National Geographic Magazine's WildCam Africa

Tech Talk

Why Pete's Pond?     Elephant Research     Leopard Research

Linking the live WildCam Africa Internet video camera from one of the most remote locations in southern Africa to a satellite hovering 22,500 miles (36,200 kilometers) above the Earth’s equator was the easy part. The challenge was how to keep baboons from messing with the camera, prevent insects from slithering inside the computer, and protect the whole setup from curious elephants. National Geographic spent weeks looking for someone who had done it before. Trouble was, nobody had. But Cameron Murie came close enough.

Murie, who calls himself a “geek in the bush,” operates a computer and information system business in Musina, South Africa. He is also responsible for designing a radio-based computer network linking the various camps at Mashatu Game Reserve. “Things that are commonplace in an urban environment are difficult to achieve in the bush,” says Murie. “A project like WildCam—with a satellite hook-up that provides streaming video—has never been done in this area. Getting a good quality connection here is expensive and challenging at best.”

Nuts and Bolts
The heart of the system is a desktop computer that processes images from a high-powered wide-angle video camera. The high-resolution camera is on all the time, ready to capture any movement it sees and record 20 to 25 images a second. That’s fast enough to display the realistic movement of the animals without the jerkiness that sometimes accompanies Web broadcasts.

Illustration: Technology

A switching device that sends the video data to a network router is attached to the computer. The router transfers the data to an antenna pointed north (see figure 1 in illustration) where a satellite picks up the signal and relays it to a server (figure 2). From there, the video is streamed to the Internet through National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. (figure 3). “It’s normal technology, but it wouldn't be possible without a satellite link,” says Murie. “There’s no alternative way to the Internet from here.”

The link to the satellite was the only way to obtain enough bandwidth to carry the huge data stream required by the video array. “The network is not your standard off-the-shelf setup,” says David Horacek, president of Enterprise Satellite Solutions in Chandler, Arizona. “It’s a dedicated bandwidth connection from the pond to the satellite to a terminal hub in Sweden. From there, it goes to the Internet. It’s point to point. They only communicate with each other. That’s why we can provide this high-quality live experience.”

Keep Out
A curious creature, however, could interrupt all the electronic wizardry. The perimeter of the array is fortified with high-strength wire and electrified fencing, while the computer and camera apparatus are secured in tight cabinetry. It’s harmless to the wildlife and discourages their attempts to get in. But even with protection, anything can happen. “You have to animal- and insect-proof everything,” says Murie. “Otherwise, it’s a real problem. In this place if you get a bug in the system, it really is a bug.”


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