The Spirit of Exploration:

an Interview with Benoit Duverneuil

Benoit Duverneuil is a friend, an expert in drone archaeology, and an accomplished adventurer (to name a few things). You might have seen him on the Travel Channel’s Expedition Unknown, and he was kind enough to answer fifteen questions about his excursions, backstory, and future plans. My questions are numbered, big, and green, while Ben’s responses start with BD. Easy enough, right? I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did!

1) Thanks for agreeing to answer a few questions! To start off, why don’t you give us a bit of your backstory?

BD: I’m from Limoges, France. I have lived in Florida for the past decade. I was drawn here by love, the sun, the great outdoors, the proximity to Central and South America, and the positive, can-do spirit of the American people!

In College, I studied History, Heritage Cultural Management, and Computer Sciences. My career took me into Data Analysis, Robotics & AI, as well as Business Development and Entrepreneurship. Heritage Conservation and sustainability have been my main subjects of interest for the last two decades. I’ve also worked in the travel sector for many years! At every opportunity, I’d explore the remote places of our vast planet to see what remains of our cultural heritage and work with locals to preserve it in a sustainable way.

Also, I’m the founder of A.D.A.P. (Aerial Digital Archaeology & Preservation), a research group specialized in non-invasive drone technology. I am also a board member of the Taras Oceanographic Foundation and the vice-president of La Condamine, a French non-profit organization dedicated to scientific exploration. Finally, I consider myself as a political activist and I’ve been involved with the campaign of Emmanuel Macron, now the President of France.

2) You fashion yourself as an explorer more than a traveler, can you explain the difference and how it applies to your life?

BD: Modern exploration is not just about reaching the summit of Mount Everest, being marooned on a desert island for months, or sailing across the Seven Seas. Don’t get me wrong, I totally admire those amazing adventurers and I certainly couldn’t accomplish those miracles myself. From my perspective, it’s about scientific exploration first. My goal is not only to simply explore a remote area, but also to collect and analyze data that supports research and education.

Sometimes exploring requires getting your feet (and the rest of you) wet

Quite frankly, I don’t see myself as a traveler at all. I understand the appeal of seeing a lot of sights, but it is not my thing. I need to feel that what I do matters, even on a small scale. Getting into the wild is great but what can we do to preserve it? I am also very aware of the impact my operations have on the environment. I am always trying to limit my carbon footprint and I always spend time doing volunteer work to compensate for the rest.

My approach doesn’t limit my field of possibilities though! Yes, we’ve mapped the entire world, but there is still so much more available. Before we even start thinking about space exploration, let’s remember that 95% of the world’s oceans and 99% of the ocean floor are unexplored. There are a large number of unexamined caves around the world and 2.5 million uncharted square miles of rainforest in the Amazon. With the rise of computer sciences and robotics, we can re-discover territories from a new perspective! The spirit of exploration is very much alive, and it would be a mistake to think it belongs to history books. Quite the contrary, the idea of exploration can be constantly redefined.

3) You make a distinction between immersive experiences vs. travel. Can you explain the difference?

BD: We can certainly agree that every unique experience makes you grow and helps define you as a person, travels are no exception. Not only can you go to new places, but you can choose to experience new things! Dive into a different culture and get outside your comfort zone. Connecting with people, embracing traditions, adjusting to customs, challenging your belief system, discovering rare locations and understanding their cultural significance is way more meaningful than sightseeing and bus tours. Not only you can create memories of a lifetime, but you can also have a more positive impact on your environment! You’ll support the growth of local economy and help preserve cultures in the process.

In my case, it is all about moments rather than places. In Ecuador, while traveling along the Qapaq Nan (an Incan super-highway), we realized that we were in the middle of what used to be a large population center of a pre-Incan culture! There were remnants of the walls as well as tons of ancient ceramics scattered about. While in the highlands of Peru, one of the locals asked us if we wanted to see a mummy. He just happened to have one in his house! These experiences will change anyone forever and leave you craving for more, even if you can’t predict them.

4) What was your first experience that got you into your current explorations?

BD: As a child, my grandfather had a farm and would take me into the deep forests of Limousin for mushroom hunting. As an only child, I grew up surrounded by literature, especially travel-fictions. From the stories of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Jules Verne, Rudyard Kipling, Henry Rider Haggard, the letters from Arthur Rimbaud about Africa, the correspondence of Lord Byron when he travelled to the East all the way to the court of Ali Pasha, or the travels and adventures of the comic character Corto Maltese, I’ve developed an unconditional appetite for adventures beyond the horizon.

You can’t eat pizza at every meal if you want to stay in exploring shape

In the late 90s, towards the end of the war in ex-Yugoslavia, I was part of a humanitarian convoy. A year later, I traveled to South East Asia to make a documentary about street children and the role of NGOs. When you are 20 years old, those are the kind of experiences that change you forever. You can understand the impact you can have and how important it is to share your story with a large audience. From there, I started traveling extensively, especially adventures that take you off of the beaten path. From the Arctic polar circle, to the Mekong river, the Andean mountains and more, I’ve enjoyed the journey, the sacrifices and self-indulgence, success and failures, solitude and friendships along the way!

5) You’re heavily involved in cutting-edge drone technology. Can you talk a bit about how you got into that field and how you apply it in your adventures?

BD: Our global cultural heritage is constantly under threat and it crushes me to see how quickly so much of it is being looted, damaged, or entirely destroyed. With my background in data sciences and technology, I am trying to do what I can to slow or halt these losses. Our team includes field-specialists, expedition leaders, technologists, and archaeologists. Aerial, terrestrial and underwater robotics are all used to help us accomplish our goals. We also use satellite imaging in tandem with drones equipped with multispectral sensors. Hi-definition cameras, infrared, and LIDAR (laser) systems are all important to our operation.

Benoit in his element

Our help is usually requested to explore and map new areas, discover new archaeological sites, and survey and recreate documented sites using photogrammetry (making measurements from photographs). With the rise of big data, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, we are also able to automate part of our work and accelerate our identification process, whether we are trying to locale new sites or determine the impact of looting over time.

A 3D model created through drone technology and mapping software

6) You were a guest on The Travel Channel show Expedition Unknown. How did that come about and can you talk about that experience?

BD: The uniqueness of our work (and the spirit of adventure) has often stirred the interest of both the media and the public. Believe it or not, it is quite time-consuming and difficult to translate decades of research into a small segment of a tv show! It’s a great opportunity to democratize some of our work and share the scientific issues we are trying to solve. 

Pretty cool, right?

Moving forward, we are trying to develop new ideas to share our experience with more people. While it is impossible to bring a large party of novices to a long-range expedition, we can certainly offer accessible, meaningful, and hands-on experiences to those who are willing to accompany us in the field. With the help of several travel professionals, we are currently developing this concept around a small boutique company. The first experiences will be located in Ecuador and be available sometime in 2018!

7) How do you plan similar ventures?

BD: When you watch a prime-time show featuring an expedition, it might seem easy and entertaining. In reality it is a ton of work, sometimes taking months or years of research, logistics and preparation!

Battling the Ecuadorian underbrush can be a good workout

You need to be prepared for everything including the worst and always have 2 or 3 contingency plans. Of course, you also need to be physically and mentally prepared. Harsh conditions and difficult terrains can quickly affect the morale of your group. Even though I spend a lot of time sitting in front of a computer, I train pretty hard. I need to be fit for my work out there, so I train at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week. I do cardio-training to work on my endurance and I practice martial arts (especially Kendo these days) 7 hours per week. 

This sense of emotional resilience is extremely precious when you find yourself in a survival situation. Florida is a great playground where I can prepare for my next field-expedition. I usually explore central Florida, which is crossed by wildlife corridors, or I follow historical trails used by the Spanish conquistadors such as the ferocious Hernando DeSoto.

8) What do you consider a successful expedition?

BD: I usually gauge the success of an expedition based on its initial objectives. That’s why it is always crucial to have a clear objective and an action plan! In my case, the objective is never to just reach a place in a remote area. The goal is always tied to some element of research and the intent to report and share our findings with other experts and the public.

As an expedition leader, you are responsible for every member of your party. You have to bring them back safely to their home and families, no matter what it costs. A successful expedition is one where everyone comes back in one piece!

9) You have some really interesting shots posted on your Instagram. Can you give a little backstory on these?

BD: This was a fun experience! This was taken in the Volcano Alley in Ecuador. The Tungurahua (at 5,023 meters tall) is one of the most dangerous volcanoes on Earth. In 2006, an eruption killed 6 people and forced the evacuation of the whole region! It can erupt again at any moment, so it is a permanent threat for local communities. We were supposed to map the volcano in 3D with a V-Wing drone. Because of the risk of eruption, our time on the slopes was limited and we needed a plan to evacuate as fast as possible if something went wrong. We used these small and agile dune buggies for exactly that reason.

Here, we were trying to experiment with brain-controlled UAVs at 4,000 meters of altitude, trying to capture hundreds of pictures of a crater lake to create a digital elevation model of the site. The interface is based on simple motions, but it was not easy to concentrate at this altitude due to the lack of oxygen. At the same site, we used a small, inflatable boat to reach the center of the lake where we dropped an underwater robot to explore the bottom of the lake! Local legends indicate that the the lake is bottomless and it was quite dangerous to dive at this altitude.

With the robot we were able to descend past 250 meters, but the pressure became a problem and we were not able to rescue the ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle). This project was a partial failure, but it gave us a good excuse to start experimenting with an electro-mechanical arm to go and salvage the drone!

We love experimenting with drones and sensors! Here, we were trying to map the shipwreck of a 16th century Spanish galleon off the coast of Florida. Capturing geospatial data is still a challenge but with the help of photogrammetric software, we can create amazing visuals of most underwater archaeological sites.

10) What country haven’t you visited and why do you want to go?

BD: Once I’ve read the story of John Goddard, a man who passed away in 2013 after accomplishing most of his childhood dreams. In fact, he created the ultimate bucket list and was a super achiever. He explored many regions of the world, climbed the tallest mountains and learned so many skills among other things. This has inspired me and I’ve created my own bucket list which is filled with destinations and objectives. I’m not even halfway through, and choosing where to go and what to do next is a dilemma. Next on my list are Ecuador (again), Austria and Brazil.

11) What country have you explored already and want to return to?

BD: I have traveled all over the world and been to some pretty dramatic places, but South America is my playground. I have some family in Peru and amazing friends in Ecuador. I love it all, the scenery, the culture, the cuisine and of course the people! I’ve been lucky enough to visit South East Asia, especially Vietnam and it was a great experience. I’ve also been to Hong Kong many times; I think I know the city like my pocket. As you can tell, I am as comfortable in total isolation as surrounded by millions of people!

12) What other explorers do you look up to the most and why?

BD: That’s a difficult question. There are so many past and present explorers who are so inspiring: Shackelton, La Perouse, Edmund Hillary and many others! We can add Ranulph Fiennes to this list, since he is a living legend. Among my peers: Ed Stafford, Levison Wood, Sophie Radcliffe, Sylvia Earle, Johan Reinhard and so many more!

Ecuador cliff swings are the best swings

I admire pioneers like Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, the two pilots of Solar Impulse. In my field, Albert Yu-Min Lin, a research scientist at the University of California in San Diego who has been using all kind of technology like drones and virtual reality to search for the tomb of Genghis Khan! I am also a huge fan of Sarah Parcak, who is revolutionizing space archaeology, and Luis Jaime Castillo, who has been leading the drone archaeology program in Peru.

13) Do you have any suggested reading materials for aspiring travelers?

BD: It depends which region of the world inspires you the most. Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence (known by most as Lawrence of Arabia), is not only my favorite book, but also a must-read for anyone who is trying to understand today’s situation in the Middle-East. If you are more into polar environments, then South: The Endurance Expedition by Ernest Shackleton is for you. If you are interested in the mountains of Tibet, The Secret Lives of Alexandra David-Neel tells the story of the first women to enter the forbidden city of Lhassa disguised as a monk. Finally, if you’re into the Amazonian rainforest, The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, tells of the author David Grann investigating the disappearance of legendary British explorer, Percy Fawcett.

14) What projects and lectures do you have coming up?

BD: I have a few trips already planned and a few other ones in preparation. The first on my list consists of surveying sites in Ecuador where Charles-Marie de La Condamine, an 18th Century French mathematician, and other scientists were able to take measurements that allowed them to determine the exact shape of the Earth!

Ben speaking at the Florida Chapter of the Explorers Club about Non-Invasive Archaeology

I am also planning one of the toughest expeditions of my career. We are going to walk in the footsteps of Percy Fawcett in the Amazonian Forest! With no assistance and no modern technology to guide us, we want to go on this adventure the old-fashioned way. While there is almost no chance for us to discover what happened to Fawcett and his son, we are going to use drone and LIDAR (laser) technology to try to verify recent hypotheses about ancient civilizations that could have been the famous City of Z that Fawcett was searching for!

We have other archaeological projects in the region of Mustang, Nepal and near Mosul in Iraq. However, getting the authorization to fly a drone equipped with mapping sensors in these regions is not an easy task. I really enjoy sharing my experiences in the field of exploration sciences through public speaking and education, so I’ll spend a fair share of my time speaking at universities, schools and in the corporate world.

I have many writing projects that I would like to complete in the upcoming years as well. One book is about my journey across different regions traveled by the Qapaq Nan, the Inca ‘super-highway’. Another project is about La Condamine, the French mathematician I mentioned earlier. Finally, I am compiling 10 years of research about the life of the Inca emperor Atahualpa.

15) Any final words of inspiration?

BD: The best advice I could give is to not listen to what other people tell you, especially if they tell you to live your life the way they want. Misery likes company.

Follow your dreams, get out your comfort zone, go and explore. It doesn’t have to be big, it doesn’t have to be difficult or incredible, it needs to have a purpose though. Find something interesting, bring some friends and make it happen!

Benoit Duverneuil

Benoit is a French-American web marketer, data analyst, startup founder, business adviser, drone pilot and explorer. A pioneer in drone technology, he has founded A.D.A.P, a research group specialized in non-invasive techniques (Aerial Digital Archaeology and Preservation). Check out his social media and website above!

Thanks for reading!

Benoit is my first featured traveler interview and I couldn’t have picked a better person to kick it all off. He’s not your run-of-the-mill traveler and I think it’ll be pretty easy to find inspiration from his research, expeditions, and goals. Do you have someone you think would be a good featured traveler? Contact me here and let me know! Also, if you dig my content, subscribe to my email list to get subscriber-only content you won’t see here!

Until next time!