Unmanned “Unplugged”

Robots of the Serengeti

Unmanned Systems Aid in Lion Documentation

By Brett Davis

Lions face ever-dwindling habitats. They are in danger of extinction. National Geographic photographer Michael “Nick” Nichols wanted to be able to photograph and study the lions of Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park and tell that story in a way that had never been done before. He wanted to get close and observe their behavior without disturbing them. He wanted to do more than drive up in a truck and park nearby.

“The purpose of the story is to tell the world that lions are in trouble,” he tells Unmanned Systems. “We really want to set the hook to have people look at our maps.”

To help accomplish this, he and cinematographer Nathan Williamson enlisted the help of a ground robot and small aerial vehicle. The use of the robots was not to help advance robotics technology, but to help the lions.

“When I started to think about this project, I knew that this was going to be the project to bring in all the technology,” Nichols says.

However, this is not a tale of how robots came in and saved the day when manned systems didn’t work. The ground robot got some good photographs and video, but it was heavy and had trouble with Wi-Fi connectivity. The aerial system struggled to carry heavy camera equipment, allowing only a few minutes of flight at a time. But the systems did show promise for future work, both men say.

Michael Nichols is working with a MikroKopter, an adapted toy helicopter, to photograph lions in the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. Copyright Michael Nichols/National Geographic. From the August issue of National Geographic magazine.

Lions and Wildebeests

The Serengeti not only includes a sizable lion population but is also home to an annual migration of wildebeests, known as the great migration. Nichols wanted to capture them both, and he wanted to shoot at least some of it from the air.

That would pose problems, he knew from experience. Aerial shoots, especially in Africa, are dangerous and expensive, not to mention disturbing to wildlife, some- thing Nichols always wants to avoid. Most aerial shots of animals, he noted in a dispatch on the National Geographic website, show them running away.

He had worked with an ultralight aircraft in the Congo, which had to be shipped to Africa at considerable expense.

“We spent over $100,000 and got one published picture,” he said. “If you can carry something in your car, you’re just nine million miles ahead.”

So he decided to do that. He and Williamson acquired a German-built MicroKopter, which Williamson modified to be able to carry a Canon 5D camera and lens, not a light setup.

Because of the weight, “we had about six minutes of safe flight time,” Williamson says. “I often returned back with the battery really hot. … I was definitely pushing the envelope, and I chewed through a lot of batteries.”

Williamson specializes in remote camera photography and is handy at tinkering with robots in the field. He received a Fulbright Fellowship in 2001 to document attempts to fight deforestation in the Amazon and has worked with National Geographic since 2003, when he first teamed with Nichols.

A curious female lion takes a gentle swipe at the remote-controlled “tank,” which provided a lions-eye view of behavior of the Vumbi pride of the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. Copyright Michael Nichols/National Geographic. From the August issue of National Geographic magazine.

“I didn’t study electrical engineering but was a ham radio operator as a child and always enjoyed technology,” Williamson says. Joining remote cameras with wildlife photography and videography was a way to “bring two parts of my brain together: the very visual and the part that enjoys creating and making one-off engineering technology.”

Nichols and Williamson began planning the Serengeti sessions five years ago, to call attention to the plight of Africa’s lions, which have disappeared from 80 percent of their range and may number no more than 35,000 cats. They worked with the Serengeti Lion Project, a team that has been studying the big cats for more than three decades, and focused on the Vumbi pride of lions.

Right off the bat, they knew they wanted to use a ground robot to be able to get closer to the lions than a Land Rover would allow. The first version was basically a remote-controlled car with a camera-holding device on it.

“That took months and months to develop. It got built barely in time for our first shoot,” Nichols says. Although the vehicle was basically a toy car that wasn’t up to the challenges of the Serengeti, “we had some of our best pictures from our first shoot,” he says. “If you get it into the pride while they’re sleeping, the magic time is when they wake up for dusk. That’s when we got some of our best stuff.”

A more robust vehicle was called for. Williamson worked with a manufacturer in North Carolina, SuperDroid Robots, to create a vehicle — which somewhat resembles Disney’s Wall-E — that could carry a video camera and a still camera and survive a lion attack, should one come.

“Be careful what you wish for,” Williamson says. “On the second version, we threw everything at it. It weighed 90 pounds. I could barely lift it. It was extremely dangerous to put down on the ground with the lions around.”

The ground robot operated via Wi-Fi, connecting to two laptop computers. Nichols used one to control the still camera; Williamson used the other to control the video camera. That was, at least, the idea.

“The Wi-Fi seemed to object to something in the Land Rover. It could lose connection and would be dead out there, uncontrollable, and the lions would be circling it,” he says.

The system also took up most of the space in the vehicle, so “it became something we would use only strategically, principally when the lions were lying around,” he says. “It ended up being used for very specific set shots.”

Nichols says despite the difficulties, the “robot did work very, very well,” and got some amazing close-ups that would be impossible to obtain any other way. It did experience one hazard, though.

“ … Nathan drove it through all this lion [excrement], and it turns out that lion [excrement] is one of the most toxic things on the planet. And it stinks to high heaven. That night, he just covered it. I think it never was the same after that.”

In the end, the ground robot got some good photographs and video, as did the aerial system, but not a single UAS-made photograph made it into the August issue of National Geographic, which ran a photo spread of the work.

“Some of the stuff is about dreaming big, but then you have to scale down your ambitions once you get in the field and figure out what you can do with it,” William- son says.

Instead, most of the images were made by Nichols, his wife Reba Peck and Williamson looking out from their modified Land Rover, dubbed the Queen of the Mara. They were aided by the use of infrared light, which didn’t bother the lions at night.

“Nathan and I would sit on the passenger side. We would sit on the left side of the car, and we had taken the doors off, and there’s a little bump out so we could see 180 degrees. There’s no barrier between us and the lions, and we could roll that canvas and peep through it,” Nichols says.

Nature didn’t cooperate, either. The last trip was supposed to be about the wildebeest migration, but Nichols had a run-in with the Queen of the Mara and a log and bent the steering column.

“The last trip was supposed to be about the wildebeests, and I broke the car. … I basically ruined our car, and the wildebeests never came. The big payoff for the MicroKopter was going to be wildebeests as far as the eye can see, but the wildebeests never came.”


Photographer Michael Nichols used a small remote-controlled helicopter to get a bird’s-eye view of the Vumbi pride resting on Barfafu Kopjes in the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. Copyright Michael Nichols/National Geographic. From the August issue of National Geographic magazine.

Going Forward

Although the ground robot and aerial system did not prove crucial for the Serengeti coverage, both Nichols and Williamson are enthusiastic about their potential, especially of the air vehicle.

The ground robot was handy with lions, but lions are a special breed, an apex predator.

“It’s not like you could do this with many other animals,” Williamson says. “Lions are extremely confident. They’ve always been top dog in their environment. … If they can’t eat it and it doesn’t seem to be a threat, they’re just going to ignore it.”

The aerial vehicle has more promise, although there is plenty of room for improvement, they say.

“I see tremendous opportunity with the microcopters, there’s something incredibly seductive of the perspective of 20 or 30 feet off the ground,” Williamson says. “That equipment is sort of racing ahead.”

Nichols spoke recently at the Look3 Festival of the Photograph in Charlottesville, Va., a festival he helped found.

He has gone on some grueling expeditions for National Geographic, including accompanying conservationist Michael Fay on his epic 2,000-mile walk from Congo to the coast of Gabon in 1999-2001. He told the crowd about his work with the lions and his previous efforts and said he’s tired and pondering retirement.

“I’d love to continue it, if I get a second wind, but I’d go right back to where I was,” he tells Unmanned Systems. “If you can do this stuff well, you’re going to be able to show people a different view.

“I think they [unmanned systems] are great tools. I made my name with camera traps. I want to photograph things close. I don’t want to be in danger, and any way you can do to show a new view is important. Aerial views are incredibly important. The drone is by far the safest, the least bad to the environment. What’s wrong with that?”

Brett Davis is editor of Unmanned Systems.