What it takes to put a live camera up (updated March 2012)

I get many requests for information on how to set up a wildlife camera in or near a nest. Rather than answer them all repeatedly, I've put this article together to put most of the information in one place and give people a head-start with their project without waiting for an answer.

The first thing to understand before you go putting any camera in a wildlife area is that you may need permission of your local authorities. We need this permission before we can go up a tree, and there are times when we are not allowed near it. Your local authorities should be contacted before you do anything.

The second thing is to understand that power and distance from the internet are the major problems. The rest is pretty much off-the-shelf stuff that can include used video cameras and computers if you want to keep the budget down.

update: Take a look at my online e-book at Now-Pages.com

 

The major cost for such a camera when it is out in the wild is getting the internet connection to it, or getting the video signal back to where the encoder is connected to the internet.

So the first thing to do is answer a couple of questions:

1 - how far away is the nearest "high speed" internet connection (ADSL or Cable modem - minimum 500Kbps outbound connection speed) and is this where you are going to put the encoding computer?

2 - how much outbound bandwidth (usually measured in Gigabytes/month) are you allowed? A typical camera feed uses something around 100Gigs/month

3 - how close is power to where you want the camera?

Once you've answered these questions, read on for more information...


 

The industrial cameras we use run anything from $200 up and (at this point in time) should put out composite video and use a separate microphone (mics are fairly inexpensive but waterproofing them can be a pain) - and need a weather-proof housing. See below for long-distance feeds (over 100') as composite video (and audio) degrade fairly quickly if not wired correctly for long distances. They are available online from various web sites, most of which deal in security cameras. You can get them already housed in weatherproof housings or purchase the housing separately. You can use an old video camera if it will fit into a weatherproof housing - this gives you the advantage of a zoom lens so you can better frame the image without having to move the camera from the selected location. You can purchase zoom lenses for the industrial cameras but they can cost as much or more than the camera.

It is possible to use one of today's DV cams if it has a Firewire (1394) output as long as the camera will be within about 50' (15 meters) of where the computer/encoder will be - great for installs at home for smaller birds or in an office building for something like a hawk nest on a ledge. It may also be possible to use a USB camera but this depends on the software that you get and whether the encoder software recognizes it as an input device. You can purchase extension cables for both Firewire and USB but they have a distance limiation so test them with the length of cable you want to use and purchase good quality cables.

The encoder computer for Firewire or USB needs a connector for that type of signal. All current systems have USB and most have FIrewire, or you can add it in with a fairly inexpensive card.

The encoder computer for a composite video camera needs a video capture card - $150 or so. There are several types and at this point I won't detail them as they are changing almost daily it seems as things like HDMI and other Hi-def connections and requirements come to market. Getting one that does more than you need will be expensive. We've used cards from Haupage and external USB capture "dongles" from Pinnacle - but again, the software that comes with them needs to be recognized as an input device for the encoder software so ensure you can take it back if you can't get it working.

The encoder computer can be any Pentium 4 or better with 1 Gig of RAM and Windows XP - typically $350-$500 new these days. If the computer has to be small and weatherproof then this will increase the cost (figure $1000 total for such a system).

Coaxial cable from the camera to computer can be as long as 1000' or even more in some cases. Cost depends on length - less than $1/foot for most cases but more if distances are longer as larger cable is needed. Talk to your local wire/cable vendor for information.

VDS-2200 cable/power/video/audio balunPower over cable adapters (Baluns) are about $100 for the set. These take power from one end - where the computer is, and feed it down the cable to where the camera is - and take the video and audio from the camera and feed it back to the computer on the same cable. The unit is called a VDS-2200, one of several similar units that can do one or more video/audio plus 12 volt power. Our supplier has just told us they won't be carrying them anymore so we're looking for another supplier or similar unit.

If you have several nests you want to monitor or want to change the view remotely then a remote Pan-Tilt-Zoom camera may be best if you can put it somewhere that it can see several nests or cover an area the animals/birds are likely to be in. They run around $2000 and need both network and coaxial cable - or they need network and a separate computer somewhere that can translate the camera's compressed video to flash video (none that I know of put out flash directly) - adding to the cost. Note that unless you use a wireless connection the network connections are limited to about 300' unless you use special equipment.

Somewhere you'll need a place to put the encoding computer - weatherproof.

All in all a "site survey" is needed, answering the above questions and giving a layout and distances, etc.

 

Then figure in the cost of the network feed for the time needed. Here in BC we budget $100/camera/month for the network feed to our relay host. This works fine in urban areas where ADSL and Cable are available. In remote areas the network feed may be via satellite and cost $12000/month or more. In these cases it may be best to simply archive the video to disk and do the show from the archive at a later date.

Getting from semi-remote places to where inexpensive network can be had is the subject of wireless technologies. The most complex we currently have is a pair of links back-to-back from Goldstream estuary house to a marina and then across the inlet to a home. The cost was about $4000 with the travel and headaches (install done in a storm and had to re-do due to water in the antenna links) but a single shot system can be done for less than $2000 and go as much as 25 miles (line of sight, few or no trees in the path)

In all these cases power is the critical factor - solar is all but useless here in Canada in the winter for example. We're in the process of putting together a huge battery array for one project that we're hoping will only require us to visit the site monthly or bi-monthly to recharge with a generator. This one involves a helicopter to install things so is not inexpensive, even though the batteries were donated - they're heavy!

For encoding you have a choice of Windows Media - free from Microsoft, or Adobe flash - free from Adobe. Which you choose depends on how you choose to distribute your video. Most recent systems are using flash video but if you are going to use donated systems you may find them to be Windows Media. Setting these up is not the subject of this article.

There are starting to be web sites that will take your single feed and allow many people to watch. They overlay advertising to pay for the cost of the network bandwidth (from $5-15 per viewer per month is about what you're looking at for "full time" feeds)  Some of them will tell you which encoder software to use and how to set it up.

If your camera feed is something Hancock Wildlife Foundation might be interested in please let us know and maybe we can do something with our network. We're mainly interested in predatory birds and animals as they are "at the top of the food chain" and are the broad subject group of our foundation. These include owls, falcons, eagles, herons, etc. as well as bears and whales.

I hope this information helps you decide what it is you want to do, and gives you at least a rough idea of what the costs might be. As with anything, labour is likely to be a significant factor if you don't get it donated.

If you stll need more information, or need help, please contact us.

richard

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