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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

I 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, I sourced components from around the world. Construction then began in earnest with sawing, soldering, sewing and super gluing taking place around the clock in my garage.

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

I 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, I figured out how to get the camera (my 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 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.

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.

Update: Read the next instalment of this project here: BeetleCam vs the Lions of the Masai Mara

78 Comments

  1. Jacob Cherian said: April 20, 2010 at 10:27 am

    love the pics! i can’t wait for the Flying Chopper SLR next.. 🙂

  2. Chiranjib Sur said: April 20, 2010 at 12:40 pm

    It was so much fun reading your experience. Some pictures of the invention (Beetlecam with your 1D MIII) will be of more fun – yes the equipment itself !

    You two really rocks ! Congratulations and all the best for your next trip.

  3. Brian Pohl said: April 20, 2010 at 1:30 pm

    Like the pepper spray idea, but simpler yet. Soak the outer cover/cloth with hot pepper spice (e.g. cayenne?) to make it less attractive to sniffing / chewing / picking up by mouth. Not sure how you deal with a lion paw knocking it on its side … then it would be more like a turtle-cam.

  4. Will said: April 20, 2010 at 2:52 pm

    Thanks for all the comments guys. We can’t wait to get out to Africa with BeetleCam Mark II!

    Also, thanks for all the suggestions. It would not be very responsible of us to start pepper spraying or electrocuting lions so I think we might just go with a stronger carapace next time!

    – Will

  5. Maud Guye-VUillème said: April 20, 2010 at 3:29 pm

    Genius ! Love it 🙂

  6. Charles said: April 20, 2010 at 3:55 pm

    How come nobody thought of this 50 years ago? Can you encase the camera in a steel frame or mesh? Or add something repulsive like a sponge soaked ammonia? Or glue Barbies all over it, so it’s like a Malibu beach buggy. Or a space man and a sign that says “We come in peace” so the animals can read it.

  7. Ant West said: April 20, 2010 at 4:06 pm

    Bravo, Gentlemen! What an awesome unique experience this must have been! Hats off to you for this – you surely deserve some kind of accolade for your intepid spirit of adventure and thinking out of the box! Woohoo!
    I love the low andled shots, especially of the elephants. Curious to know how you aim at the subjects from a distance, or does the wide angle take care of the panorama?
    Consider creating a reinforced fibre-glass “pod” which resembles a rock for protecting the camera equipment and go back to the lions… 🙂

  8. enscript said: April 20, 2010 at 7:07 pm

    Congratulations ! What an achievement ! Really looking forward to pictures/videos & updates on next trip.

  9. Mike said: April 20, 2010 at 7:20 pm

    These are great shots. Wonderful creativity and pushing the boundaries of what you can do with technology.

  10. Michael Longstaff said: April 20, 2010 at 7:36 pm

    You guys are geniuses. You have combined two of my favourite things and are getting awesome images as a result. I wish all the success in the world for the Beetlecam project!

  11. Sean said: April 20, 2010 at 10:27 pm

    Great design! Couple of questions raise from a photographer’s point of view, how do your camera meter when it’s totally camouflaged? The two elephant pictures on this page are all in AV mode at f/7.1, iso 320. The buffalo pictures stuck on the same setting. It seems when the BeetleCam goes out there, it’s out there. No camera controls. Hopefully you guys could find an easier way to control camera and composition.

    Cheers!

  12. Indy said: April 20, 2010 at 11:48 pm

    You might consider using an EyeFi SD card card that will upload pictures over wifi so pictures can survive device catastrophe. You can purchase a pocket sized wifi network basestation and the EyeFi can talk directly to an iPhone or an Android phone, so two battery powered widgets in your pocket are all that is required. However, I know the first gen EyeFi cards had significant saving lag in pro cameras, so it’s worth investigating if that problem has been fixed in their later gen cards.

  13. Joe Zuniga said: April 21, 2010 at 6:43 am

    I think the most non-destructive way to fend off ‘would be maulers’ would be to tie in a couple of airhorns to the BeetleCam.

    The cost of finding a way to shoo away kitties with attitudes I think outweighs losing another camera, or worse, the memory card :(.

    Anyway, the photos were FANTASTIC!! Keep them coming.

  14. Kevin said: April 21, 2010 at 8:22 am

    I may be biased, but I think you should give the Olympus E-3 a go. It’s extremely rugged, being dust and moisture proof, and several of them can be had for the price of one 1D. Not to mention all their high-grade lenses are dust and moisture proof as well.

  15. Dr, Nicolas Rao said: April 21, 2010 at 11:59 am

    This is really exciting and amazing.
    Kudos on a great job and may all your efforts be blessed with great photos.
    I got the link from my photo Society’s yahoo group.
    It is very inspiring for us to hear of such things!
    You could perhaps check out our Photo Society at
    Photomadras.org
    Nicolas Rao

  16. Markus said: April 21, 2010 at 1:51 pm

    What a brilliant project !
    But yes, that would be my question as well. how did you manage the camera controls? And, did you use an external meter? OR did you just shoot with an appropriate setting suiting the situation?

    A steel cage around the cam would prevent it from being damaged. I am sure you could position the flashes so you would not deal with shadows (that is the least problem here I suppose), but it would not prevent the camera from being carried away… 😉

    Markus

  17. Val said: April 21, 2010 at 5:49 pm

    If you’re gonna jump on the cage and so on, you might think of a way to flip it back over. I would think they’re trying to avoid all those things, and save weight/battery life.

    Most of these animals would probably leave the camera alone, as long as it leaves them alone, kind of thing.

  18. Igor said: April 21, 2010 at 8:17 pm

    Next time use skunk odour to protect BeetleCam from lions)

  19. Joe said: April 22, 2010 at 6:21 am

    the Discovery Channel (I think) made one of these a few years back and got lions close up, ran with them, etc. you could do what they did, and put a rounded hard case around the whole thing with a hard flat bottom. It could still get flipped, but at least the camera would not be mauled.

  20. Clive said: April 22, 2010 at 4:30 pm

    awesome stuff!

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