The first time wildlife photographer William Burrard-Lucas tried using a robot to go take beautiful, wide-angle images of lions at close range, the curious cats did as lions are wont to do. Meaning, one walked right up, clamped the thing between her jaws, and ran off with BeetleCam Version 1.0.
Since that first attempt five years ago in the Tanzanian grasslands, Burrard-Lucas has been perfecting the instrument. By 2011, he had added a lion-proof hard shell that withstood "exploratory biting" and captured photos of sensitive wildlife typically fearful of humans. Today, though, the photographer is working on a BeetleCam that can shoot video with a built-in stabilizer, or gyrometer. He's also built a "BeetleCopter" that can take dazzling footage of migrating herds from above.
The inspiration came from wanting to get the most unique photographs as possible, Burrard-Lucas says. "I used to achieve this by crawling up to animals and getting it this way, often with animals that weren't as dangerous—with penguins or something," the photographer remembers. "But I really wanted to do this in Africa with animals that would maul me if I got too close."
So he did. After testing out the lion-baiting BeetleCam, which came with a carapace, in Zambia last year, Burrard-Lucas started receiving requests for more. He recognized a business opportunity and launched Camtraptions LTD in January.
Now Burrard-Lucas is working on even stealthier BeetleCams. The latest version comes about directly from his work on the BeetleCopter, which he developed to track wildebeest migrations from the skies. Eventually Burrard-Lucas came up with a method to stabilize the drone camera, which he then applied to the good ol' roving BeetleCam.
Burrard-Lucas has also gotten interest from conservation groups looking to track poachers. Unfortunately, the BeetleCopter doesn't last very long in the air—20 minutes at most. In order to make the drone as quiet as possible, so as not to scare off the animals, he had to rely on lighter batteries. Heavier batteries weighed on the rotors, which flung out more noise.
"A lot of shy animals, if you introduce a photographer close to them, they'll get spooked," he said. "But if you get a remote camera you can capture them in new ways."