In my continuing series of sharing articles from our internal monthly newsletter, POV Dispatch, here is Technical Evangelist Gonzalo Martinez's submission about his trip to Africa with Shaan Hurley.
Question: How do you find fossils in the vast spaces of the Kenyan desert?
Answer: Very slowly. (Well, until now, that is...)
A Little Background About an Interesting Project
Recently my Autodesk colleague Shaan Hurley and I became involved in a fascinating project: helping Dr. Louise Leakey - who is carrying on in the great archaeological tradition of her famous family - to develop new methods of finding fossils in Northern Kenya.
Dr. Leakey works with her father, Richard Leakey, at the Turkana Basin Institute (TBI) in Kenya, and traditionally the search for fossils - and therefore, the search for the origins of the human race - has been a painstaking, tiring, and often dangerous process that involves trying to cover huge amounts of mostly desert land on foot or in a jeep.
But given some of our recent work at Autodesk using our "OCTO-Copters" - flying drones equipped with video and photographic capabilities, and named that way because we work in the "Office of the CTO," hence "OCTO" - we thought we could help make this process faster, more efficient, and safer, to boot.
We just finished editing a video about this trip, and below is a first-hand account of our journey.
Autodesk in Africa: We Arrive (And it's HOT...)
So on May 16th Shaan Hurley and I traveled to the Turkana Basin Institute (TBI) in Northern Kenya to take on this exciting challenge.
For this project we brought along two of our OCTO-Copters, which I had customized for this specific task. These copters can be flown remotely via GPS coordinates or by using goggles that allow the operator/pilot to see in real time what the copter is seeing see (aka, bird's-eye-view).
These copters can travel up to a distance of 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) away from the pilot's (me) position, and can be flown up to an altitude of 250 meters (820 feet). The flying time depends on the weight of the gear, and we usually fly for about 16-18 minutes before we need to land and put in a new battery pack to continue the mission. Both copters are 100% electric-powered, using Lithium Polymers battery technology.
From Lions and Lush Vegetation to Scorpions in the Desert
We started our journey in Nairobi, where the lush, green vegetation was the exact opposite of the desert landscape we would be working in when we got to our final destination. Upon our arrival the hotel crew suggested that we not to walk outside the hotel after 6:00pm as a lioness and her cubs had been spotted a few days before around the area, and they usually hunt at night.
We then started our journey to an area in the northern part of Kenya called Lake Turkana, which is very rich in fossil deposits.
Dr. Louise Leakey flew most of our gear on her Cessna 206 and with camp essentials. The area was quite hot, with temperatures reaching 100 degrees in the shade during day. At night we were advised to watch out for the very poisonous Spit cobras and scorpions in the region. The camp where we stayed is run by TBI, and is a perfect setup for researchers to do their work close to the fossil deposit areas.
We assembled one of our copters and proceeded to do all the calibrations needed to fly in Africa. I was very pleased that after a journey of more than 25 hours from California to Kenya most of our gear was in almost perfect condition. We took our copter airborne on our first afternoon at Turkwel and everything worked quite well.
The locals were quite impressed to experience something never seen before in the area, and named our OCTO-Copter the "Flying Spider." Over the next few days we flew over some amazing terrain that was very rich in fossil deposits. We spotted some huts from the air and watched the excitement that the copter generated among the local people. Everybody that we meet was so unbelievable friendly, especially the kids. The footage we captured was stunning, and I have uploaded it here for anyone who wants to take a look at the results of this project.
For Dr. Leakey this was the first time she was able to see what our Octo-Copter was capable of, and she was quite impressed, as was a group of the researchers from Cambridge University who were also at the camp. The whole concept of flying these devices remotely, being able to navigate and fly via the goggles, and to take images or video of any part of the rugged terrain was like a dream come true for them.
This approach can save the researchers so much time and accelerate the process of finding new fossils in the ongoing quest to better understand our human origins. I was very impressed with the performance of our copters, working in such extremely high temperatures. Some days we reached 110 degree temperatures, and I believe we were the very first people to test copters of this type at such high temperatures.
By the time that we got the copters calibrated and ready to support Louise's team, we had decided to go to Lothgam Circles, starting out at 6:00am in a Land Cruiser. Their Land Cruisers are not your typical Land Cruisers, but rather are a heavily modified version designed for the African rugged terrain. They were the perfect vehicle for this trip because we needed to ride off-road for much of the trip. In Africa some trips that you might think would take just a few hours might actually take days due to the very poor conditions of the roads, if they even have roads.
We arrived at Lothgam Circles, and the terrain was very similar to those pictures that were sent back from Mars via the Mars Rover. We assembled our gear and walked to an area to get our copter up in the air. As soon as we had the copter up in the air we started to have some very gusty conditions, but despite the gust we proceeded with the flight plan, using the goggles to pilot the copter.
It was quite impressive to see the terrain from the air, but it was even more incredible to find from the air the remains of the actual Lothgam Circles, which were built 10,000 years ago. This area has so many fossils that even I found some pottery fragments there! It was interesting to find out from the air that there has been some unauthorized excavations in the area. It is hard to tell from the ground but from the air it was quite clear to see that they had been done.
The video footage and the still images that we captured here were quite remarkable. We stayed for a few more days in the area capturing images from above, as well as some HD videos. The area around Turkwel can get quite windy so our planning to avoid those times was crucial. We spent several days flying our copters capturing images at different altitudes, using different cameras. Our crew was very good to us, keeping us hydrated at all times!
Our intention was to provide a sample of still images to Dr. Louise Leakey that potentially could be Cloud-sourced, giving researchers around the world the ability to zoom into the images with a great level of detail. With such detail the researchers can find enough information in the location to go back later and physically grab/catalog new samples. It's quite remarkable the amount of fossils in that part of Africa, and Dr. Louise Leakey shared with us some of the many incredible things they've found over the past 50 years.
Some of those remains included skulls dated 2.5 to 3.5 million years old. It was fascinating to hear Dr. Louise Leakey talk about the difference in types of skulls among humanoids living at similar times in the area. Some of them had more developed brains than others, and some of them had massive jaws and teeth. Dr. Louise Leakey's teams believe the Turkana area was probably the area where we as humans started to evolve, not only as one species but as several types.
After a few days in Turkwel we decided to fly to Camp 2, which is based in Ileret. We flew our gear on Dr. Louise Leakey's Cessna. On approach for landing we found out that our main battery on the airplane was dead, which meant that we had no radio and no flaps to slow the plane for landing. Fortunately, Dr. Louise Leakey did a fantastic job landing the airplane with no flaps at a very fast speed on a dirt runway.
Once in Ileret we moved to the TBI camp and setup our gear for the remaining part of our journey. This time we decided to also test Copter 2, which belongs to Brian Mathews's team. Ileret was a lot gustier than Turkwel, so our plan was to fly either very early in the morning or very late in the afternoon to avoid the worst of the gusty conditions.
We did several flights capturing images and videos, and both copters performed flawlessly. During the weekend we had a fantastic visit from Dr. Richard Leakey and Dr. Meave Leakey, who are Dr. Louise Leakey's parents. Dr. Richard and Dr. Meave have been some of the pioneers in finding early human links to fossils in the Turkana basin. They are world-class paleoanthropologists and conservationists, and it was an amazing experience and honor to meet them in person. We shared with them our OCTO-copter approach, and they were quite excited by all of the possibilities. Dr. Richard shared with me some fascinating stories of how he used to go out in the desert on camels with his wife, Dr. Meave, for 3 weeks at a time, provisioned only with some water, rice, and dry meat. The nights were certainly exciting because every night he had to defend his camels from the lions in the area using only a torch! Talk about hostile working conditions...
As night fell, the desert underwent a dramatic transformation, as the insects really took over. They were everywhere! Wherever there was light, there were insects: in the lab, in our rooms, even on my computer screen - swarms of insects of various kinds always pouring in from far and wide. One good trick that I learned from crew member Deming Yang was to set up a decoy by pointing my flashlight at the white wall beside me, which helped me avoid ending up covered by storms of bugs when I was working on my laptop.
Special thanks to:
Dr. Louise Leakey for being a fantastic host! For sharing with us the important work she's doing; for organizing every detail of our research; for being such a fantastic pilot; for keeping us safe; and for sharing with us some of the amazing discoveries she has made in this magical place called Lake Turkana.
Shaan Hurley, for keeping at all times the spirit of the trip, capturing a million pictures, documenting our doings via blogs, and for helping us lug all that gear around.
Deming Yang, for helping us with all of the logistics, documenting the event, and maintaining a great sense of humor at any time of the day or night.
Volo mobility is alive in the lab.