BeetleCam: Safari via remote control

Matt and Will with the fantastic BeetleCam

I’ve done a fair bit of work with Will and Matt Burrard-Lucas in the past – they’re both ludicrously talented photographers and great guys. They also have a knack for DIY – and I have to say that their newest project is one of the ones that has interested me most recently – What do you get when you strap a camera to the top of a remote controlled car? You get their incredible BeetleCam.

The modern world of wildlife photography is saturated with thousands of talented photographers producing a huge number of fantastic 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 yourself (or the camera) into places that many would consider impossible.  


Matt and Will with the fantastic BeetleCam

Tired of the dangers of wildlife photography, Will and Matt set out to invent something. “We were driven to embark upon an ambitious project to photograph African wildlife from a new perspective”, Will tells me over coffee: “Traditionally, you get close to animals by using camera traps – stationary cameras triggered by a trip beam or remote. The problem with this method is that it requires a great deal of time, patience and luck. Therefore we decided to invent something a little more proactive!”. Easier said than done, but they did come up with a brilliant solution: The BeetleCam. Put simply, it’s a DSLR camera mounted on top of a four-wheel drive remote control buggy.

When was the last time you captured a shot like this? Incredible, eh?

They 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 device from scratch. Having conducted our research, they 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.

This was the last thing the poor Canon 400D saw before it was mauled by lions. Literally.

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”, Will recalls, “and large off road tires, too”. After all, BeetleCam had to be able to operate for long periods without being charged, so they also ordered massive batteries.

Next, they constructed a split ETTL off-camera flash cord that allowed 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). The finishing touches were to camouflage BeetleCam and seal the camera and internal mechanisms from the environment.

The beetle cam in full camouflage

The prototype was finished with a month to spare but it proved to be catastrophically unstable. Whoops – you don’t want to go retrieve a camera from the midst of a pack of angry lions! An emergency redesign was undertaken to lower the centre of gravity and, a few days before their departure, BeetleCam was ready for to be let loose in the wild!

“We decided to make our first subjects elephants.”, Will says, and his face says it all: This was not going to end well. “Photographing them proved difficult”, he laughs. It turns out that their hearing and high intelligence made it very hard to outsmart them. “Eventually we developed a technique that involved manoeuvring BeetleCam into their path and waiting for them to approach”. Needless to say, this took a great deal of guesswork but perseverance paid off and they were able to take some amazing photographs of huge elephants towering over the camera.

You'll be much happier standing a few hundred meters away with a remote control than to actually be pressing the button here yourself. Trust me on this one. Or just ask Will.

Spurred by their success, Will and Matt got brave. “Our second subjects were lions and these proved easier to get close to”. sadly, though, it turned out to be just a little bit too easy. “Within 20 seconds of deploying BeetleCam, the lions had rushed over to investigate, bitten our Canon EOS 400d and run off into the bush carrying the actual BeetleCam itself”. A dramatic recovery mission ensued and they eventually retrieved their battered camera and BeetleCam. The camera would never take another photo, but imagine their excitement: “The 400d had captured some incredible shots in its final few seconds of life!”, Will laughs. Fortunately, they were able to patch BeetleCam up with some string and a few bits of wood. “We replaced the 400d with our only other camera, a Canon EOS 1d Mk III. Obviously we weren’t going to deploy near lions again!”

With our expensive 1D mounted on top of BeetleCam, they were were quite nervous when they decided to try photographing a group of old bachelor buffalos. If you’ve never had the honour of trying to capture ‘em; Buffalos have a reputation for being grumpy and unpredictable! “To our surprise and great relief, these old brutes turned out to excellent models”, Will explains. “they were very cooperative and posed beautifully as we drove BeetleCam around them!

Stunning. Absolutely stunning.

“Upon returning to the UK, we were thrilled with the photographs that we had managed to take during our two-weeks in Tanzania. We have already started work on BeetleCam Mark II and plan to return to Africa later this year to take more photographs.”, Will concludes.

Follow the Burrard-Lucas brethren’s crazy adventures by subscribing to their newsletter or checking out their RSS feed. Videos of the BeetleCam in action and more pics taken with it can be seen on the BeetleCam section of their website.

A huge thanks to Will and Matt for being interviewed for Photocritic. All photos are © Images used with explicit permission – please contact Matt and Will for further copyright info.

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