Engineer Builds Drone From Scratch, Destroys It on First Day

Alan Turchik was psyched to be going on his first field expedition as an engineer with National Geographic. The 2012 expedition to the legendary and remote Pitcairn Islands in the Pacific Ocean was part of the Pristine Seas project. One of Turchik’s main roles was to help conservationist Mike Fay do reconnaissance by flying a remote-controlled quadcopter, or drone, to capture photos and videos of uninhabited atolls. Fay wanted to scout for human impact on the ecosystem of Ducie Island, a Pitcairn atoll.

Turchik put a lot of time into building a custom drone to capture aerial footage on the expedition. He says, “Even though it doesn’t seem like that long ago, drone technology was a lot different [from today’s]. You couldn’t just buy these really nice, flyable, off-the-shelf drones; you had to put it all together and test it to make sure it worked.” Turchik worked around the clock to build a small, sturdy drone. “I decided, All right, I’m going to give myself one week. I’m going to build a drone that I can fly and crash, and it won’t break.” When he left for the expedition he had plenty of practice flights under his belt and spare parts for his prototype.

On Assignment

Ducie was the first place where Turchik was planning to use the drone. On the first day of filming, it was incredibly windy and the drone went rogue. “It was a lot more difficult to fly than drones today. The drone didn’t try to hold its position as some do now. It just did whatever you told it to, so if you’re not actively fighting the wind, it’s just going to go wherever it’s going to go.”

The drone was high in the air and spinning in the wind so it was difficult to tell which direction it was facing. It also didn’t have a return-to-home function or a heads-up display as many do now. “The drones nowadays are smarter, and they can handle a lot more situations. I was trying to do this all by eyeball as it’s a tiny speck off in the distance.” When Turchik realized he had lost control, he had one option. He cut the engines.

Turchik searched everywhere, but the drone was nowhere to be found. “I think the moral of the story is to prepare, just really technically know the system and its limitations.” Looking back, he said he his biggest lessons were 1) put a transmitter on the drone and 2) don’t be afraid to tell the expedition team the conditions are not good for flying.

The Rookie is Now a Pro

Turchik has since flown drones around the globe including Palau and the Chagos Archipelago. Watch Turchik’s skill flying a drone through ancient pyramids in Sudan.

The pristine coral reef of Ducie Atoll, seen on the 2012 National Geographic Pristine Seas expedition to the Pitcairn Islands. (Photo by Enric Sala)
The pristine coral reef of Ducie Atoll, seen on the 2012 National Geographic Pristine Seas expedition to the Pitcairn Islands. (Photo by Enric Sala)

The Pitcairn expedition and subsequent work was a huge success. The underwater footage revealed incredible coral reefs and ecosystems. The expedition led to the historic announcement that the British government had created the largest contiguous marine reserve in the world.

Watch more Expedition Raw videos here.



Meet the Author
Carolyn Barnwell has been a producer on the Science and Exploration Media team at National Geographic for over five years. She creates content to support the non-profit National Geographic Society including impact initiatives and the important work of explorers and grantees around the globe. She wrote, produced and edited for Nat Geo’s first-ever web series focused on explorers in the field: Expedition Raw and Best Job Ever. She loves yin yoga, wildlife encounters, and eating baked goods while they are still warm from the oven.