wire-hung compensator.
longer critical.
Even with well-made pre-automatic
instruments, ensuring that the axis was Suspension System: Because com- Limitations and Errors
vertical had practical limitations, thus re- pensator systems rely on a suspended As with all technologies, optimum use
quiring the surveyor to relevel the in- optical component to establish the level is enabled by understanding how the
strument with every sighting. The practi- line automatically, the suspension sys- technology works, knowing its limita-
cal problem resolved for the surveyor is tems must support the movable optical tions, and possessing the skills for evalu-
that this releveling is no longer neces- component in as friction-free manner as ating, calibrating, and adjusting it. A few
sary. The technology in the instrument possible. Any binding in the suspension of these are now briefly mentioned here.
“automatically” does it. will cause the system to come to rest pri- Compensation Range: Automatic
or to seeking a true horizontal line. The level compensators only work within a
The Technology most common suspension system today certain amount of tilt of the vertical axis,
The compensator of an automatic level is the wire-hung type. Other types that called the compensation range. The exact
uses gravity to suspend or balance a por- have been used in the history of auto- range varies between different models
tion of the instrument optics. In this way, matic levels include Mylar tapes instead but is often 10 to 20 arc-minutes. If you
the optical path of light through the instru- of wires, ball bearings, and magnetically are outside of the compensation range,
ment is compensated for the vertical axis levitated compensators. the suspended assembly in the compen-
error before reaching the user’s eye. Dif- Damping Systems: A damping de- sator will simply “bottom out” against its
ferent manufacturers, in various products vice quickly stops the suspended com- physical maximum swing limit. Insuring
and at different times, have implemented ponent from swinging indefinitely. With- that the instrument is leveled with a well-
many different designs. However, certain out a damper, the suspended portion of adjusted bulls eye bubble best eliminates
fundamental principles and components the compensator could swing for quite this problem.
remain common: the optical system, sus- some time (like a pendulum) before set- Curvature & Refraction: Automatic
pension system, and damping system. tling down enough to allow the user to level compensators seek a horizontal line
Optical System: In addition to the ba- read the rod. The user would see the of sight through the telescope. There is
sic telescope lens elements, the light en- crosshair bouncing up and down. Be- no way for the compensator to correct for
tering into the objective lens of the in- cause of the damping device, the com- earth curvature and atmospheric refrac-
strument must pass through a mechanical pensator will normally stop moving be- tion. The best procedure is to simply lim-
compensator system before reaching the fore the user even looks through the tel- it your observations to approximately 100
user’s eye. Most compensators include escope to focus on the rod. While the meters so that the errors are relatively in-
mirrors and/or prisms to direct the light damping system also assists in resisting significant.


or cause the instrument to fall out of

Vibration: Damping systems help, but
severe vibrations cannot be overcome. The
problem will be evident when you literally
see the crosshairs vibrate up and down
while trying to read. Vibration can also be
a problem in storage and transport as well.
If the instrument is subject to excessive vi-
bration, it can drift out of calibration.

Errors generally fall into two cate-
gories. The first is error caused by a mal-
functioning compensator. The second is
calibration error. The user should read the
instrument’s manual carefully to under-
stand how to determine (frequently)
whether these types of errors are present.
Your authorized instrument repair station
Figure 2: Cutaway diagram of an automatic level with wire-hung, can also help you with understanding
air damped compensator. these errors, diagnosing them and, if de-
sired, adjusting the instruments.

Shock: Level compensators use del- signed for use in field conditions, a Thanks to Matt Delano of Nikon for assis-
icate suspension systems to accurately well-informed user is assumed. Exces- tance in preparation of this column.
align the line of sight. Although de- sive shock can harm the compensator Illustrations courtesy of Nikon.