UCSD undergrad’s collaboration with National Geographic leads to internship
By Chris Palmer
An undergraduate student’s collaboration with National Geographic to develop aerial photography technology for archaeological expeditions has earned him an internship with the prestigious organization.
A graduating senior in mechanical engineering at UCSD’s Jacob’s School of Engineering, Alan Turchik has been working with the National Geographic Society (NGS) to develop a stabilization mechanism for a camera mounted to an aerial platform that takes bird’s-eye-view photos of archaeological dig sites. Turchik’s camera platform project was one of the first two funded by the UCSD-NGS Engineers for Exploration program, a two-year old collaboration between NGS and the UCSD division of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2).
Turchik’s introduction to the intersection between engineering and archaeology occurred on a dig in Jordan headed by Thomas Levy, professor and Norma Kershaw Endowed Chair in the Archaeology of Ancient Israel and the Neighboring Lands at UCSD and associate director of the Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture, and Archaeology (CISA3).
Once in Jordan, Turchik found the camera platform system, normally tethered to the ground and held aloft with a helium balloon 100 feet to 200 feet above the dig site, was subject to being haphazardly blown around by even moderate wind, constantly putting the camera out of position.
Upon returning to UCSD, Turchik began work on redesigning the camera platform as an intern at the Circuit Lab at Calit2 with mentor and NGS explorer Albert Yu-Min Lin. Lin, who is a research scientist with the CISA3 at Calit2, was named National Geographic Adventure Magazine’s Adventurer of the Year for his high-tech search for the hidden tomb of Genghis Khan.
The camera platform, which Turchik dubbed the Self-stabilizing Aerial Camera Platform (SACP) is now able to automatically stabilize itself in the blowing wind using a series of sensors that drive tiny motors to correct for pitch, roll and yaw, all in an effort to keep the camera continually focused on the intended target on the ground. The platform has a wireless user interface with live preview of what the camera, currently an off-the-shelf Canon 50D, is looking at. The camera system will also capture panoramic photos as well as GPS coordinates.
“Alan’s success with this project, and the fact that he has been offered an internship with National Geographic, has been validation of the program,” said Lin about Engineers for Exploration.
Meanwhile, in June, Turchik, who is also a sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserve, became the first member of his immediate family to graduate from college, earning a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. The Army Reserve paid for his college education, which started at De Anza Community College before he transferred to UCSD in his sophomore year. His next deployment: an internship at National Geographic in Washington D.C.
Turchik will work on a sonar array that emits sonar pulses that will travel down through a body of water and penetrate the ground up to a few meters to see what is under the lake bottom. The device will be used at Lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan to search for remains of the palace of the Mongol warlord Tamerlane.
“I just hope he doesn’t get his arm chewed off by a shark out in the field somewhere,” says Lin. “Those guys at National Geographic are seriously into getting close to the action. But with Alan’s Army training, he should be all right.”
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