More than 800 marble stairs lead to the top of Moon Hill. The path that was built for President Richard Nixon’s first visit in 1976 has made hiking the Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) to the top much easier. Standing on the backside of the epic karst formation with the UAS radio controller harnessed to my body, I check the wind. Carsten Peter, a veteran National Geographic photographer and winner of two World Press awards, is balancing on what looks like an explosion of rock while holding the aircraft above his head.
"Stand by" I exclaim over the hum of eight powerful electric motors. I'm performing a checklist of pre-takeoff functions that include calibrating the GPS and barometer, activating the camera’s shutter switch and cycling the motors. The North Face athletes Emily Harrington, Matt Segal and Cedar Wright are 75 yards in front of us climbing the new 5.12c sport route aptly named “Red Dragon”.
Almost ready to go, I look at the monitor next to Keith Ladzinski, the ground-based videographer for this National Geographic expedition. The wireless video feed is operational. "Watch your fingers and standby for takeoff", I alert everyone as I increase the throttle rapidly. The 15-pound carbon fiber aircraft lifts with ease off Carsten's fingertips and into the air.
The age of small-unmanned aircraft systems is in its infancy, which makes traveling with them particularly difficult. After landing in China from the United States, Chinese Customs confiscated $5000.00 of my aircraft batteries and almost arrested me for trying to negotiate another way to send them back home. Not wanting to be stuck in a communist prison, I quickly blamed the incident on an error in translation. The supervisor pulled one of the 22 batteries out of my battery-safe pelican case and said, “You take one”. Knowing that this was a career make-or-brake moment, I decided to go forward and risk it all to get the shot.
News of a “Drone” in the skies over China spread quickly. Yet, the reaction was totally unexpected. Police, soldiers, farmers, city folk and flocks of women all wanted to have their photo taken with the aircraft and me. It was a huge distraction from the mission and although the Chinese people are truly humble, I was always watching out for the soldiers of the Middle Kingdom.
From the unbelievable Stone Forrest to the epic Great Getu Arch, I flew more than 40 missions with out a single incident. On the last morning, the goal was to fly through the light that beams through the upper arch for over an hour. Carsten and I walked from the hotel on this extremely humid morning, as it was too early for the shuttle that takes you to the river. I set up the monitor and aircraft for the flight. Ready to go, I plugged the sole aircraft battery into the power board. Immediately, I heard an explosion. I jumped back from the synchronized electrical spark. A single drop of water had fallen from an overhanging tree and on to one of the electronic speed control boards that regulates the number 7 motor. Upon close inspection, I saw that a node the size of an M&M had split in half.
The trip began and ended with close calls. The limitations of battery life, wireless receiver strength, and terrain pushed my skills to the limit. In the end, this new technology permitted never seen before perspectives and proved that it could operate in the toughest of conditions.