Amazing Engineering Jobs: Meet the Engineers of National Geographic

Do you ever wonder how photographers and scientists are able to capture images from the deepest parts of the ocean or the inside of a volcano? Or even from the point of view of a shark? This week we had the wonderful privilege to meet the amazing engineers of National Geographic’s Remote Imaging lab in Washington D.C., Eric Berkenpas and Mike Shepard. In this new series Amazing Engineering Jobs, we will be talking to real engineers to learn about their work and what it takes to become a great engineer.

Eric and Mike showed us their lab and the many projects they are involved in. The lab is full of precision machining equipment to craft the parts they need and in the corner there is a new 3D printer labeled “The Future”. The 3D printer is not able to replace the need for machined metal parts, but it does allow them to quickly build prototype pieces and parts that are not subjected to critical stress. On one of the walls there is a large high-definition television where they were able to share footage with us from many of their projects.

NatGeo Lab Tour

The purpose of the National Geographic Remote Imaging Lab is to help National Geographic media groups, explorers, and collaborating researchers with their technology needs. Their team develops the equipment needed to capture imagery in the most difficult to reach places. We learned about many cool projects such as DropCams, DriftCams, SunSpheres, Helicopter cameras, and CritterCams.

The first item in the lab the kids were drawn to was the opened DropCam sitting on one of the benches. This underwater camera and light source is encased in a glass shell that is able to withstand the extreme pressure of the deepest parts of the ocean allowing image capture of new species never observed before. The glass shell actually grows stronger as the external pressure increases. When we asked how the shell is sealed, Eric told us that the water pressure actually forces the seal once it is submerged, so only electrical tape is needed to make the initial seal. Over 20 new species have been identified to date with the DropCam and these have been deployed and recovered 100s of times. Eric was even able to show us video footage from the Mariana Trench.

The Dropcam enables image capture from the deepest parts of the ocean.
The Dropcam enables image capture from the deepest parts of the ocean.

We were also shown video from another cool underwater gadget, the DriftCam. The DriftCam is similar to the DropCam, but it is able to control its depth more precisely by tuning its density. The DriftCam uses a piston to push oil into a bag to expand and contract to vary the density. They showed us DriftCam video of a group of squid that stay within a very limited depth range. Without good depth control, it would not be possible to observe the squid for long periods. See the video below to see the DriftCam in action.

One of the most fascinating gadgets in the lab was the CritterCam that they use to capture point-of-view video from sharks. The camera is attached to a clamp that grips snugly to a shark’s fin and gets tighter as the shark pulls through the water. The CritterCam allows researchers to learn a great deal about a sharks behavior that was not possible before. Of course, getting the camera onto the shark is not trivial and can be very dangerous. See the video below where Mike has a very close encounter with a great white shark.

CritterCam used to capture POV imagery from sharks.
CritterCam used to capture POV imagery from sharks.

 

We asked Eric and Mike if cameras often get broken when they deploy them in such extreme conditions. They said they do lose a camera from time to time and showed us a bag of debris from a DropCam that imploded during one of their trials. They were not able to determine the reason the sphere imploded, but any slight imperfection in the glass can cause the sphere to fail under such extreme pressure. They also said it is very common to destroy cameras when they are using the Helicopter cameras. Below is an image of one of the helicopter cams and video of one of footage captured in Guam.

Helicopter Camera
Helicopter Camera

The SunSphere is another amazing tool developed by the Remote Imaging Lab that provides the light needed to explore dark underwater caves. This sphereical array of LED lights is also able to reach great depths of 12,000 meters like the DropCam and can light up a very large area.

Eric and Mike have very unique engineering careers. Not every engineer gets to use their scuba skills or is able to travel to such remote locations. In fact, one of the challenging parts of their job is to make the equipment small and light enough to travel with them. When we asked them what classes in school they find most helpful today, they both agreed that they use a great deal of complex math every day that they never thought they would have needed when they were in school. As far as the degrees they pursued, Eric studied Electrical Engineering and Mike is a Mechanical Engineer. Since they are a small organization, it is important to work closely and learn from each other.

To see more about all of the amazing tools developed by Eric, Mike, and their team, I highly recommend this 30 minute video where they speak about their tools in greater depth.

 

After spending the morning with Eric and Mike, we were able to spend the afternoon exploring two exhibits at the National Geographic museum – the Photo Ark and Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology.

 

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