In Search of the Great Khan

Not many people can brag about visiting all seven continents, but one UCSD undergrad can get pretty close.

Third year Warren College student Radley Angelo has visited six, and might visit his seventh (Antarctica) this summer. But the computer engineering and literature/writing double major isn’t just a thrill-seeking globe trotter. Last summer, he visited Mongolia on an expedition on behalf of National Geographic.

The purpose of the three-week endeavor? To solve one of history’s mysteries — find the tomb of Genghis Khan. 

It started when Angelo was intrigued by a presentation given by his engineering professor during his sophomore year.
“I was taking a computer science class with a professor, professor Kastner,” Angelo said. “At the end of class one day he showed a promo video for a lab that he was a cofounder of on campus. It was called the Engineers for Exploration lab, and it had the National Geographic logo on it and he said we’re always looking for talented engineers.” 

Due to his family’s background in flight (his grandfather used to work for TWC Aviation), Angelo was attracted by the opportunity to work with helicopters. Before long, Angelo was working at the “Engineers for Exploration” lab with his supervisor Albert Lin, a UCSD alum, and associate professor of Computer Engineering Robert Kastner, the professor that piqued Angelo’s interest in the first place.

One of the lab’s several projects — the one Angelo would be assigned to — is an innovative development of the regular helicopter. Instead of having one blade, the multiple bladed aerial copter has multiple smaller blades around it. The blades are controlled by a central computer system. They aren’t designed to carry people, but rather, a camera that would be used to take pictures from difficult angles.

With his background in computer science, it seemed natural that Angelo would spend his time at the lab developing the code  for the central computer that would control the copter.

After a few successful test runs of the copter, Angelo felt it was time to get the equipment out in the real world.
“The lab exists so that students get to work on hands-on projects that actually get to go out in the field,” Angelo said. “All of our research is application driven.“

Since 2009, Angelo’s supervisor Albert Lin has taken two quests to Mongolia in search of the tomb of Genghis Khan. While there wasn’t any conclusive information about where the tomb was, it was presumed that the possible location of the burial site would likely be in a very significant mountain range of the Mongolian shaman tradition, the Burkan Khaldun mountains.

Armed with this information, the July expedition, building off of the past two expeditions, which were turned into feature documentaries by National Geographic, planned on taking advanced equipment, including Angelo’s helicopter, to get a close picture of the mountain range.

Angelo, who built the copter and had good knowledge of how to repair it, eventually convinced Lin to be a part of the effort in the third expedition to Mongolia.

The team of about 20 people left for Mongolia in July. When they reached the mountain range, a mixture of difficult terrain and some very tenacious pests gave the team quite a challenge to work with.

“The flies actually get into the car through the AC and the exhaust,” Angelo said. “They get in the windshield so you can’t actually see the outside. And then there are these thing called horse flies. They have this jigsaw nose kind of thing. What they do is they land and they attack your skin.”

They spent the three weeks hauling equipment to their exploration site and managing the different devices they were going to use to get detailed pictures of the mountain range. At night they all slept in a circular tent. Angelo used his copter to take several pictures of the mountain range, which would be stitched  together to create a visualization of the area they wanted to observe. Like a more detailed version of Google Earth, the topographic picture of the mountain range could give them clues that would turn them in the right direction of finding Genghis Khan’s tomb.

“What you can do is create a really cool map of where every tree is, where every rock is,” Angelo said. “The more data you have, the better. If I find a roof tile or something, which we found a lot of roof tiles, I can now place it on a spot on a map.” The group had also been keeping close contact with the Mongolian government. Their project of studying the sacred Burkan Khaldun mountain range could be compared to “the equivalent of digging around in the Vatican.”

“You don’t do that without the right permissions,” Angelo said. 

The group also came in contact with the religious shamans of the mountain range. Initially concerned with the group’s motives, they ultimately granted them permission to spend time in the area. Angelo explained that while their goal is to ultimately find the tomb of Genghis Khan, what they hope to do with the information is protect the mountain range, which is currently vulnerable to Chinese mining companies that want to gain access to the region’s natural resources.

“This area is obviously such an important part of the world’s humanity,” Angelo said. “One of every two hundred men can trace their lineage back to Genghis Khan. They just want to destroy this whole sacred mountain, that just rubs a lot of people the wrong way.”

While they weren’t able to conclusively prove that the mountain range is home to Genghis Khan’s tomb, the group’s findings were enough to get the range recognized as a UNESCO historical site. Eventually, the region will be protected from any future mining exploits.

Angelo returned from the trip with a new network of friendships from around the globe, and gained vital experience in working with engineering equipment. His copter design is going to be used by future explorers. Angelo says that he might even get the opportunity to join a team visiting Antarctica, which will use the device to track penguin migration patterns.

Angelo hopes his future includes more opportunities to apply his skills in the field. But he insists that all those opportunities begin right at home.

“It’s easy to get caught into thinking that the fifth floor of Geisel is where all this happens,” Angelo said. But that’s so patently untrue. I can’t say it enough times.”

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