Iraq on the Map: Installing Reference Stations for Accurate Engineering

March 1, 2011  - By

By Anas Malkawi


The team installs a HARNS in the southern province of Basra. Since 2005, Iraqi engineers have attempted to recover HARNS, but many were destroyed by locals who thought they indicated buried treasure.

As a geodetic surveyor, I served in the U.S Army for 10 years. During that time, my team and I developed a nationwide GPS infrastructure system called the Iraqi Geospatial Reference System (IGRS). We installed Continuously Operating Reference Stations (CORS) and High Accuracy Reference Network Stations (HARNS), the first Iraqi owned and maintained system of its type.

As a native Arabic speaker, my role was to train the Iraqi engineers to install additional CORS, as well as update and maintain the IGRS as a part of the International GNSS Service (IGS) network to sustain the accuracy of engineering and mapping projects. The IGRS was critical to other major infrastructure projects in the effort of rebuilding the battered nation, such as telecommunications, public works, and natural resource management to name a few.

Some of the CORS we installed have Virtual Reference System (VRS) capability, a technology newly developed to establish real-time corrections in the field by using CORS as a base station for real-time kinematic (RTK) data collection.

Key coordinators for the installation included Wisam Al-Hassani of the Iraq Ministry of Water Resources, Paul McKenzie of the Canadian Army, Linda Allen of the U.S. State Department, and myself, representing the U.S. Army, in addition to representatives from National Geodetic Survey (NGS), National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), and Trimble Navigation.

In addition to developing the IGRS, we performed several critical projects to assist in the rebuilding efforts as well as providing force protection, navigation, and mapping. My topographic engineering unit was responsible for providing coalition forces with GIS analysis, map production, and geodetic surveys.


GPS equipment collecting data on a reference benchmark used to monitor the deformation of the Haditha Dam.

For my second tour in Iraq (2007–2008), I was the platoon sergeant, which is equivalent to a project manager in a surveying firm. During the 15-month deployment, my team performed various survey projects including: 10 airport obstruction surveys, a dam deformation survey, more than 30 artillery and target-acquisition radar surveys, base-camp designs, site layouts, and ground-truth data collection for photogrammetry and remote sensing projects. We also established a nationwide database of all survey control stations in Iraq. The CORS was installed using Trimble NetRS receivers and Zephyr geodetic antennas. Trimble GPSNet and GPSBase software were used to process the continuous satellite data, for inclusion in the worldwide CORS network for public use. Field survey operations were conducted using Trimble 5700 GPS equipment.

Traveling in Iraq was a major obstacle for survey operations. We had a choice: either fly on helicopters or drive military vehicles. Flying in helicopters with survey equipment was a challenge because we could never fit all our personnel and equipment. However, it was much safer than ground transportation through the dangerous roads of Iraq. In one incident, we were building a bridge in Baiji to help Iraqis and coalition forces cross the Tigris River after the original bridge was destroyed during the 2003 invasion. Our vehicle hit an improvised explosive device (IED). Some of the survey equipment was damaged, but we went back the next day and eventually built the bridge.

Anas Malkawi served 10 years in the Army as a geodetic surveyor and senior technical engineer. He is currently enrolled in Old Dominion University’s Civil Engineering program while working at Transocean International Corporation as the Iraq program manager.


The initial plan of IGRS and placement of CORS/HARN through the Southern provinces.


Soldiers establish geodetic control for an airport aeronautical survey.


Soldiers survey airport navigational aids that require high geodetic accuracy.


Malkawi discusses installation of Iraqi operated and maintained CORS with Al-Hassani.


The result of traveling in military vehicles over roads infested with IED.


Key coordinators for the installation of the first Iraqi owned and maintained Continuously Operating Reference Station (CORS.) From left are Hussein, Malkawi, McKenzie, and Allen.


The 2005 U.S./British IGRS Team. Despite the difficulties, the soldiers I am honored to have served with stayed motivated and performed exceptionally every day by providing accurate data that saved lives.



This article is tagged with , , , , , and posted in Defense, Survey