The search for the lost tomb of Atahualpa

Latest update February 19, 2015 Started on January 18, 2015
This project is a non-invasive technology based search for the tomb of the emperor Atahualpa, one of the main protagonists of the conquest of the Incas. By using a multi-scale approach combined with remote-sensing technology, we will travel to Ecuador where we will investigate ancient legends and recent clues. We'll try to retrace the last days of the Inca resistance in this region of the Tawantinsuyu and try to distinct facts from fiction.

In The Field

Final shots and interviews for a feature film and this expedition is a wrap.
On our way back to Florida!


Woa even a film really? You guys rock! Seriously your story could (and should!) be like a T.V serie, stakes are high and there is so much suspense! Keep up the great work!

This is the last part of our expedition and without a doubt the most difficult one.
Join us in the deep cloud forest of the Southern area of the Llanganates.

Images : Julien Calligaris

Alles Gute für das Team.
Bleibt gesund und bleibt vorsichtig!

All the best for the team.
Stay healthy and remains cautious!

Houston we have a problem!

We are aboard a small inflattable boat, in the middle of this incredible crater lagoon at 11,500 feet, pushing the green and thick algae aside to plunge OpenROV into the water. With a laptop and a game controller we slowly control the descend of the ROV. We have tripled the length of the tether, we should reach the bottom of the lake around 250m and we have 50m of extra length just in case.
A bit more is known about Laguna Quilotoa since scientific studies were performed in 1993. After the disastrous carbon dioxide eruptions of Lake Nyos and Lake Monoun in Cameroon in the late 1980s, scientists began to study the gaseous composition of crater lakes to pinpoint possibly dangerous lake conditions around the world. Because Laguna Quilotoa had at least four eruptions of some type since 1797 which left no evidence of magma on the surrounding surface, scientists suspected that an explosive carbon dioxide escape had been responsible for the death of cattle, noxious fumes and flames reported after an earthquake centered nearby. From that study it is known that the lake is made up of two basins, the deeper of which reaches 840 feet and that gases escape from a fault below the surface. The scientific team determined that, at least at present, there is little danger of such an explosion of gases in the near future. Monitoring will continue to see how these gases escape and whether they build up during changing weather conditions. Everything looks "Ok", we have a small oxygen tank just in case, so we are ready to dive.

Everything is going smoothly, all these efforts are about to be finally rewarded. It has been a rollercoaster since day one, spending sleepless nights to get the ROV ready, doing a few dive tests in Ecuador while pursuing N other projects and training archaeologists, struggling with the lack of oxygen and spending countless hours in fast & furious buses...
Due to the complexity of the environment, very few divers had the opportunity to visit the site. Local legends even said that the lake has no bottom, it just keeps going forever. Other said that in this region, the locals, a few years after the Spanish conquest, appeared wearing vey expensive garments and jewelry. The position of the lake is also perfectly aligned with other sites that are related to the legends of the mausoleum of Atahualpa. Some said that nothing live at the bottom of the lake, others talk about some mysterious creatures... For all these reasons, we are so excited. We have no idea if this going to work of if the ROV is going to implode due to the pressure or be kidnapped by the creatures living in the volcano!

This is science fiction, it feels like we are about to walk on the surface of the moon...
As OpenROV keeps going deeper and deeper, we have almost no visibility on the control screen. Our LED lights have been turned on but we are alone in the darkness.
Finally, we are there....
Huge boulders, deep cliffs.... it really looks like the surface of the moon.
Lets' start exploring!
We try to move the ROV to the right from its "landing position"... nothing. To the left... nope.
Backward, the ROV made a small jump and stopped... There is something wrong.
After a few attempts, we realize that we won't be able to bring it back to the boat, there is something wrong, the three motors are no longer responding.
Our only "rescue line" is the 300 meters tether that has been immerged. We start pulling it slowly, slowly... after a while we realize that they is no resistance, it is coming up way too easily... until we realize that the ROV is no longer connected to the surface. This happened during the second phase of the expedition when we started pulling up the ROV with the tether as we've lost communication and soon we realized that one of the two soldering points where two tethers were attached together broke, leaving us with 100 meters of tether in the boat and the rest including the ROV somewhere at the bottom of the cratere lake.
At this point, there is nothing we can do. There is no plan B, we gambled everything.
Of course, we are extremely disappointed. Even the locals who were so excited about the experiment are sad. No one as attempted such thing before and they were so curious about the ROV and the idea to see the bottom of this lake with their own eyes. The return to the shores seemed like an eternity. Everyone was morning the loss of our little robot.

From there, where can we go? Well, is the glass half empty or half full? On one side, we can consider this project as a failure, on the other side we know where to focus our attention for a second attempt. Even better, we can know launch a new project and aim at the recovery of the first ROV with the help of a new robot and perhaps some kind of articulated arm. Imagine that, an open source robot rescued by another ROV at the bottom of a cratere lake! That would be a unique salvage operation!
Obviously, we still need to map the bottom of this lake. We only have good reasons to rollup our sleeves and try again until we eventually succeed.
On the bright side, we were able to complete our aerial survey even though our small experiment with brain-controlled interfaces was not really successful.


Oh no!! Very sorry to hear this.

Ho god! Things like that happen...I hope you will be able to recover the lost ROV.
Anyway, simply keep in mind that it's part of experience, just stay positive and keep moving forward guys, your work is very inspiring!
All the best for the next steps!

Oh no! Although the report is as exciting as a thriller to read, it makes me sad. It was a short life of the little robot. Can we see the last image that has made the little robot?

I wish good luck for the rest of the mission.

This viewpoint will literally take your breath away.

Simply amazing!

Très impressionnant !

Very impressive area so mysterious.

You weren't kidding, that view is unreal. Those photos from above are amazing! Everyone here is so inspired by your travels, Good Luck today!

4,400 meters... For people who live the entire year at altitude 0, it is quite a challenge. On top of that we are not all equal when it is about altitude sickness. We are really pushing the envelopp but we are so close. Altitude sickness is relatively unstudied because of how quickly and unpredictably it goes from nausea to coughing up blood to death. Even those who take time to acclimatize can suddenly and violently get sick. Any sign that's more than a mild headache means it's time to accept that the mountain won. Let's take a deep breath and finish the job!


The gritty reality of exploration! At that altitude, hopefully 24 hours will be enough time to adjust and get back up on that mountain. I know what you mean about living at 0 feet. Or even below! and then climbing mountains, I am a frequent sufferer of altitude sickness. But so worth it. Feel Better!

Back to our new headquarters, an ancient hacienda, where we have setup a real tech lab full of all kind of robots, video and telecommunication devices. There is even this huge hexacopter that is design to carry a RED camera. Yes, OpenROV will appear in a full feature film that will be presented at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival.


Wow, this is a different unit from the one you were using in the pool. Did you bring two with you? Or meet other explorer filmmakers?!

We have an entire crew with us. This platform has been designed for movie production more than mapping.

Amazing Sigchos. This is where the general Ruminahui, the last hope of the Inca resistance was captured by the conquistadors. Dangerous roads and high altitude but we are documenting a few amazing archaeological sites. Looks like this is the beginning of a great journey.


On our way to the Sigchos!
3,700 meters high. It's getting difficult.


I'm just loving following along with this. Thanks!!

Thanks David! There is more to come.
Buckle up, we're climbing!

Maiden flight of our waterproof UAV. Designed to fly in extreme conditions this drone is lightweight, easy to deploy and equipped with strong engines to fight strong winds and all the electronics are protected by a robust and waterproof frame.
After a few attempts to properly calibrate the compass, we had to update the firmware, do a few tests and we were finally able to control the quadcopter.
We are now training the team of archaeologists and geologists in a site that has a few tolas (tombs) and next we will equipp the quad with a gimbal and a FPV system.

Very cool, the water-resistant frame. Can you technical information on the copter make. Motors, FC, ESC and so on.

- Frame: Engineering thermo plastic - highly durable, watertight
- Flight control/GPS: Naza-M Lite
- Remote control: DEVO7
- Motors: 4215/650 KV specially treated brushless pancake (x4)
- ESC: 40A high voltage/temperature ESC (x4)
- Battery:14.8V 3200mah 25C(x2)
- Carbon Fiber Propellers
- Stedi HG2 2axis gimbal
- 600mW 5.8G video transmitter Mi600
- 7” dual antennal FPV screen

Great compilation of the technical components!
I like it very much.
Good luck and have really great pictures.

Hello Latacunga!
We'll stay here for a few days. The altitude is just around 3,000 meters, which is fine for us to acclimate. There, we are going to get our equipment ready for two small expeditions. One in the region of the Sigchos where the Inca ruins of Maqui Machay have been found (again there is a connection with Atahualpa that we will develop here later) and where some other sites desserved to be investigated. The other site is the famous cratere lake of the Quilotoa where we will use OpenROV.
Latacunga is part of the volcanic area of Ecuador which is composed by several active volcanos. The Cotopaxi (5 897 meters) is located only 25km away. The city was entirely destroyed in 1742, 1768 and 1877.


Sounds like it's about time to erupt again. Run away!! We had signs just like that in Hawaii, out by the active volcanic area on the Big Island of Hawaii.

The altitude looks impressive! Look forward to finding out more about your expedition guys!

Quick stop at San Augustin de Callo, a palace built by Tupac-Yupanqui or Huayna-Capac around 1440 A.D., today a 5 stars hacienda. It includes an impressive Inca Chapel with its 17th century ceiling and perfectly carved Inca volcanic stone walls.


Super j'adore ! Grosses bises de toute la famille et prenez soin de vous !

We are back to Quito where we have spent the day at the Convento de San Francisco and other places to check some important documents about the Conquest of Quito and the genealogy of Atahualpa.


Holy molasses, what a backdrop. That building is stunning.

And you haven't seen the inside architecture of the church yet, absolutely amazing!

Now that we have the maps we need, we are able to plan a serie of flights during which we will try to confirm a few theories. Once again, this is a multiscale approach. Based on our research, we first used some satellite data and then topographic maps. If the data collected during the flights is conclusive we will then use drones to survey the hot spots that we are discovering.
We've found a plane that is ready for the job. Let's add a hat to the scene and we are almost ready to start shooting the next installment of the Indiana Jones movies.


Haha, Benoit this is amazing. I think you should start a line of Explorer Wear.

That's a good idea, lol!

Mapping is key!
We are now in Quito where we are getting a set of topographic maps from the Instituto Geografico Militar. With the help of these maps, we should be able to plan the rest of our expedition.


That's great. Do they have high quality topo maps just stocked for sale? sometimes those items are so hard to track down!

Even better, they print it for you on the spot!

Whoa, good deal.

Testing the basic brain interface experiment that we are currently playing with.
Our geologist is literally amazed by the demo and foresee the development of human-machine interactions using brain signals and eventually precise thoughts.


We made it to an hacienda located somewhere in the Sierra of Ecuador. This is going to be our basecamp for the next couple of days.
We will test and fine-tune our equipment while we investigate the site as numerous tolas are located nearby. We are currently training a small team of archaeologists and geologists to the use of drones, both aerial and underwater. We are also planning our expeditions to search for the lost tomb of Atahualpa. First, we will realize a photographic survey by plane.

Fantastic, I can't wait to seethe 2.7 in action. I also like the Quad Copter in the water behind you. I'm interested in how its waterproofed.

This is fantastic! I love the video blog Idea, I think i'm going to join you in posting more short little snippets like this.

And like @neexplorers mentioned, pretty excited to see that aquatic drone...

Good luck and always take good care.


Our fleet is ready for deployment!!


This is so Epic! Do you have pretty good GPS guidance where you'll be flying or are you doing it mostly the old fashioned way, flying by sight?


Part 3 of the Dozuki has been completed.


Wow, you guys are moving along fast. I hope you're at least letting yourselves take quick naps between stages of assembly.

We have been working non-stop for the last 30 hrs but the ROV is ready.

I love imagining how many ROVS were being build simultaneously in the world this weekend! Nicely done!

Part 2 of the Dozuki has been completed.
Applying acrylic cement between pieces of acrylic is not the easiest thing to do. This part was better than 2.6 but we wish that most pieces could be sculpted in one block. Surprisingly, we've spent a lot of time cutting and paper sanding the two syringes, perahps these two pieces can be 3D printed in a future iteration. Our epoxy mix (Loctite marine) didn't work quite well so we had to replace it by a 2-ton mix flow epoxy.


Part 1 of the Dozuki has been completed.
Overall, the design of the acrylic pieces has improved a lot from the previous version of OpenROV. Pieces are solid and easy to assemblate. You still need tiny fingers to hold the screws when placing the motor mounts but with a little bit of patience you'll be fine.


The clock is ticking...
On Monday we will fly to Ecuador for the begginning of this exciting journey, we had only a few days to build and test OpenROV 2.7 and a waterproof UAV.
We are not sleeping anymore, we have been working around the clock.


Wow! Exciting. Eager to learn more about your waterproof UAV design.

Wow, what a dedicated team!

Expedition Background

Atahualpa was the last true ruler of the Tawantinsuyu, the Inca Empire.
With about less than 200 men, the Spanish conquistador, Pizarro, succeeded in capturing Atahualpa in Cajamarca. After collecting part of a ransom, the Spanish conquistadors finally executed him on July 26 of 1533.

His remains were given a Christian burial and the conquistadors left the city. According to some legends and also to Spanish chroniclers such as Juan de Betanzos the body of Atahualpa disappeared, it was mummified and carried to actual Ecuador where it was given to the Inca general Ruminahui.

There is no first-hand sources of the conquest of Quito, the North of the Kingdom, and the defeat of Ruminahui, it is all just myth right now but most sources indicate that the mausoleum of Atahualpa could be located in the remote area of the Llanganates. The Llanganates National Park is unique as it remains a virgin territory. Many areas have not been explored or surveyed yet. Its inhospitable terrain, extreme climate and lack of touristic infrastructure around its entrance keeps it below the radar.

A multi-scale approach
We are going to start from a big search area, collect evidence and go to a small search area.
This multi-scale approach starts with satellite imagery from private european and american companies. We have much better satellite data than what’s available on Google Earth and you can actually overlay those images on top of Google Earth data. Archaeologist Sarah Parcak was able to map most of the ancient city of Tanis using high-definition infrared satellite imagery.
In our case and at this stage of the project, manual search is almost impossible, we have to automate the process. Computers can be programmed to look for pre-defined patterns. On top of that, the area where we search is often covered by clouds.

From there, we had to start building drones, UAVs and ROVs and go on foot where we could use aerial and underwater photography to identify smaller locations of interests. Every image has to be geo-referenced, we need to know where the images have been taken. Images are then combined to recreate environments in 3D, we call this process Photogrammetry.

We don’t have to look at things only through our eyes or video, we can also use multi-spectral range to capture data. Infrared data sensing helps us understanding the morphology of material on the ground, mark them and identify archaeological evidence whether they are carved rocks or traces of agricultural activities. Sometimes, we can also use Laser technology: LIDAR.

Identified anomalies are finally explored by our team with the help of geo-physical devices that have been used in archaeology for some time now. We use magnetometry, electromagnetic induction and finally Ground penetrating radars to create 3D renderings that can be interpreted by archaeologists before they even start digging.
Using this technology, if we find something like the mausoleum of Atahualpa we can start protecting it very early with something like the World Heritage Program before someone else starts looting the place.

During our previous expeditions, we’ve found a stone structure which looks like a side of a pyramid, somewhere in the middle of the cloudforest. Apparently, according to local geologists, this site is a natural formation, however, some Inca roads and ancient artefacts have been found nearby so the investigation continues.

We also plan to use OpenROV to explore and map the bottom of specific lakes that are connected to local legends and that might have been used as hidden-locations to protect the precious artefacts from the conquistadors.


Very cool! I'll tell Sarah you are using her technique!

Wow, this sound exciting. Its got all the things needed to keep me riveted to your expedition; lost tomb, ancient history, legend and lore! Sifting through to get to the facts will be interesting.

Wow, what an engrossing story! The three different scales of exploration, GIS, Drone Surveys, and Visual Surveys you plan to use make the expedition fascinatingly thorough. I think Michael @neexplorers has it exactly right, all of the elements of this expedition will draw interest from every type of explorers we find on OE. The hikers, the data renderers, and the drone pilots!

Can't wait to read more!

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