Point of Beginning

Remote and Rugged

October 31, 2003
A surveying project in Tanzania offers unique challenges.



As the OLAPP archaeologists unearthed important skeletal remains, the project's surveyors carefully mapped the location of the find. These detailed maps help scientists understand the relationship between the animals that once lived there and the land as it was then.
Really tough surveying jobs tend to involve a group of common challenges: harsh weather, challenging terrain, distance from resources-and sometimes even the occasional wildlife encounter. And, really, Joe Paiva, PhD, PE, PLS's 2002 summer surveying project was pretty typical in this way. Of course, the fact that it took place in a remote spot in Africa meant the challenges were maybe just a little more harsh than usual-like temperatures in the hundreds every day, barely passable roads and arid, dust-choked archaeological surveying sites. Paiva had no running water, no regular access to electricity and, for the most part, no contact with the rest of the world. Oh, and let's not forget the lions, hyenas and hippos that threatened him great bodily harm. But surveying is surveying, right?

Paiva, a respected surveying consultant, member of the Geomatics Industry Association (GIA) and one of the developers of the first computerized data collectors, has been involved with the Olduvai Landscape Archaeology Paleoanthropology Project (OLAPP) in the East African country of Tanzania on and off since 1995. The project, funded and managed through the Center for Human Evolutionary Studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey, is a continuation of the pioneering work of famous anthropologists Louis and Mary Leakey.

In the 1950s and '60s the Leakeys made breakthrough discoveries in the Olduvai Gorge, unearthing remains of hominids, the earliest known human ancestors. Today, archaeologists and paleontologists at Olduvai are trying to decipher what the landscape in this area was like a million years ago, to learn more about the development of the earth and life in this place. What was the land like, how did the inhabitants live, what were their communities like?

The landscape at Olduvai is arid now, but evidence such as fossilized remains shows that it was once a lush, fertile area much like nearby Ngorongoro Crater, the caldera of an extinct volcano that contains an incredible diversity of plant and animal life. Part of OLAPP's research involves using the current environment at Ngorongoro as a model for what Olduvai could have been in the distant past. Surveyors are called upon to map areas of Ngorongoro that would be of interest to hominids-springs, in particular-to see what gathering spots in Olduvai might have been like. The other surveying work comes into play when archaeologists unearth significant artifacts such as bones. These finds need to be carefully mapped to plot their place within the landscape the creatures lived in.

When the Leakeys were working here, they documented and mapped their finds with photographs and hand sketches. Today, archaeological surveyors use three-dimensional, computerized mapping processes made possible by handheld data collectors and sophisticated surveying software. It's Paiva's expertise with this modern technology that brought him to this primitive area for this unique surveying challenge.

"Over the years I've had the opportunity to provide surveying and mapping support to help with the project science," Paiva says. "This time they had unearthed large sets of bones of two prehistoric animals, one related to the elephant and one to the hippopotamus. This was a significant find because it's rare to discover remains like these together in one place. The project needed precise location and shape information-a survey that in effect slowly scanned the area, done in several steps as they excavated. This would help them understand what the setting was like when these creatures lived here, as well as how they may have died."

Joe Paiva and his surveying crew worked around a potential technology roadblock by using the TDS Ranger with Survey Pro software to control this total station and transfer data from the field to their computers.

Needed: Rugged Technology

The Olduvai project offers what might be called challenging conditions in an extremely remote location. The nearest large town that has electricity, a phone or Internet access is Arusha, 120 miles away. The trip from Arusha to Olduvai Gorge takes five to eight hours, ending at the camp or "boma." The name is taken from the Masai tribal word for a local thorn bush, and it describes the fence made of thorns that serves as the camp's outer boundary. The fence is necessary to provide a barrier from dangerous animals that roam freely in the area and are always interested in snatching an easy meal. The camp has no running water, no electricity except what solar panels can generate each day, and no radio or other contact with the rest of the world.

Because academic and scientific project funding is tight in today's American economy, OLAPP workers tend to make due with whatever combination of equipment they already have or can somehow acquire at little or no cost.

For this trip, Paiva brought along several useful assets: a Trimble (Sunnyvale, Calif.) 5600 reflectorless total station with auto-tracking that included an onboard data collector and onboard data collection software, two TDS (Tripod Data Systems, Corvallis, Ore.) Rangers equipped with TDS Survey Pro software, and his 16-year-old son, Gavin, who had an interest in surveying and a summer off from school.

"I was involved years ago in the development of data collectors for another company, and was familiar with Trimble products as a developer, not as a user," Paiva explains. "And I knew that Trimble had acquired Tripod Data Systems. When it came time to go to Africa for this trip, the project team asked for my advice on how to be more effective in surveying. I suggested it might be a good year for us to do some experimenting with a Trimble reflectorless total station and some newer data collectors. The collectors we had were a little old, and I knew the TDS products were really versatile, rugged enough to work well in the harsh environment and compatible with a large number of other products. They had staying power-for a project with limited funds, it would make sense to use something that versatile."

Another enticement was the capability of the Ranger and Survey Pro to produce on-screen graphics.

"That feature was very important to us," Paiva says. "Mapping can get separated from other sciences because it's too hard for untrained scientists to operate the equipment. We're committed to putting surveying tools into the hands of scientists, but the tools need to be intuitive and provide understandable, visual results. With the Ranger you can see the map develop as you survey-so it's easy to see if key data is missing before you get back to camp. The Ranger was the best choice of all the data collectors out there-based on economy, user interface, ruggedness, versatility and the ability to introduce it to experts in other disciplines."

Paiva contacted TDS, which agreed to loan OLAPP two Rangers with Survey Pro.

The isolated, arid landscape of Olduvai Gorge was once a lush green environment with plenty of water and a thriving animal population. OLAPP scientists use land mapping data from surveyors like Joe Paiva to compare Olduvai to nearby Ngorongoro Crater, which they think parallels what this area once looked like.

From "Toy" To Time-Saver

When Paiva and son Gavin arrived at Olduvai on a hot afternoon, they planned to rest and get acclimated, and then start work the next day. Instead they were immediately called to survey a find that had been made just that day. Unfortunately, the old total station the project [workers] had been using had succumbed to the harsh conditions and could not measure the vertical angles they needed. Paiva decided to try out the Trimble 5600 total station he had brought along "to play with." He had intended to use the Trimble onboard software, but because of a missing software shipment was unable to do so. This put into jeopardy his very purpose for being in Olduvai, and the remote location and limited funds meant that obtaining a replacement was a long delay away at best, and an impossibility at worst.

It was at this point that Survey Pro's versatility and ease of use saved the day-and maybe the summer.

"Gavin was fooling around with the Ranger, and he discovered that he could use it to control the total station," Paiva says. "So we were able to collect all the total station data into the Ranger's memory and later download the data to the computers back at camp. We became productive very quickly. And because the Ranger had Survey Pro's auto-tracking and prismless support functions, we were able to do even more than we had originally planned."

And, even better, the Ranger with Survey Pro was the right choice to deliver on Paiva's commitment to get surveying tools in the hands of other scientists.

"The crowning glory was that, because Survey Pro had an easy interface and all the functions they needed, I was able to train my son and another scientist to use the Ranger," Paiva says. "As a result, we could work in shifts, putting in even longer days than the archaeological crews-with auto-tracking functions we could even take measurements after dark.

Working Around Hyenas and Hippos

Of course, working after dark was a little different in Olduvai compared to an average surveying jobsite. When working alone at night, the current Ranger user was accompanied at all times by a local Masai warrior armed with a spear and a Simba knife to ward off any large predators that might be curious-or hungry. And the bodyguard was not an overreaction. One night as Joe drove off, leaving his son to work the night shift, his vehicle's headlights illuminated a hyena skulking around the perimeter of their work area.

Hyena predators weren't the only animals posing challenges to the surveyors. On several occasions hippopotamuses kept them from getting to the positions they wanted. Although hippos are vegetarians, they're not particularly tolerant of humans invading their space-they're actually responsible for more deaths than any other animal in Africa. But by using Survey Pro's reflectorless total station functions, Paiva and crew were able to keep their distance and still get the measurements they needed.

"We could take shots where man did not dare to tread," Paiva says with a laugh.

So in the end the equipment that Paiva brought to "play around with" made the trip a surveying success. Instead of a long trip back to civilization to try to round up replacement equipment, OLAPP scientists were able to continue their necessary tradition of making the best of what they have available. And, thanks to the versatility and easy operation of Ranger and Survey Pro, the outcome was both productive and painless.

"It worked like it should," is Paiva's overall assessment. "I didn't have to spend much time thinking about it. And I recommended that the project [administrators] purchase a Ranger with Survey Pro as soon as they can obtain the funding."

Because even an "ordinary" surveying project like this can use some new technology.