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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. James Schipper said: November 12, 2010 at 2:51 pm

    Another option for passive defense on the unit would be to find something nasty tasting to coat the camo cover with. I’m not sure what would work well for cat’s to not want to lick, and it wouldn’t stop them from pawing at it (or an elephant stomp), but it wouldn’t need to zap them or spray anything. Lions tend to grab things in their mouths.

    They used to have this nail polish-like stuff to keep kids from biting their fingernails that tasted horrible. If you could find something that was easy to apply and wouldn’t make a mess, it may help.

  2. PAwan said: November 12, 2010 at 5:08 pm

    Hi,
    Neat work, I hope you guys had good adventure in Africa… Keep it up

  3. Venkatesh said: November 13, 2010 at 12:02 am

    all ur efforts are being paid off

  4. Jack Basson said: November 13, 2010 at 12:12 am

    The difference here as I see it is the blue sky background, that always makes an object stand out much better. Digital cameras especially struggle a bit with bushes as a full background.
    Great work, I have seen similar projects but yours are amongst the top.

  5. tom tompson said: June 12, 2011 at 2:40 am

    What lens did you guys use?

  6. Göran Sundvall said: September 6, 2011 at 12:51 pm

    Nice! Be careful with the equipement. My neighbors robotic mover was smashed by an elk. I´ve also heard about a beaver who drawned a robotic mower. It´s pretty wild up here in Sweden, to…

  7. T. Dar said: November 7, 2011 at 10:52 pm

    Awesome work and great pictures. Best of luck with mk2!

  8. Oli said: January 7, 2012 at 6:46 pm

    That’s an awesome idea. Are you taking orders for BeetleCams then? I want one!

  9. steppeland said: February 16, 2012 at 9:05 am

    Fabulous – must be so exciting to work with this beetle cam in the field!! Looking forward to see your new results!

  10. mustapha said: February 18, 2012 at 11:54 am

    very nice pics!good luck!

  11. Jason Steel said: March 1, 2012 at 7:55 pm

    What a brilliant project. The results are fantastic and your BeetleCam has brought you back some beautiful shots. Can I ask what settings the camera was on or was it just on full auto mode for this work? Was there a live feed coming back to you or did you have to wait for the BeetleCam to return before you got to see what photos it had managed to capture?

  12. Mihir J. Sangani..New York USA said: March 2, 2012 at 11:24 pm

    In ref to shooting pics of Lion with Beetlecam…I understand Lion mauled away the device correct ? I would suggest to add and attach Audio Sound device to BeetleCam, with a sound of Gun Shot popping out to the wild animal who tries to touch BeetleCam to maul away. I am sure hearing gun shot sound, wild animals will run away without taking BeetleCam with them..

  13. Ahmet Almaz said: March 10, 2012 at 12:53 am

    my dream is wild photos but I’m not so lucky

  14. Hamadou said: March 14, 2012 at 6:17 pm

    Wonderfful

  15. Paul Johnston said: March 16, 2012 at 8:03 am

    After reading the above comments, looks like most any suggestion I would make has been covered.

    Foul smelling/tasting substance applied to device.

    Electro shock once animal touches device.

    Stronger protective enclosure.

    Loud noise maker once object is touched.

    Porcupine defense design.

    Cheaper cameras used.

    Transmitting images back to home base.

    Overall design is a “disposable” Beetle versus a indestructible tank design.

    If combat strength is desired, look at various designs of robots that fight each other.

    Interested in seeing the evolution of your design solution!

  16. pet portraits said: April 16, 2012 at 8:26 pm

    Fantastic shots. The BeetleCam is amazing. I just love the shot of the Lioness coming towards the cam with a look of curiosity on her face.

  17. Nicholas said: June 4, 2012 at 7:29 am

    Brilliant Work !~ I first saw your project on photographic magazine and i rush to my computer immediately to search further info of this epic BeetleCam!!! Love it when you(i mean the Camera) can go so close with the wild animal and take some fantastic shot with these wilderness~ Brilliant Brilliant Shot =D! i hope there’s BeetleCam selling in close future 😛

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