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An Empire of Rock



     tanding at the base of the imposing Moon Hill, the athletes representing The North Face are riveted by the weight of history that surrounds the team. The 240 million year old karst formation, with its over 800 marble stairs that lead to its summit, was first made accessible to Western eyes during President Richard Nixon's historic visit in 1976. And now, armed with a cutting-edge Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) technology and the expertise of geological specialist and National Geographic photographer Carsten Peter, I, Chad Copeland, am poised to capture the hidden beauty of this geological wonder of the world.

As we ready ourselves for takeoff, I am reminded of the intricate, detailed checklist that must be carefully executed before we can ascend to the heavens. The calibration of GPS and barometer, activation of the camera's shutter switch, and the delicate cycling of the powerful electric motors that hum beneath our feet are all vital steps in our journey. With the North Face athletes Emily Harrington, Matt Segal, and Cedar Wright scaling the new 5.12c sport route named "Red Dragon" before us, the anticipation is palpable.

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With the wireless video feed operational, I give the signal that I'm increasing the throttle, and the  

15-pound carbon fiber aircraft gracefully rises into the air. The infancy of small-unmanned aircraft systems is a challenge that we have willingly embraced, and one that makes the importance of our mission all the more urgent.

Our journey is not without its trials and tribulations. From the labyrinthine beauty of the Stone Forest to the awe-inspiring Great Getu Arch, our 40-plus missions were fraught with potential dangers, both technical and political. The confiscation of our aircraft batteries by Chinese Customs and the subsequent threat of arrest was an early setback, but we persevered, using all of our skill and expertise to navigate the cultural and technical hurdles that we faced.

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The sight of our "Drone" in the skies over China was a source of curiosity and wonder for the locals, who came in droves to see the new technology up close. From soldiers to farmers, city dwellers to curious women, all were captivated by the sight of this wondrous machine and the people who had come to capture the beauty of their country.

After years of UAS development, we had captured never seen before visuals in breathtaking detail from the air and in the face of difficult conditions that would have daunted lesser adventurers. The limitations of battery life, wireless receiver strength, and terrain were all obstacles that we surmounted, using our expertise and our determination to capture never-before-seen perspectives of some of the world's most spectacular natural wonders.

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In the end, our journey was one of triumph over adversity, of the human spirit overcoming the challenges of technology and terrain to reveal the hidden beauty of our planet. It is a testament to the power of adventure and the enduring importance of National Geographic's mission to reveal the wonders of our world to a global audience.


Moon Hill

Chad Copeland and Carsten Peter among the people of China near the town of Yangshuo.

*Photo: Keith Ladzinski, National Geographic Photographer
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REEL from the assignment.

Moon Hill, Great Getu Arch, Shilin Stone Forest, China

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