Most off-the-shelf camera solutions for construction time-lapses are quite expensive. Have you considered a GoPro?
Client: “I would like you to take your drone up to the same spot every day for a month to take one image of the site for us.”
Us: “Sounds more like a job for a static camera, I think.”
Client: “Can you do that?”
That was the start of the conversation that turned AltoFocus into a full-service production time-lapse provider, supercharging the services that we can offer our clients. Not one for turning down a challenge, we said “Yes, certainly” and then went off to find answers to the new questions we were faced with.
That conversation changed it all for our business.
Four years later, we have more than 30 static cameras deployed on over ten sites, and we are growing steadily.
Before that day, we were well placed in the unmanned aerial vehicle filming industry, providing aerial roof inspection and promotional videography for construction and marketing.
Solving the problem
Most off-the-shelf camera solutions suitable for long term time-lapse are quite expensive and are based on scheduler controlled DSLR cameras. These have a few drawbacks:
- The cost. A fully weatherproofed unit will probably set you back at least £4000 – £5000. This not only brings the profit margin down and/or a longer time to repay the investment, but makes it inaccessible for most organisations.
- Complexity and temperature sensivity. A DSLR is a complex unit with a fairly limited temperature range, unless you invest into more advanced equipment. In the summer, a weatherproof camera housing will get up to 50° C inside. Similarly, in winter -10° C is not uncommon here in the UK.
- Power consumption. Usually, time-lapse units will have to be plugged into mains power. This restricts placement and makes the safety case more difficult.
- The weight. This restricts the size of housing and the attachment methods you can use. It will also influence the planning for the safety and security of each unit .
Enter the GoPro action camera
We had some experience with using GoPros for our drone offerings, so we were very happy with the reliability and relatively
low cost of the unit. It’s an incredibly sturdy and reliable unit. We have not had any issues with the GoPros we have used. Even after one was submerged for 24 hours, it was still working afterwards. There is no Panacea however, and the GoPros have their own drawbacks that I will address in detail below:
- The Lens. The fisheye view is not attractive for looking at a larger area like a construction site and makes it necessary to place the camera very close. We ended up changing the lenses of the GoPro for most sites. The replacement lenses can be obtained from Peau Productions, however, beware that the focusing of these lenses can be a challenge. More recently, a more complete and sturdy offering from Back-Bone has become available.
- Control Unit. As with a DSLR the GoPro is not designed for long term time-lapse, so we need a controller to schedule its operation. CamDo is the only game in town in timelapse controllers for GoPro, but they are expensive. That being said we have been very happy thus far with all our CamDo controllers; from Blink and BlinkX, all the way up to UpBlink – the current offering.
The challenges of industrial timelapses
Commercial time-lapse for construction provides some unique challenges, and the issues we have learned the most from are both technical and administrative. On the technical side, most issues will be power related.
Keeping the lights on
We use solar panels to keep our internal batteries topped up. In the 2-3 darkest winter months, the placement and size of these panels need to be well thought out. Ensure the batteries are of sufficient capacity to make the camera last at least a week without charge. Should you use mains power, you must still use a battery just in case of a power surge. Use a mains timer to charge the battery a few hours per day. Weather will provide a lot of problems as well, whether that be in the form of rain, sun, heat or cold.
The batteries have very complex charge controllers on them which will switch the battery off in case of too high charge current/voltage, too high discharge, too high or low temperature in addition to a few other parameters. We were reasonably happy with Voltaic, but we have now developed our own battery that is bespoke to our camera housings. They also have the capacity to provide power telemetry with the data pack that the unit sends daily. Moisture ingress will also have the potential to cause a few problems.
Keeping nature outside
Electrical components do not like moisture. With temperature variations, you will often get condensation on the lens. The best remedy for this is to have as little glass in front of the camera lens as possible. We have tried everything from hermetically sealed housings to ventilated ones. Ventilated housings will suffer far less moisture problems, both with condensation and otherwise.
Surprisingly birds are not a big problem. There is the occasional calling card from one or two, but they do not seem to cause any positioning issues for the housings. Just ensure you have sturdy fixings. We ended up designing our own that have served us very well. Spiders, on the other hand, are quite bothersome. They find the housings irresistible so they will often sit in front of the lens cover or cover it with their web, much to the dismay of our editors during the time-lapse post production.
We built our first weatherproof housing ourselves, as a moneysaving effort, out of a plastic case. This did not work out very well, so we ended up investing in the CamDo enclosures. Although good, the constant and relentless outdoor use still revealed some of the aforementioned problems that we needed to solve.
Since the beginning we have gone through many redesigns of our own camera housings to combat all of the problems mentioned above. For the last two years, we have been using our self designed and built ARGUS units with great success.
The ARGUS is designed to fit any GoPro from HERO5 and up. lt gives space for a large Power bank so to ensure endurance for all kinds of shooting in any weather. The camera adapter is designed to ensure access to the camera for battery and SD card retrieval without having to remove the camera from its adapter or disturb the field of view.
To make the most out of the ARGUS’ potential and to design a truly low cost, high capacity timelapse unit I would encourage readers to check out the Time-Lapse scripts on GoPro Labs for the HERO 6. Just by pointing the HERO at a QR code it reprograms itself to incorporate a Time-Lapse schedule. This negates the need for an expensive controller. You can find more information about the industry changing ARGUS units on our Amazon page, or by checking out our website.
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