Wildlife Photographer Creates Animal Robots to Help Study Them Closer
Humans can only get so close to wildlife to study them. Wildlife photographer and filmmaker John Downer from Bristol, England has come up with a synthetic solution to get a deeper look into their world.
Downer and his team have built lookalike robotic “spy creatures” – as he calls them – with cameras in place of their eyes to record rare footage of animal behavior in the wild as seen from their perspective.
“There’s an amazing moment where you realize that you are actually seeing some stuff for the first time. Over the years these technologies get more and more inside the animal world. Understanding animal behavior is key to it all,” Downer told the AP’s Great Big Story.
An avid wildlife filmmaker, Downer would hide remote cameras inside of rocks known as the “Bouldercam,” but planting a camera in a robotic eye – and sometimes the body – is a visionary concept.
As a producer/director Downer started his professional life with the BBC Natural History Unit. His films Supersense and Lifesense were a precursor to his current work as they explored perception from the animal’s point of view. His later films, Penguins – Spy in the Huddle, and Dolphins – Spy in the Pod, first featured the revolutionary idea of the spy creatures when he created the “penguin cam.”
Downer was inspired to go beyond capturing them on film to actually learning what it’s like to be an animal. His spy creatures interact with real wildlife. Sometimes it’s tough to tell them apart.
Not all spy creatures play nicely with their animal counterparts. There are moments of curiosity that can turn into comedy such as a pair of monkeys who played with their spy monkey, dropped it off the tree, and went scurrying to find it. In one disastrous moment a wolf attacked Downer’s pup robot version and a spy tortoise was crushed by an elephant.
“The fact that they look real makes them think before they actually do anything. And if it’s not a threat, they quite like it,” Downer told Great Big Story.
The use of Downer’s spy creatures brings us one step closer to a birds-eye view of the animal kingdom and studying them in their natural world.