Our Nat Geo after hours is tonight and Explorers Fest is in full swing. In honor of this week of exploration and adventure, we did some light digital correspondence with Nat Geo’s very own Alan Turchik. Working as a mechanical engineer at Nat Geo for the last six years, Turchik has built drones, destroyed drones, and has deployed different types of tech all over the world.
We caught up with him to chat about what it’s like working one of the coolest jobs in D.C…. and to talk about drones.
What was your first job?
When I was 15-years-old, I was an afternoon preschool security guard. My mom worked as a preschool teacher and she got me the job at the school where she worked. I was there to make sure the kids were getting picked up by their actual parents or a person authorized by the parents. It was like I was this preschool bouncer. I’d ask, “Do you have ID?” and “Are you on the list?” Fun fact: for my first raise I got a whole extra 5 cents per hour.
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
No joke, last Christmas my mom was looking through some old stuff of mine and she found a drawing I made in kindergarten of a diver. I had scrawled across the top, “I want to be an ocean explorer when I grow up.” That’s the honest truth. I also wanted to build robots when I was in second grade, so this all kind of worked out.
How did you get started at Nat Geo?
I was invited to go on an archaeological dig in Jordan when I was in college. A friend and I were responsible for using this giant helium balloon to take aerial pictures of the dig site. It worked pretty well, but I had some ideas for improvements. When I returned home four months later, I decided I was going to make a robotic mechanism that would help stabilize the camera. I got some help and funding (thanks Dr. Levy and Dr. Albert Lin!) and was eventually introduced to the engineers at National Geographic. They liked my work and hired me as a summer intern, and I’ve been at National Geographic ever since.
I know you’ve worked with drones in the past, what do you think of the highly advanced options out for purchase nowadays? Where do you think that tech is going next?
It’s been pretty awesome to see the evolution of commercial drones and drone technology over the past few years. I built a few of my own small drones in days past, but nowadays you can buy drones on Amazon that are leaps and bounds better than what I ever built. I feel like an old curmudgeon because I say stuff like “Back in my day, drones didn’t have any of those features…” Drones are just so ubiquitous now, it’s incredible.
We’ve pretty much mastered the drone as an aerial camera platform. Where I’d like to see the technology go, and where I am definitely seeing it going, is how do we use these devices to improve and protect our planet? Drones are being used to document important cultural heritage sites, they’re also used to map unexplored areas, and to conduct surveys of marine creatures. All pretty awesome stuff.
What piece of tech do you rely most on at work?
Maybe this is a boring answer but it’s my computer. Engineering work always starts with design and most of my design work is done on a computer. Sure, there are sketches here and there (I’m often up at our whiteboard sketching something out) but if I’m creating a 3D model, or sketching a schematic, or writing code, it’s all done at my computer.
What’s the best expedition you’ve ever been on?
This is a tough one. I’ve gotten to see fjords in Greenland, swim with sharks in Galapagos, and gone cave diving in Mexico, all in the name of exploration. It’s just really hard to pick.
Who would you most like to work with in your field?
I’ve been so lucky to work with really amazing people since I’ve been at National Geographic. There are so many incredibly talented explorers, photographers and scientists that are associated with our brand. I just want to keep working with all of them!
Is there a country / place you haven’t been to, but you’re dying to see?
I’ve been to some really wild and remote places around the world so, probably any place that has stable Internet and is not a boat.
Where is the best part of your job?
Creativity. People sometimes equate engineering with science and math, and sure, those are important in engineering but the real beauty of engineering is the ability to be creative in how to solve a problem. It’s getting to say “Wait…what if we did it this way?” And then when it works, when your new device or gadget does exactly what you expected it to, it’s so rewarding.
What’s an average day like for you?
When I’m in the office, I do a lot of design work so most of the time you’ll find me at my desk, making 3D models, writing code, or completing some other engineering task. I do pretty normal office stuff too like answering emails and attending meetings. We have a machine shop attached to our office space so I’m out there a lot as well, talking to our technicians or machining some part if need be.
Being out on expedition is a totally different matter. I could be hiking to put up remote cameras in the mountains of Greenland, or deploying deep-ocean instruments from a boat, or helping with anti-poaching efforts in the jungle. It all really depends.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
After I graduated high school, I kind of hit this slump. I didn’t go to college immediately like most of my friends. I ended up applying to some schools a few years later when I was 21. I was having a heck of a time deciding which university to go to. My mom told me, “Don’t sell yourself short. Go to the place where you’ll be challenged. You’re going to kick yourself if an opportunity like this comes up and you don’t take it.”
I really took that to heart. When opportunities come up in life, you have to be bold and take them.
If you had to go back in time and start your career again, what would you do differently?
I’ve had some crazy twists and turns in my life, but I don’t think I’d give any of it up. It all led to where I am today.