An Apple WiFi iPad, a Canon 5d Mark II with a WFT-4e II A, a three-year-old linksys broadband router, a first gen REV. A, a Sprint Aircard and some duct tape … watch out, Macgruber, you’ve got nothing on us. And what did all of the above give us? A camera that took wicked awesome photos on an iPad out the window of the Reuters trailer at the Kennedy Space Center and all from the comfort of the Hampton Inn in Titusville, Florida.
What’s the point? My cohorts Joe Skipper, Pierre Ducharme & Michael Berrigan and I have been running a system of cameras at the space center that allows us to get our images back quickly from cameras stationed around the launch pad. This has been fairly successful, but there is always room for improvement.
Since we first developed our system at KSC, others have joined us with their own image retrieval methods. One system in particular makes use of the Motorola Canopy with a laptop in the field being remote accessed. In all, it’s a very cool system but it has a huge power footprint. That system requires several large car batteries wired together to keep the system up for about 36 hours. And there is the laptop. It is always a possible point of failure any time you stuff a hard drive into a box out baking in the Florida sun. And then there is the cost.
Our first system was successful not just technologically buy by keeping the transmitting parts for use with TWO cameras under $600 per rig.
In 2009, Canon announced it would be refreshing its WiFi transmitter line to include “A” and also a revamped version a WFT-SERVER. Anyone who used the first version of the WFT-SERVER solution knows that it showed a lot of promise but was difficult to use. The idea behind it is when the camera and transmitter combo is in this mode you can access and control the camera via web browser anywhere in the world.
The first generation of the WFT-4E A included a more basic version of this application, but I could never get it to work on a network for several reasons. Probably the most important was that once the camera went to sleep the only way to re-establish its network connection was to physically turn the camera on and off. Clearly, this doesn’t work when you have a camera mounted in the field looking at a space shuttle moments before a launch. The other reason would be it was really difficult to get it to place nicely with most routers, making it near impossible to port forward traffic to it.
With the release of this new transmitter, that is no longer an issue. Thank you, Canon! When the camera wakes up from sleep, it will automatically reconnect to the network and allow you to access it. And it is much better now about working with a wider range of routers.
Now the fun begins. In early April, I was going to be covering the launch of Space Shuttle Discovery STS-131 with commander Alan Poindexter running the ship for REUTERS. (I had to mention Dex, as he stars in one of my earlier remote camera films.) Anywho, back on point, I had the idea of trying this new camera transmitter combo out in the field for the launch. Fortunately for me, we have ethernet cable maker extraordinaire Michael Berrigan, our Editorial Field Specialist, at each launch to help facilitate our IT needs. And the guy is a whiz.
My original plan was to try this rig on a Cradlepoint router. Unfortunately, after spending the afternoon the day before remote-camera setup with the excellent support staff at the 3gStore.com, we couldn’t get all the pieces to work.
On a fluke, Michael decided to try one of our older linksys broadband routers and, incredibly, got it working. There are a few things that have to go right for it all to work, including the router must port forward correctly AND since Sprint doesn’t have a static IP address option, you must use a dynamic dns service. I know most IT guys are probably reading this right now going, “That’s easy.” In a normal application, I would agree with you. In this, it wasn’t and required some workarounds.
Unfortunately by time this was all set up, the day was late and it was going to be impossible to put out in the field for this mission. So, we decided to make this our test and see how long batteries lasted, make sure we could hit the camera, etc.
Hello iPad. That night, as we do most nights, the wire service photographers gathered in the lobby of the Hampton Inn for some adult libations. This particular night, Stan Jirman, who works for Apple, showed up with his just-released Apple iPad. Like just released, as in 48 hours before! On a fluke, we decided to see if we could hit the camera that was pointed out the window of our trailer and voila! We could control the camera using the iPad from the hotel lobby! The best part … the camera was connected to the Internet using an aircard and because the hotel WiFi is so bad we were using a Sprint MIFI for our iPad connection. You should have seen the faces in that lobby when I told everyone what we had just done. Priceless.
Jump ahead with me to the most recent launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis in May 2010. Michael and I decided we had to get this camera combo out in the field for launch and to see again if we could control the camera remotely, like from dinner, on an iPad and of course get a launch photo out of it. We placed this camera out on Beach Road, which is just to the east of launch pad 39A, for a side angle of the shuttle.
This was our last camera of the day to set up and when we were done it was off to dinner in Titusville, some 25-plus miles away. One of our goals was to be able to control the camera at dinner via Michael’s iPad. Geeky, I know. But it’s OK to embrace your inner nerd. 3 … 2 … 1 … 1 … 1 … 1 … OK, things didn’t go quite as planned. It seems that this launch was going to be a very popular one with the masses and all the wireless carriers were experiencing some sllloooowwwwwwdowns, starting about the time we tried to access the camera. Not ones to be dissuaded, we gave it a few more minutes and then there she was in all her glory: the space shuttle Atlantis at sunset over 25 miles away. We were then able to change the ISO of the camera, shutter speed and take a photo, all on the iPad — albeit very very slowly — from dinner. We weren’t expecting this slowdown at all, as during our testing it was fairly fast, but we were still pretty stoked at how cool this was.
Next up: Would we be able to get a picture during tanking of the shuttle the next morning? At this point, I accessed the camera with with my Macbook Pro. Again, it worked as expected and we were able to grab a picture from the camera and send it to our clients worldwide.
The big test. Our normal live camera system sends photos to an ftp server at REUTERS as the files are shot. During launch, our cameras are sound-activated and because of that we have no control over the volume of images being sent on the Sprint network. Any network congestion can cause this to take as little as a few seconds a photo or could be much longer. Using this setup, our hope was to be able to go in after launch and pick just the photos we wanted directly from the camera.
The launch into the beautiful blue Florida skies went as planned and so did this test. I got back to the trailer from my shooting location about 15 minutes post launch and was able to access the camera immediately. I quickly pulled down two images from the camera, one of which you can see below, and sent them to our clients. This is the actual transmitted photo.
All in all, I was pretty happy about how it all worked out. It was amazing be able to control the camera over the iPad, no doubt. But the best part was being able to directly access the remote camera and retrieve the images post launch without having to have anything but the camera, transmitter and Internet connection in the field.
We also took a few minutes to shoot a little video documenting the event. My buddy Bob Croslin shot a video of himself doing this on his computer at home and blasted it on youtube. So, he might take a little mocking in the video….just saying. Enjoy the video. It’s spectacularly bad.