Hydrographic survey

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Hydrographic surveying in Alaska. 1985.
Private Survey Ship Neptune

Hydrographic survey is the science of measurement and description of features which affect maritime navigation, marine construction, dredging, offshore oil exploration/drilling and related activities. Strong emphasis is placed on soundings, shorelines, tides, currents, sea floor and submerged obstructions that relate to the previously mentioned activities. The term Hydrography is sometimes used synonymously to describe Maritime Cartography, which in the final stages of the hydrographic process uses the raw data collected through hydrographic survey into information usable by the end user.

Hydrography is collected under rules which vary depending on the acceptance authority. Traditionally conducted by ships with a sounding line or echo sounding, surveys are increasingly conducted with the aid of aircraft and sophisticated electronic sensor systems in shallow waters.

National and International Maritime Hydrography[edit]

Hydrographic offices evolved from naval heritage and are usually found within national naval structures, for example Spain's Instituto Hidrográfico de la Marina.[1] Coordination of those organizations and product standardization is voluntarily joined with the goal of improving hydrography and safe navigation is conducted by the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO). The IHO publishes Standards and Specifications[2] followed by member states as well as Memoranda of Understanding and Co-operative Agreements[3] with hydrographic survey interests.

The product of such hydrography is most often seen on nautical charts published by the national agencies and required by the International Maritime Organization (IMO),[4] the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS)[5] and national regulations to be carried on vessels for safety purposes. Increasingly those charts are provided and used in electronic form unders IHO standards.

History and responsibilities[edit]

The United Kingdom has a long hydrographic history officially begun with the 1683 appointment of Captain Grenville Collins as Hydrographer to the King.[6] With the Royal Navy dominating the seas hydrography grew to a worldwide hydrographic activity. That tradition extended to the nations with a common legacy in the Empire, for example, the Australian Hydrographic Service.[7] The British Admiralty Hydrographic Office became the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office which continues the legacy within the Ministry of Defence[8] with responsibility for the Admiralty Charts.[9] The Royal Navy maintains a number of hydrographic survey vessels[10] to continue the work today.


The Argentine Hydrographic Service was established in 1879.


Hydrographic services are provided by the Royal Australian Navy Hydrographic Service.


Hydrographic services are provided by the Canadian Hydrographic Service.


Hydrographic services are provided by the Naval Hydrographic and Oceanographic Service.


Hydrographic services are provided by the Federal Maritime and Hydrographic Agency.


Hydrographic services are provided by the National Hydrographic Office. It operates a fleet of Eight Oceangoing Conventional Hull Survey Vessels and One Large Catamaran Hull Vessel INS Makar (J31) of the Alcock Ashdown Class, with 5 More of the class due to be commissioned soon.

The Indian Marine Survey Department was established at Calcutta in 1874, which became a part of the Royal Indian Marine in 1882. The Hydrographic Department of the Indian Navy derives its origin from the charting activities of the British East India Company, way back in the 17th century. John and Samuel Thornton, Hydrographers to the East India Company compiled the first chart and Sailing Directions for the Indian Ocean in 1703. During the next two centuries, the captains of the ships of the East India Company went on to pioneer the charting of the Eastern seas extending from Red Sea to Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea, across the Indian Ocean right up to the China Seas.

After Independence, On 01 Jun 1954, the Marine Survey Office was shifted to Dehradun and was renamed as the Naval Hydrographic Office. The Naval Hydrographic Office was re-christened in 1997 as the National Hydrographic Office in recognition of its national stature and increasing international role.[11][12]

The Netherlands[edit]

The Dutch "Dienst der Hydrografie" is part of the Royal Netherlands Navy, since 8 January 1488.[13]

United States[edit]

In United States statutory authority for hydrographic surveys of territorial waters and the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) lies with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).[14][15] NOAA hydrographic surveys are administered by the National Ocean Service[16][17] and carried out by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Corps [18] and federal government civilians. The NOAA fleet survey vessels are based at two major centers on the Eastern and Western coasts of the United States.[19] The organic survey assets are supplemented by other agencies [20] and contract surveys in order to survey the large areas within its responsibility. Those were identified in the NOAA Hydrographic Survey Priorities (NHSP) - East Coast alone as being 3,603 square miles (9,330 km2) classified as critical.[21] The 2009 status shows 29,412 square nautical miles (100,900 km2) out of 510,841 square nautical miles (1,752,000 km2) "Navigationally Significant" were completed.[14] The NOAA Office of Coast Survey, Hydrographic Surveys Division estimates it has awarded approximately $250 million in contracts for hydrographic surveying and related support since 1994.[22]

For inland surface waters such as rivers, streams and inland lakes the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has national responsibility. USGS coordinates survey data collection and publishes a National Hydrography Dataset[23][24] that is designed to be used with geographic information systems (GIS). Other federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency[25] and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service use[26] these data and, along with state and local hydrographic collection organizations, contribute to the national hydrographic data base. The Environmental Protection Agency conducts or contracts for surveys on projects such as the GE/Hudson River Super Fund site.

The U.S. Coast Guard conducts hydrographic survey operations, particularly in the Polar regions.[27]

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency[28] (NGA) oversees charting of international waters for Department of Defense purposes. The Navy's Naval Oceanographic Office[29] conducts many the oceanic surveys. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conducts hydrographic surveys supporting its responsibility for the major waterway projects that include navigation and flood control. Hydrographic data from those surveys is published by districts.[30] Such data is incorporated into both NOAA and NGA products and the Corps engages in efforts to improve hydrographic collection methods.[31] Military combat organizations such as the Navy's SEAL and engineering units have specialized hydrographic reconnaissance survey capability.

The NOAA Office of Coast Survey, Coast Survey Partners web page offers a useful list and summary of major player activities, government and private, with links to those partner web sites.

Hydrographic survey conducted by non-national agencies[edit]

Governmental entities below national level conduct or contract for hydrographic surveys for waters within their jurisdiction with both internal and contract assets. Such surveys are commonly conducted by or under the standards approved by or the supervision of national organizations, particularly when the use is for the purposes of chart making/distribution or dredging of state controlled waters.

In the United States there is coordination with the National Hydrography Dataset in survey collection and publication.[32] State environmental organizations publish hydrographic data relating to their mission.[33]

Hydrographic survey conducted by private organizations[edit]

Large scale hydrographic and geophysical survey is conducted by commercial entities, particularly in the dredging, marine construction, oil exploration & drilling industries. Industry installing submarine cable for communications[34] or power[35] require detailed surveys of cable routes prior to installation with increased use of acoustic imagery equipment previously found only in military applications.[36] There are specialized companies with both the assets and expertise to contract for such surveys with both commercial and governmental entities.

Companies, Universities and investment groups will often fund Hydrographic surveys of public waterways prior to developing areas adjacent those waterways. Survey firms are also contracted to survey in support of design and engineering firms that are under contract for large public projects.[37] Private surveys are also conducted before dredging operations and after these operations are completed. Companies with large private slips, docks or other water front installations have their facilities and the open water near their facilities surveyed regularly.

Crowd sourcing is also entering hydrographic surveying, with projects such as TeamSurv and ARGUS. Here, volunteer vessels record position, depth and time data using their standard navigation instruments, and then the data is processed on the server for speed of sound, tidal and other corrections. With this approach there is no need for a spercific survey vessel, or for professionally qualified surveyors to be on board, as the expertise is in the data processing that occurs once the data is uploaded to the server after the voyage. Apart from obvious cost savings, this also gives a continuous survey of an area, but the drawbacks are time in recruiting loggers and getting a high enough density of data. Also, although accurate to 0.1 - 0.2m, this approach does not have the accuracy and coverage of a multi-beam survey.


Modern surveying relies as much on software as hardware. In suitable shallow water areas Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) may be used.[14] Equipment can be installed on inflatable craft, such as Zodiacs, small craft, AUVs (Autonomous Underwater Vehicles), UUVs (Unmanned Underwater Vehicles) or large ships, and can include sidescan, single beam and multibeam equipment. At one time different data collection methods and standards were used in collecting hydrographic data for maritime safety and for scientific or engineering bathymetric charts. Increasingly with aid of improved collection techniques and computer processing the data is collected under one standard and extracted for the specific use.

After data is collected, it has to undergo post-processing. A massive amount of data is collected during the typical Hydrographic survey, often several soundings per square foot. Depending on the final use (navigation charts, Digital Terrain Model, volume calculation for dredging, topography, Bathymetry) this data must be thinned out. It must also be error corrected (bad soundings,) and corrected for the effects of tides, waves/heave, water level and water temperature differences (thermoclines.) Usually the surveyor has additional data collection equipment on site to record the data required for correcting the soundings. Final output of charts can be created in a combination of specialty charting software or a CAD package, usually Autocad.

With crowd sourced surveying, although the accuracy of the individual measurements are not as accurate as with a traditional survey, the algorithms used rely on a high data density to produce final results that are more accurate than the single measurements. Comparison against multi-beam surveys indicates an accuracy of around +/- 0.1 - 0.2m.


  1. ^ http://www.armada.mde.es/ArmadaPortal/page/Portal/ArmadaEspannola/ciencia_ihm_1/ | Armada Esapñola - Instituto Hidrográfico de la Marina
  2. ^ http://www.iho-ohi.net/english/standards-publications/introduction.html | IHO Catalogue of Publications
  3. ^ http://www.iho-ohi.net/english/letters-and-documents/mou-agreements.html | IHO Memoranda of Understanding and Co-operative Agreements
  4. ^ http://www.imo.org/safety/mainframe.asp?topic_id=350 | IMO
  5. ^ http://www.icomia.com/technical-info/docs/SOLASV.pdf | SOLAS CHAPTER V SAFETY OF NAVIGATION
  6. ^ http://www.naval-history.net/xGM-Tech-HydrographicSurvey.htm | HYDROGRAPHIC SURVEY WORK IN THE ROYAL NAVY UP TO THE 1980s by Geoffrey B Mason, Lieutenant Commander, RN (Rtd)
  7. ^ http://www.hydro.gov.au/aboutus/past.htm | Australian Hydrographic Service - The Past
  8. ^ http://www.ukho.gov.uk/AboutUs/Pages/Corporate.aspx | UKHO - About Us
  9. ^ http://www.ukho.gov.uk/PRODUCTSANDSERVICES/Pages/ChartAvailabilityList.aspx | UKHO - Admiralty Chart Availability List
  10. ^ http://www.royalnavy.mod.uk/operations-and-support/surface-fleet/hydrographic-vessels/ | Royal Navy - Hydrographic Vessels
  11. ^ http://www.hydrobharat.nic.in/brief_history.htm
  12. ^ http://indiannavy.nic.in/book/naval-hydrographic-department
  13. ^ [1]
  14. ^ a b c http://www.nauticalcharts.noaa.gov/hsd/docs/NHSP_2009_TextOnly.pdf | NOAA Hydrographic Survey Priorities 2009 Edition
  15. ^ http://www.nauticalcharts.noaa.gov/hsd/NHSP.htm | NOAA Hydrographic Survey Priorities
  16. ^ http://www.nauticalcharts.noaa.gov/hsd/hydrog.htm | NOS - Hydrographic Surveying
  17. ^ http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/about/nos_org_chart.pdf | National Ocean Service Organization Chart
  18. ^ http://www.careers.noaa.gov/career_fields.html | WELCOME TO NOAA CAREERS
  19. ^ http://www.moc.noaa.gov/ | NOAA Marine Operations
  20. ^ http://www.nauticalcharts.noaa.gov/staff/ocspartners.html | NOAA, Office of Coast Survey, Coast Survey Partners
  21. ^ http://www.nauticalcharts.noaa.gov/hsd/east_priorities.html | Hydrographic Survey Priorities - East Coast
  22. ^ http://www.nauticalcharts.noaa.gov/hsd/contrac.htm | Office of Coast Survey, Contract Hydrographic Surveys
  23. ^ http://nhd.usgs.gov/ | National Hydrography Dataset
  24. ^ http://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/2009/3054/ | The National Map—Hydrography
  25. ^ http://www.epa.gov/waters/doc/nhd_flyer.pdf | EPA Site - National Hydrography Dataset
  26. ^ http://www.fws.gov/data/gisconv/nhdtools.html | U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Documentation and Tools for Utilizing the National Hydrography Dataset
  27. ^ http://www.star.nesdis.noaa.gov/star/documents/2009Ice/Day2/Mack_icebreaker_day2.pdf | U.S. Coast Guard - Polar Icebreaker Operations
  28. ^ https://www1.nga.mil/ProductsServices/NauticalHydrographic/Pages/default.aspx | NGA - Nautical - Hydrographic and Bathymetric Product Descriptions
  29. ^ https://oceanography.navy.mil/legacy/web/nipr_2006/capabilities.html | Naval Oceanographic Office - Capabilities
  30. ^ http://www.sac.usace.army.mil/?action=navigation.surveymaps | US Army Corps of Engineers, Charleston District - Hydrographic Survey Maps
  31. ^ http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/1528816525-68966095/content~db=all~content=a907651111 | http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/1528816525-68966095/content~db=all~content=a907651111
  32. ^ http://www.dnr.state.wi.us/maps/gis/datahydro.html | Wisconsin DNR - Surface Water (Hydrography) Data - Conversion from Coverage to Geodatabase
  33. ^ http://www.tceq.state.tx.us/implementation/water/tmdl/hydromaps.html | Texas Commission on Environmental Quality - Hydrography Maps and Data
  34. ^ http://www.setech-uk.com/pdf/Paper2.pdf HYDROGRAPHIC INFORMATION AND THE SUBMARINE CABLE INDUSTRY
  35. ^ http://sanpedrosun.net/old/belcable.html | BEL submarine cable survey complete
  36. ^ http://www.hydro-international.com/news/id2826-Utec_Surveyor_Equipped_for_Deep_Ocean_Cable_Route_Surveys.html | Utec Surveyor Equipped for Deep Ocean Cable Route Surveys
  37. ^ http://www.hydro-international.com/news/id3583-Infrastructure_Survey_in_Turkey.html | Infrastructure Survey in Turkey 14 December 2009

External links[edit]

NOAA maintains a massive database of survey results, charts, and data on the NOAA site.

See also[edit]