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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. Gerry (Photo-Africa) said: April 22, 2010 at 9:06 pm

    Absolutely great idea and execution! Well done guys!

  2. Yalonda said: April 23, 2010 at 12:34 am

    These are some amazing shots! And it’s incredible how you created the BeetleCam!
    I just started learning photography about a year ago and I’ve completely fallen in love with it! I hope to someday be able to do something as great as you have here!

  3. FTNer said: April 23, 2010 at 3:17 am

    that is one freaking cool gadjet!! awesome idea.
    looking foward to see more photos..

    maybe it should have a protective cover for the camera..

  4. resmi said: April 23, 2010 at 4:13 am

    nice information,man.I also wanna go like to for animals.

  5. Elaine said: April 23, 2010 at 12:47 pm

    Hi, you could use a trick that livestock farmers and rangers use worldwide and which would be a cheap and easy answer to any animal making contact with the bot- a simple chicken wire grill hooked to the battery to givevery small deterent electrical shocks. It wont deter the lions from coming near like the sprey would and is light and cheap.

    As for the photographs, amazing shots! Well done.

  6. Greg Jordan said: April 23, 2010 at 4:04 pm

    So cool! Congrats on your piece in Wired.

  7. James said: April 24, 2010 at 6:13 pm

    Nice pictures! and a great idea I may post this on my blog.

  8. Richard Harris said: April 26, 2010 at 8:35 am

    This is great. I was thinking of changing my EOS400D for a 50D but now I view it with renewed respect. If it’s good enough for you and the lions…

  9. sanjay said: April 26, 2010 at 5:00 pm

    ya its realy awsome wana take some pic lik this

  10. SINA said: April 28, 2010 at 5:30 am

    Hey 😉
    goood pictures!
    but do you think about when an elephant fall in love with BeetleCam and want to touch it!

  11. mehdi said: April 28, 2010 at 9:11 am

    very niceee
    I post this on my site.
    Thank you

  12. TCG said: April 28, 2010 at 1:33 pm

    I’ve been showing this to all my science and photo friends and one typically well rounded guy sent me this back instantly:

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d7/Pigeon_photographers_and_aerial_photographs.jpg

    I am NOT advocating strapping a MK III to a lion, because I want you two to keep making awesome images!

  13. Will said: April 28, 2010 at 2:16 pm

    Great find TCG! I am looking for pigeons on ebay as I type 🙂

  14. dinane said: April 29, 2010 at 8:10 pm

    I am totally impressed by what you embarked on and the results! The lioness pictures on National Geographic’s website and the one here are simply amazing. I am sorry you had to mourn the passing of your camera – I have the same model and would be sad to see it so mauled – but glad that your backup plan worked flawlessly. Amazing. And thank you for sharing it with the world.

  15. Anne said: May 2, 2010 at 10:16 am

    Great idea resulting in some awesome shots! I found your website after seeing a full page spread of your photos in an Australian newspaper.
    Looking forward to seeing more of your work.

  16. Fort Myers Photographer said: May 2, 2010 at 3:35 pm

    Great photos and I love the prospective!

  17. aviram said: May 28, 2010 at 6:36 pm

    just amazing !!!

  18. Warren Williams said: June 20, 2010 at 2:23 am

    Stunning photos, and great work on the model. Well worth it 🙂

  19. pete krohn said: June 29, 2010 at 1:31 pm

    plenty of inexpensive 12MEGPIXEL surplus cams available for ‘testing’ purposes. (Nikon coolpix, pentax optio, etc ) extremely lightweight too. req some hacking but fully disposable compared to these ‘precious cameras’ you seem to like to commit to their demise. plenty of ‘off the shelf’ remote xmit/rcvr options for control. robotware is a growing hobby, all kinds of help on the net for you!

    im thinking ‘noise, lots of it, shrill, nasty and controllable’ when it come to defenses in wild animal arenas.

    even a microphone and emitter to talk to the animals? soothe them, make them your friend, LOL

    most wildlife park rules forbid any contact or ‘contamination’ with the animals, so noxious chemicals are taboo!

  20. Susanne Agaiby said: July 9, 2010 at 4:57 pm

    Amazing Work. I love your photos!! 🙂

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