Point of Beginning

Ground Control in Baghdad

August 1, 2009
A static GPS setup at the Victory Base Complex in Baghdad, Iraq.


The temperature is 130 F. The sand you’re standing in is burning your feet, and you just finished your last bottle of water. You’re supposed to be staking the boundary on a piece of land near Baghdad, but you’ve been running your total station for less than an hour and have already begun to feel the effects of heat exhaustion. You hate to delay the project, but you really have no choice. You radio for your teammate to pick you up. The work will have to wait.

For me and other surveyors in my group it was just another day on the job. The military men and women told us to drink lots and lots of water, and they were right. But the water we drank there was bottled and pure--no salts or electrolytes--so drinking it didn’t always do the job. The kind of heat they have there can kill.

Alex Proctor wears protective gear as he surveys along “the wire” (base perimeter) north of Baghdad.

Not for the Faint of Heart

I was in Iraq from November 2007 to May 2009 as part of a three-person survey group tasked with establishing a usable control network in a survey area near Baghdad. A national high accuracy reference network (HARN) surveyed by coalition troops in conjunction with the Iraqi government and NGS was already in place; our group was assigned to densify that control and make it more accessible to specific project sites.

The high summer temperatures were just one of the many ordeals our group experienced. Other challenges included dust storms, lack of equipment, radio frequency interference from military systems, and security issues. For example, equipment ordered in June 2007 took nearly a year to arrive in Iraq, and some components never arrived. For months, our group used borrowed equipment from a construction survey group at another camp. Our data collector was the personal property of the lead surveyor in the group. Using a 5-second total station, we surveyed areas referenced to the Universal Transverse Mercator projection’s grid coordinates--a potential problem since a total station only measures ground coordinates.

Fortunately, there was not a great deal of difference over short distances between grid and ground coordinates in the area. However, the lack of GPS equipment did prevent us from doing projects that entailed tying to control that was far from the survey sites.

Meckel surveys a street in Baghdad that is part of a coalition forward operating base.

Logistics presented another obstacle. Each of the surveyors in my group acted as a one-person survey crew, and we shared one vehicle with at least seven engineers. The shared transportation prevented the storage of survey equipment and tools in the vehicle and made field surveys difficult. When two surveyors headed out on surveys at two separate bases, one surveyor was often dropped off with his or her equipment at one base while the other surveyor took the truck to the other site.

Transportation to outlying bases presented similar challenges. The surveyors in our group relied on military helicopters and convoys for transportation to outlying areas. Depending on dust storms, troop movement and hostile activity, we may or may not have been able to deploy to our survey sites. 2008 saw several large dust storms in Baghdad during the summer, which shut down helicopter traffic for days at a time and delayed scheduled military flights. We were basically on standby for helicopter rides to our remote work sites. Priority was, of course, given to mission priorities from the military’s viewpoint. Many times, we spent hours at the helipad with our equipment--and wearing the helmets and bulletproof vests required for military rides--only to be turned away because there was no space on the choppers.

Then there were the challenges of working in a war zone. The military jamming devices used at every military base and on every vehicle affected radio communications, which sometimes made RTK unusable, wiped out access to the entire GPS/Glonass constellation or distorted signals so that the receivers were unable to resolve the ambiguities to provide a solution.

In the United States, surveying is turning more and more to RTK base station networks in urban areas. There are surveyors who have used GPS extensively but have never had to set up a base station or use anything but RTK for their needs. It’s a different world in Iraq. Kinematic GPS, largely left behind as passé elsewhere in the face of RTK, was elemental in surveying there. Static and kinematic post-processing ability was a necessary skill. We had access to OPUS, but the lines were so long that the results were only valid with very long occupation times.

What’s more, the sites that provided good survey control were equally good sites for military tracking equipment. Our group lost the use of several HARN monuments as a result. One HARN point located on a hill became unusable when the military surrounded it with tracking equipment, thus obscuring the point’s horizon. We set a new control point on the other side of the same hill only to have it blocked a few days later by new placement of military equipment.

Additionally, the bases in Iraq were continually changing, and construction took its toll on survey control points. We saw units come onto the base and tear out HARN monuments, bury them and place equipment on top of and around them. We stopped by one such military unit that was in the process of burying one of the monuments of the Iraqi national network. We asked them if they knew that they were burying a high-order national survey control station. The soldier with whom we spoke told us that he had asked his superior about it and had been told that nobody used the station anymore. They placed a concrete roadway over the point. It was one we used regularly.

Working under these conditions brought home the meaning of the saying about being between a rock and a hard place.

A surveyor poses with the U.S. Army's version of a taxicab in Iraq.

Rolling with the Punches

Despite the many hurdles, our group made progress. By the spring of 2009, we had achieved one of our initial goals of establishing a first-order control network on the bases. We had also accomplished design and as-built surveys at eight outlying camps as well as a number of as-built surveys at the military bases near the Baghdad International Airport.

An unforeseen function that emerged for our group was a demand for consulting services to other camps and to the military. We found ourselves on the phone, e-mailing and paying visits to bases to troubleshoot GPS and survey software problems, loaning out equipment, loaning out surveyors, giving training classes to the military and acting as a clearinghouse for information about available geospatial services and resources.

While the challenges were numerous, our group was resourceful. Networking was crucial. We befriended the military engineers on our base, and they were a very good source of information for us. We also established working relationships with the survey and support staffs at other bases. This was advantageous to us when we needed additional people or equipment, and it worked in both directions: We asked each other for help, pooling our knowledge when necessary, and shared that knowledge with other surveyors we came into contact with at other camps--learning from them in the process.

We also relied on NGS contacts and online resources, technical representatives from equipment manufacturers such as Leica and Pacific Crest, and POB’s RPLS.com bulletin board.

Ultimately, however, adaptability was our greatest ally. For example, we found accessories that allowed us to raise the RTK antennas on the rovers to help get around walls that block their signals, and we used the offset function on GPS units to get around some of the multipath from the numerous metal buildings in the area. Fortunately, we had experienced surveyors who could roll with the punches and find ways to get the job done.

Meckel sets up her base for a day's work.

Beyond the Harsh Realities

With the withdrawal of troops from Iraq this year, the long-term future for surveyors there is uncertain. Many as-built surveys still need to be completed, and one of the group’s long-term goals is to survey the civilian housing and office areas, dining facilities, warehouses, empty tracts of land slated for future use, and water- and waste-treatment plants that are located on coalition military installations. The surveyors also assist the military with their surveys as needed.

However, it’s not a job to be taken lightly, and turnover is high. Surveying in Iraq is not as dangerous as we imagine watching CNN back home, but it is far from safe. For example, I once had a group of private security guards fanned out behind me covering my position with automatic weapons as I ran the total station; the surveyor running the rod had an armed escort who was in radio contact with a guard tower that was watching the area where she was walking. Another surveyor--not a member of our group--was injured by unexploded ordnance last year as he was driving rebar. Fortunately, his injuries were relatively minor, but it was a grim reminder of the harsh realities of surveying in a war zone.

There are also personal challenges. We worked 12 hours per day, seven days per week, with eight holidays that we did not have to take if we chose. We lived in military housing, followed military rules, ate in military dining halls and watched military TV--those of us who had TV. Cell phone coverage was spotty, and some bases forbade cell phones. Calling home was done mostly from phone centers and offices with very little privacy. There were gyms, recreation centers and Internet cafés in the camps, but these were not always conveniently located. It is not an easy life for civilians.

Yet, there is a certain amount of personal satisfaction to be gained in knowing that progress is being made, albeit slowly. Thanks to our work as surveyors, the military and private industry in Iraq are gaining accurate maps and surveying capabilities that will benefit the country and its residents long after this page of history is turned.