Public Lab Research note

Hacking trail cameras to document blasts on Mountaintop Removal sites

by LauraChipley | September 18, 2015 13:31 | 233 views | 17 comments | #12225 | 233 views | 17 comments | #12225 18 Sep 13:31

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I am working a project called The Appalachian Mountaintop Patrol (AMP) that collaborates with environmental activists in Boone, Raleigh and Kanawha counties to document the experience of living in close proximity to, and the environmental contamination caused by Mountaintop Removal.

We want to install trail cameras near MTR sites to document blasting, record activity and chronicle how sites change over time. We are interested in the possibility of hacking one of these cameras to activate at least 2 minutes of video recording upon detecting a loud sound (a loud siren goes off before a blast).

Questions: Does anyone in the PL community have an idea as to how we could go about this? Can anyone suggest an alternative to hacking a trail camera?

Thanks everyone!

For those who are interested, here are some links to drone documentation of a permit near the Kanawha Forest and of the Brushy Fork impoundment, that sits directly above the town of Eccles in Raleigh County.


Brushy Fork:

-- Laura

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Starting with a trail camera (game camera) is a good idea because they solve two important issues:

  1. they are weather proof
  2. some standard alkaline batteries power them for weeks or months.

Replacing the trail camera's motion sensor with a sound sensor might be easy because a $5 Arduino clone and $2 microphone should suffice. Making this sound sensor weatherproof is easy, but powering it for weeks or months is not trivial.

The trail cameras have figured out how to keep a motion sensor on all the time without using much power and then turn the camera on very quickly when needed. If you can add the new sound sensor into the circuit, all you have to do is find a power supply that keeps the Arduino on for a few weeks at a time (or as long as you need).

An easy hack would be to use a trail camera as is and use a separate Arduino sound sensor to trigger a servo that moves something in front the trail camera's motion sensor.

Another option is to use a $40 ebay Canon Powershot running CHDK which can be programmed to start shooting when a pulse to the USB port from an external Arduino sound sensor is detected. But the camera has to be on constantly and the batteries in a Powershot will keep it running for only a few hours. Some Powershots have adapters that allow them to be plugged into wall power, so if power is available this could be an easy hack. That is, you could set this up at a window in your house for under $50.


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corresponding thread on googlegroups:!topic/publiclaboratory/cdtKQCIYHs0

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Thanks Chris - this is really helpful!

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Hi, i know it's been a while, but curious how this has gone? I was wondering if it'd be possible to trigger a trail camera by flashing an LED in frame, kind of like how Chris is saying with a servo.

I'm just thinking a blinking LED could be a lot lower power, and maybe could even be adhered to the camera up close, so it wouldn't need to be too bright.

Also just wanted to loop in @stevie, @bkleist, and @glennwalquist, and others who've been testing out timelapse cameras at sites of environmental problems.


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Hi all - I'm still waiting to get the images from one of the cams deployed in WV (set on time lapse & saving to SD card). Here's a link to a time lapse from another one deployed by a friend in central WV that transmitted images to a cell phone:

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awesome! @stevie check this out!

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which trail camera did you end up using?

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The video above was taken with a Covert Code Black AT&T Camera Right now we have a Moultrie Game Spy M-990i Gen 2 deployed, as there is no cell service in the area.

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Oh wow, so the video was actually transmitted remotely? I see the Covert Code camera available for $320:



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The Moultrie I found here for $200:

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For some reason the price shot up $100 since we bought it!

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Hi, there! we're actually working in a open trail cam using initially raspberry pi an motion detection. I was swimming a little through the net and found the "orange pi" that actually has a microphone integrated. I'll give it a try as soon as it's in stock again. I'll try this one: Orange Pi PC plus
As soon as we get some results we'll back here ;)

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Wow, I also want to point out at 0:49 seconds (in the compressed video) there is definitely blasting captured in the Vimeo video timelapse:


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Also, I'm curious what the green stuff is applied near the roads; I've heard that "reclamation" can be selectively applied with invasive grass around roads, so that it looks like revegetation, but is really just a sham; is this an example of that, or is the green stuff something else entirely?


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@warren A few notes about that green stuff. I've been looking into information on mine reclamation with our local sand mines, which are, unfortunately, getting busy again.

The green stuff looks like a process called hydroseeding. Frackers in PA use it a lot. The grass will grow, if the soil is okay. It's probably better than nothing; at least it holds the soil in place. There's a so-so article about it in Wikipedia: "Hydroseeding (or hydraulic mulch seeding, hydro-mulching, hydraseeding) is a planting process that uses a slurry of seed and mulch. It is often used as an erosion control technique on construction sites, as an alternative to the traditional process of broadcasting or sowing dry seed."

Journal article:

The above article points out that mine lands are often acidic, plant-hostile locations. I have heard that miners will throw lime in the hydroseed mixture, which allows the grass to grow as long as lime is reapplied annually.

Sometimes, polyacrylamide, a flocculant, is used in hydroseed mixtures. Cationic and anionic polyacrylamide are both flocculants and coagulants; but cationic polyacrylamide is toxic to aquatic invertebrates and probably other organisms. Polyacrylamides also depolymerize to acrylamide, which is toxic to humans- a neurotoxin and IARC probable human carcinogen. Some farms and construction projects apply polyacrylamide to the soil for erosion control. Some states require a permit if runoff goes into surface waters. I have a 5 page document from the state of Michigan, a state that requires permits, which goes through much of the above. I'll post it if others are interested, but I'm not sure what the best place on the publiclab site is. Suggestions? Noxious invasive plants are always a big problem with mine or brownfield reclamation. They're supposed to use native plant seeds. I don't know what seeds are used in commercial hydroseeding; hydroseed isn't hard to make, so a lot of people and companies go d-i-y. There are how-to's on line.

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Wow this thread is such a great resource! Thanks all for posting in!

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@xose, just a note about this great question that was posted over the weekend -- i'd love to hear more about your #raspberry-pi trail camera -- esp. because of how cheap it could be!

I've been thinking about how it could make it significantly easier to offer an SD card image pre-loaded -- so you could just plug it into a raspberry pi, attach to a USB battery, and glue into a box. Then we could get more people prototyping the enclosure, the placement, the power issues, and there'd be less struggling over the basic installation (i just spent much of Sunday trying to get a Raspberry Pi set up).

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