By Dustin Hoaglin
Southwest Regional Manager at Vectors Inc.

Surveyors own expensive field equipment!

The loss of equipment, Total stations, GNSS Receivers, and Data collectors can be extremely costly, not to mention lost production time of your field personnel and delayed delivery of products to your clients.  In addition, a claim could make insurance in the future more expensive. Yikes!

The survey industry continues to be targeted by thieves on a global level.  Theft reports suggest that robots, receivers, and scanners are the most targeted, with Leica and Trimble systems seeing the most cases.

In the last year, we have seen a notable increase in thefts against our Vectors Inc. partners.  

This is probably due to many factors including post covid job loss, inflation, and a better public understating of the worth of our equipment, to name a few.

We have seen cases of field and office theft.  Crews are targeted in the field while working, at overnight hotel stays, and even while eating a meal.  Office buildings and yards are broken into, and any equipment lying on the floor or shelves is easy to pick.  It’s usually already packed up nice and neat in a red (Leica) or yellow (Trimble) carrying case.

The vital first step is a paper trail.

Preparation for theft recovery requires a current list of all your equipment, including the make/model, serial number, date of purchase, and purchase cost.  I cannot stress enough how important it is for a survey company to have a working list of equipment assets.  Although Vectors Inc. does try to keep a list of serialized equipment for each of our customers, our inventory is only as good as what we know was purchased from us or reported to us and should not be relied upon as 100% accurate.

If items don’t have a serial number, consider adding a company ID tag with a unique number. These tags are great because you can have them created with your company name and phone number.  This may get your lost equipment back to you when found by an upstanding citizen, and it will undoubtedly help when that Darwin award-winning crook gets caught trying to sell your equipment to a pawn shop.

It’s also a good to have an idea of current value and even a recent (less than a year old) photo of the condition of each item.  This will go a long way when getting the appropriate value from your insurance company in the event of theft.  I know it sounds like a lot of work but snapping a few quick photos when doing your asset inventory (which you should be doing every year) could save you thousands of dollars in the long run.  If you don’t already have an asset inventory system in place, many free or low-cost software options make it easy. Google “free asset inventory system” to check out a few.

The second step is formal training.

Requiring all staff members that could have company-owned equipment to have training on the proper care, storage, tracking, and reporting loss of that expensive equipment is necessary. It is an excellent way to ensure everyone knows about theft dangers and company expectations.

Training topics could include:

Things you shouldn’t do.

  • Don’t leave doors open or unlocked and alarms unset.
  • Don’t leave equipment in your vehicle overnight.
  • Don’t set equipment up on-site and leave the area (including lunch and breaks).

Things you should do:

  • Set the RTK base up in a safe location where it isn’t easily stolen.
  • Chain and padlock legs to a T-post as a deterrent.
  • If the site requires equipment set up in a high-profile area, like next to a highway on-ramp or walkway, a crew member should stay behind to babysit until it can be relocated to a more secure location.

Step three considers using new technology.

Start using the Trimble VRSNOW and Trimble RTX (more on RTX in an upcoming blog) to remove the need for a RTK base station. You can purchase Trimble® Sentinel for your total stations or after-market GPS tracking fobs. 

But remember, do not to place a GPS tracking fob on your GNSS receiver while using it. This could cause interference with your CM processing GNSS receiver. However, it is entirely ok to add one to your equipment case. (More on this later.) Typically, once followed with a tracking device, the police recover a much larger quantity of items than just your survey equipment.

What should I do if my equipment is stolen?

1. Report the theft to the police.

Make sure to keep copies of all documentation.  You will need this for any insurance claims you make.

2. Contact your vendor (Vectors Inc.), who can report the loss to the manufacturer.

Stolen equipment serial numbers reported to Trimble are logged in their database.  All Trimble dealers can access this database and see the stolen status.  Dealers can make a report and assist law enforcement if someone brings stolen equipment to their store for repair or to be sold/traded.  No matter where it might end up in the world, a dealer can research the equipment’s reported history.

3. Contact your local surveying chapter and or state organization.

The National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS) has a Stolen Equipment Registry where you can report your equipment as stolen or check the serial numbers of any used equipment you may be thinking of purchasing. Local surveying chapters can note the theft and possibly share the information in their publications with other local surveyors.  

What information will I need to provide if something is stolen?

You will need to provide all details, E.g., a physical description of the equipment, serial numbers, location of theft, date and time theft was noticed, and contact information of the correct person in your organization for follow-up.

I would also recommend creating a schedule (monthly/weekly) of checking with the local pawn shops, Facebook Marketplace, eBay, Craigslist, etc.  Often, stolen equipment will not appear at a pawnshop or for sale on a website until many months later.

Things to know.

Your local emergency dispatch telephone number.

911 is typically routed to your dispatch agency and sometimes takes a while. If theft is occurring in real-time, tell dispatch it is an active situation. This will elevate the priority level. Of course, this only helps if the robbery happens in your home area.

Tracking Systems

Bluetooth trackers are basically key fob locators.  These devices aid in locating proximity items.  If you are beyond a 30–40-meter range, they won’t work.

GPS trackers are variable. As we all know, conditions dictate the success and accuracy of GPS.  GPS devices require a clear view of the sky to communicate with satellites.  If the stolen equipment is indoors, in bad weather, under a thick canopy, or in tall buildings, it may not work.

Combination radio frequency (RF) and GPS systems rough track with GPS, and once you are within a few blocks of the equipment, you can use the RF mode to lock in the location.  RF mode severely drains batteries. Awareness of this downfall is necessary for successful recovery.

Be aware of battery systems.  Sometimes these need to be recharged daily, weekly, or monthly.  This is important.  A dead battery won’t help you.  The ones with a long battery life can be even worse because they are forgotten.  Set a reoccurring schedule to ensure your tracker batteries are working as they should be.

Take precautions.

The more steps you take to slow thieves down (locking all doors, storing equipment deep into offices, setting alarms, being vigilant of your camera activity), the greater the chances for law enforcement to arrive and catch them.

The goal is to create a culture of awareness and to reduce carelessness or neglect.  We will likely never get the stolen number of items to zero.  I would like it not to affect you.

And one more thing. We get questions like this regularly…

“I found a great deal on a receiver on eBay.  I had the seller send me the serial numbers. Do you think it would be ok to purchase?”

“I'm looking at buying a used robot from someone who is not a surveyor, and he doesn't have a receipt.  Planning to have Vectors Inc. look it over before I buy, but is there any way to know it's not stolen?”

Yes, we can check Trimble serial numbers in the database, but unless the item is reported to Trimble as stolen, the serial number won’t reflect as stolen.  Just because it was reported to law enforcement and insurance doesn’t mean that Trimble knows about it.

You could receive the item, and then a month or two later, the original owner could report it as stolen to Trimble. At any time, if we discover it is stolen; we are obligated to make law enforcement aware.

So, our short answer is no!  Just don’t do it.