The Adventures of BeetleCam is a blog post from the BeetleCam category.

The Adventures of BeetleCam

Posted by Will on

The modern world of wildlife photography is saturated with thousands of talented photographers producing a huge number of incredible photographs. As a result it is difficult to produce original shots without really pushing the boundaries and striving for new perspectives. Often, this means putting the camera into places that may at first seem impossible.

With this in mind, we were driven to embark upon an ambitious project to photograph African wildlife from a new perspective, one that would involve getting close to potentially dangerous animals and photographing them with a wide-angle lens. Traditionally, this has been achieved using camera traps – stationary cameras triggered when an animal breaks an invisible infra-red beem. The problem with this method is that it requires a great deal of time, patience and luck. We therefore decided to invent something a little more proactive! And so BeetleCam was conceived; a DSLR camera mounted on top of a four-wheel drive remote control buggy.


BeetleCam

We booked a trip to Tanzania and set about designing, building and testing BeetleCam. The first step was to get up to speed on the necessary robotics and electronics that would be required to build such a vehicle from scratch. Having conducted some research, we sourced components from around the world. Construction then began in earnest with sawing, soldering, sewing and super gluing taking place around the clock in Will’s garage.

BeetleCam’s primary challenge would be getting over the uneven African terrain with a heavy payload of camera, lens and flashes. We therefore ordered the most powerful motors we could find and large off-road tires. BeetleCam had to be able to operate for long periods without being charged, so we stuffed the vehicle with the biggest batteries we could squeeze in.

We constructed a split ETTL off-camera flash cord that would allow the camera to control the output of two flashes depending on the light conditions (this would be important for filling in the shadows cast by the bright African sun).

After much deliberation, we figured out how to get the camera (our trusty Canon EOS 400D) to interface with the same controller used to drive the buggy. The finishing touches were to camouflage BeetleCam and seal the camera gear and internal mechanisms to protect them from the dusty African environment.

The prototype was finished with a month to spare but proved to be catastrophically unstable! An emergency redesign was undertaken to lower the centre of gravity and, a few days before our departure, BeetleCam was ready for to be let loose in the wild!

Our destinations in Tanzania were Ruaha and Katavi National Parks, both in the South West of the country. They are quiet parks with plenty of wildlife – perfect for trialling BeetleCam.

We thought that Elephants would be an easy subject for BeetleCam’s first outing. We were wrong… we quickly learned that Elephants are wary of unfamiliar objects and due to their highly sensitive hearing, they are almost impossible to sneak up on! Over the course of the trip, we learnt that the best way to photograph an elephant was to position the camera well in front of it and then let the animal approach in its own time. With this technique we enjoyed great success and managed to get some incredible photos of these colossal creatures.

This is the shot we had been dreaming of... a huge bull elephant walking towards BeetleCam in the warm evening light.
A large bull elephants looks at BeetleCam as he walks past.

After obtaining our first photographs of Elephants we were buoyed with optimism and decided to make our second subjects Lions. In hindsight this was a foolish idea; BeetleCam was promptly mauled, and carried off into the bush. A long recovery mission ensued and we were extremely lucky to retrieve an intact memory card from the mangled Canon 400D body. On downloading the images, we were delighted to find that BeetleCam had performed its duty admirably, and we got a great series of images from the encounter.

The photograph taken by BeetleCam just before it was mauled!

Remarkably, although the 400D sustained irreparable damage, the rest of BeetleCam proved very resilient and, with a few pieces of string and bits wood, we were able to patch it up. We replaced the 400D with our only other available camera, a Canon EOS 1D MK III. This increased the stakes massively and obviously meant that lions were off the menu for the rest of the trip! Over the next few days we nervously drove our beloved 1D MK III in front of various unpredictable beasts and prayed it would come back intact!

BeetleCam Repairs

To our surprise it was Africa’s second most dangerous animal that proved to be the most cooperative subject, the African Buffalo. Adult males that are too old to compete for females collect together and form bachelor herds. Despite their reputation for being bad tempered and aggressive, these old brutes were totally unconcerned by the small robot. Some of the buffalo even showed mild curiosity and would amble up slowly to investigate.

Buffalos were totally unconcerned by BeetleCam and posed very cooperatively!
A curious buffalo checks out BeetleCam.

Upon returning to the UK, we were thrilled with the photographs that we had managed to take during our two-weeks spent in the field. We have already started work on BeetleCam Mark II and plan to return to Africa this summer to take more photographs. To receive news about BeetleCam’s future escapades, and to be the first to see the resulting photographs, please subscribe to our free email newsletter (or subscribe to our RSS feed).

Update: The BeetleCam website is now live: BeetleCam Project

78 Comments

  1. Lyza said: April 19, 2010 at 7:36 am

    Wonderful work!!!

  2. rushh said: April 19, 2010 at 7:38 am

    woww…. nice work here.. cool gadget u’ve made… i like large picture @ middle…

  3. Ruben Vicente said: April 19, 2010 at 7:55 am

    Genius work! Maybe it’s better to get some sort of metal case around the camera…lion proof =p

    Good luck!

  4. anonymous said: April 19, 2010 at 8:15 am

    WOW! I want to do this one day..

  5. Morkel Erasmus said: April 19, 2010 at 8:17 am

    Wonderful shots of Africa’s legends…thanks for sharing this, I know Hans Rack of Namibia has a similar type of gizmo with which he operates around the Etosha waterholes.

  6. Shirley said: April 19, 2010 at 10:17 am

    With great patience and marvellous enthusiasm

    you have given us all some terrifc animal shots.

    What about some African Sunsets next time you are over there ??

    Thank you for sharing.

  7. Sasa Huzjak said: April 19, 2010 at 11:35 am

    Great idea, very cool photos, wish you even more luck on your next BeetleCam adventure!

    PS: Sorry about the 400D, good news about 1D MK III :)

  8. Giles Breton said: April 19, 2010 at 11:50 am

    this is fantastic work, and you’re absolutely right about the need for a new fresh perspective on wildlife photography. Have you contacted the guys who set up Spy in the Jungle using trunk cams and tusk cams. Their cameras were tiger proofed as much as you can
    http://www.jdp.co.uk/programmes/Tigers:-Spy-in-the-Jungle

  9. MBUGUA said: April 19, 2010 at 12:17 pm

    Guys, this is great.
    I have seen your pics and all can say is that they are very nice. the idea behind it was great.
    i am also a photojournalist based in kenya.
    i am hoping to get a better camera since what i have is a D50 nikon.
    thanks guys.
    post more of that we need to learn more.
    cheers.
    mbugua kibera

  10. Wanda Krack said: April 19, 2010 at 12:32 pm

    Wow, what an adventure! Hats off to both of you for your work, enthusiasm, and new perspective! Wishing you luck with your next one!

  11. Emilie said: April 19, 2010 at 2:49 pm

    Great invention.

  12. Livia said: April 19, 2010 at 3:56 pm

    Amazing guys!
    You are really doing a great job! Keep on the track, you can go even futher on this project! Becareful with the wild!
    Looking forward for the next pics!

  13. Sebastian Kennerknecht said: April 19, 2010 at 4:25 pm

    Great stuff as usual. In many of the pictures it looks like you have small DOF considering the wide-angle lens. How where you focusing the camera?
    Thanks,
    Seabass

  14. Eddy Wee said: April 19, 2010 at 4:27 pm

    Wow, great work guys!

  15. Anna said: April 19, 2010 at 4:42 pm

    What a great adventure you guys had. Awesome pictures great idea.

  16. Jerad Hill said: April 19, 2010 at 6:11 pm

    Awesome. I mounted my 5D MKII to my old Traxxas Emax. Maybe what you need to do is rig up a pepper spray to one of the servos that you can fire when it needs to fight back.

  17. Marie Dunphy Harding said: April 19, 2010 at 7:27 pm

    I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Will & Matts’ excellent adventure’ story. Can’t wait for BeetleCam2.
    By the way, do bachelor herds only come in buffalo?
    All the best with your future endeavours.

  18. Ravindra Joisa said: April 20, 2010 at 8:34 am

    wow.. Too good… great work.. even i’m into photography .. but you guys have tried something extraordinary.. .:)

  19. Vijay Padiyar said: April 20, 2010 at 10:08 am

    Whoa!!! Awesome work, folks! Maybe for BeetleCam 2.0, you could try elevating the camera and flashes with a camera rod mounted on the buggy (and a retractable one at that). That would help you take pictures from a more conventional height (similar to a sitting person), which would look even more natural.

    No one would be able to figure out that the pics were taken remotely! Also, you would be able to eliminate the twigs from the pics by raising the camera above them. And by making it retractable, you would be able to lower the camera when not taking pictures.

  20. Vijay Padiyar said: April 20, 2010 at 10:14 am

    Or perhaps work on a CopterCam for next time! A camera and flashes mounted on a radio-controlled helicopter. That would allow you to take close snaps while still keeping your camera out of range of the animal!

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