Equipment theft: taking preventative measures

It's a steal

27 March 2020

With the vast majority of surveying equipment thefts going unreported, victims should notify police, manufacturers and security companies so intelligence can be gathered and better preventative measures taken

Equipment theft is a serious issue for the profession, and insurance underwriters may not be willing to support businesses in the geospatial sector unless further action is taken. With the cost of a typical piece of equipment around £20,000, it is imperative to resolve the issue.

For this reason, the Survey Association (TSA) has tried to gather all data relevant to survey equipment theft; it has been working with several organisations for many years to advise on preventing theft and what to do when member companies fall victim.

In April 2018, with the support of equipment manufacturers Topcon, Trimble and Leica Geosystems, TSA brokered a 3-year agreement with SmartWater, which produces traceable liquid products that can be used in crime detection.

The agreement aims to coordinate the response to thieves who persistently target surveyors. Key to this strategy is the collection of data detailing when and where thefts occur. In the 12 months to October 2019, SmartWater logged 58 incidents, but instrument manufacturer Leica Geosystems alone has registered as stolen nearly 200 total stations to the end of October 2019. Clearly there is a huge gap between the number of actual thefts and those reported.

Thieves often target high-value instrumentation by posing as professionals, wearing hi-vis clothing and personal protective equipment. More can be done to outsmart them, starting with prevention. A good mantra is lock it, alarm it, track it and report it. Manufacturers have fitted tracking devices, and guidance is available from the TSA website for other prevention methods, including working in pairs so that equipment is never unattended.

A good mantra is lock it, alarm it, track it and report it


It is vital that all survey equipment owners report every theft whether they are TSA members or not. Victims need to report thefts to the police, TSA, the manufacturer and their insurer. They should also stress the value of the instrumentation. When the police receive a crime report, they may think the stolen item is similar to a power tool. However, a total station or GNSS equipment, for instance, are closer in value to a car or van. Victims are thus advised to report that a high-value asset has been stolen, so the police officer can prioritise the crime accordingly.

Victims should also report equipment theft to SmartWater so that the company can collect UK-wide data to identify hot spots for crime. Once it has sufficient data, it can leverage a national response from senior police and the Opal Unit – the national intelligence team focusing on serious organised acquisitive crime across the UK – to disrupt criminal activity and recover stolen property.

TSA educates members through monthly newsletters and a dedicated webpage that provides guidance on reporting incidents.

Prevention is the first defence

The Construction & Agricultural Equipment Security and Registration scheme (CESAR) is the established marking initiative for these 2 sectors, and has been running successfully for more than 10 years. There has been a reduction in machine theft in that time, although some of this may also be attributed to individual companies taking tougher security measures. The latest iteration of the scheme, CESAR Survey, has now turned its attention to specialised surveying equipment, and aims to provide similar levels of theft deterrent.

Datatag ID Ltd, a security marking firm that is the technology partner to CESAR, marks assets to ensure their identity cannot be readily removed. These forensic marking technologies make it harder to hide the true identity of a total laser or survey station and, along with other in-built security, provide a deterrent, and criminals now regard such products as too hot to handle.

One call to Datatag’s round-the-clock secure contact centre will flag a stolen item on its database and alert the police immediately. When they find stolen equipment, police officers can scan the QR code on the tamper-evident warning and identification label to determine its status. Datatag is now in discussion with several equipment manufacturers to provide retrofit options for existing assets.

A manufacturer's view

While there is still no simple way to prevent thefts, better adoption of the deterrents described above will curb demand for stolen equipment by increasing the risk of buying and then being unable to use it. Remote trackers and immobilisers, PIN-secured time-lock protection and snatch-and-grab alarms have successfully frustrated thieves and resulted in equipment recovery.

With Leica Geosystems alone registering 368 units as reported stolen in 2018 and almost 200 total stations stolen in the first ten months of 2019, there has been some decrease. However, this problem cannot be eradicated without complete adoption of deterrents across the industry. The company provides means of remotely locking, securing and locating equipment, while also working with TSA to incorporate measures designed to help users work safely and reduce risk.

This problem cannot be eradicated without complete adoption of deterrents across the industry

SmartWater is forming partnerships with businesses suffering equipment theft, manufacturers and police forces and partner agencies to share details and insight, and met Opal Unit staff to discuss this intelligence. Chief Superintendent Tom Harding has raised the issue of survey equipment theft with the National Serious Organised Acquisitive Crime Group and the Home Office.

TSA continues to encourage members and non-members to report incidents to SmartWater analysts so this information can be relayed to the relevant agencies. An intelligence dashboard on TSA’s site allows members to see their incidents as soon as they are loaded on to the system and shared with analysts at the Opal Unit. SmartWater also shares reports in the same way.

Unfortunately, a high volume of incidents still go unreported. Without vital intelligence and crimes being logged, analysts cannot identify hot spots, outline patterns and share information with the police and other agencies working on national acquisitive crimes. We cannot help to combat a problem when we are largely unaware where crimes are occurring and at what level. Please ensure any incidents, no matter how small, are reported.

Mark Francis is geomatics market segment manager at Leica Geosystems

Rachael Oakley is business development manager and senior analyst at SmartWater Technology Ltd

Miles Taylor is marketing manager at Datatag ID Ltd

Rachel Tyrrell is secretary general at TSA

Oliver Viney is managing director at Atlantic Geomatics and council member and PR committee chairman at TSA

Further information