Mar 09 2021

Federal Webcams Bring Distant National Treasures to an Enthusiastic Public

Through views of bouncing baby pandas or the wonders of space, technology helps agencies fulfill their educational missions.

In the late afternoon of Aug. 21, 2020, giant panda Mei Xiang went into labor at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C.

The oldest panda to give birth in the U.S., Mei Xiang had her baby boy at a time when the zoo was limited to only 5,000 visitors a day — about 20 percent capacity — in the midst of a pandemic that nearly eliminated out-of-town ­tourists as guests.

So virtual visitors flooded the zoo’s popular Giant Panda Cam to see the tiny pink baby. On the day little Xiao Qi Ji was born, the number of page views shot up to 400,000, far more than the few thousand streams the zoo tends to see at a time. 

The panda cam is always busy, but with the excitement over the zoo’s first panda birth in five years and access to the zoo limited, the system crashed, showing page errors or failure to load the video stream. The zoo’s IT team had to reset the system several times through the weekend as third-party monitoring systems alerted them to slowdowns.

“We were overloaded,” says Mike Thorpe, the zoo’s web specialist. “We had such a huge increase in traffic.”

It’s a momentous task to keep the 41 webcams in the panda house — among the 150 across the zoo, not all of them viewable by the public — running 24/7. It involves technology upgrades, ample bandwidth and constant pressure because of the unusual environments in which they’re placed.

But the National Zoo and other ­federal agencies that operate livestream camera systems — which also display air quality and parking conditions, among other features — consider them worth the effort, time and cost. Webcams are a crucial mechanism in conveying an agency’s value to the public, whether the cams are spotlighting Earth from the International Space Station or focused on a nesting eagle pair in West Virginia.

Federal Agencies Use Tech to Connect with the Public

“One of the challenges we have at NASA is to be able to sell the program” and ­justify the taxpayer expense, says Carlos Fontanot, ISS imagery manager for NASA. “If you cannot see it, how will you believe it?”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a mission to work with communities to preserve, protect and enhance fish and wildlife habitats for the benefit of the public, says Randy Robinson, instructional systems specialist at the National Conservation Training Center (NCTC) in West Virginia. The Eagle Cam plays a role in that mission.

“They really do help others to ­appreciate, learn about, understand and ultimately protect wildlife and habitat,” he says.

Research supports this. A 2017 Kansas State University study found that viewers of brown bears via the webcams at Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska were more likely to support ­conservation efforts than people who came to the remote park to see the bears in person.

In the comfort of their homes, online viewers spent more hours watching the bears and expressed a greater inclination to protect the animals and support wildlife management activities.

“For many people, this was a very meaningful connection,” says Roy Wood, who launched the Brown Bear Cams at Katmai, where he worked for the National Park Service for 13 years. He is now chief of interpretation, education, volunteers and youth programs for Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.

“Our ultimate goal with the bear cam is to inspire people,” Wood says, “because you’re really only going to take care of things you love.”

DIVE DEEPER: Explore how agencies use technoogy in the real world in our Feds in the Field video series.  

National Park Service Finds the Right Webcam Tools

The NPS tried earlier iterations of the bear cams, but ran into trouble ­streaming the signal through outside entities — a local museum and a third-party platform, both of which were spotty — and keeping the cameras operating properly in areas with no direct power source or internet access. The park is about 280 miles southwest of Anchorage, ­accessible only by air.

After that, the NPS tried hosting a bear cam on its own, but could only afford the capacity for 25 streams at a time, and shut it down. In 2012, the agency entered a partnership with Explore, a multimedia platform that hosts webcam livestreams of wildlife across the globe. 

The organization hosts the streams on its YouTube channel and provides financial support for webcam ­enhancements, such as fuel cells to supplement the solar panels powering the camera system, and a repeater site to add capacity and improve the signal.

Funds from the 2008 post-recession economic stimulus package targeted to bring broadband service to rural areas solved Katmai’s internet problem and enabled the kind of capacity that’s seen during its now-famous Fat Bear Week competition.


The number of webcams in U.S. national parks

Source: National Park Service

The NCTC tried to stream its own webcam at first, but its network is set up for internal communications and ­security, not for a public interface, says Clayton McBride, the NCTC’s ­audiovisual production specialist.

“It bogged down our system ­considerably,” he says.

The Fish and Wildlife Service now has a relationship with the Outdoor Channel to provide enough bandwidth to handle the Eagle Cam livestream for the NCTC.

The National Zoo webcam gained fame in 2005 when Mei Xiang delivered the zoo’s first baby panda to survive more than a few days past birth. The outdated system was replaced in 2013, just in time for the birth of Mei Xiang’s second surviving cub, Bao Bao. The new, internet-based system is connected all on one network, including an additional webcam system at the zoo’s research facility in Front Royal, Va. The cameras send compressed video files through the network to servers that archive all of the camera views.

A video management system operates the software that determines the cameras’ functions, such as sound recording. With a single network, security firmware and software updates are easier and faster. Unlike the old system, which was often strained by viewers who let the Panda Cam run all day, the zoo webcams now automatically turn off after 10 minutes of watching.

READ MORE: Find out how NASA, the National Science Foundation and other agencies keep tech working for far-flung employees. 

Cloud and Processing Tools Support Livestreaming

Most agencies use off-the-shelf ­equipment from Nikon, Sony and Canon. They can take advantage of commercial innovations growing out of a hot market for security cameras. Many modern webcams can pan, tilt and zoom — a ­feature known as PTZ — with a switch to a central console where operators control which camera streams and its direction.

The ISS, for example, has six direct streaming cameras, mostly on its ­exterior, and began upgrading about five years ago from standard-definition to high-definition imagery, Fontanot says. The newer cameras are either Nikon D4s, modified to stream video rather than just take stills, or Nikon D7s.

The cameras also work as wireless access points; helmets worn for space walks can connect with them to Wi-Fi. NASA plans to use them to livestream Earth views from another camera outside the ISS that uploads data to the IBM Cloud Video platform, he says.

Livestreams require heavy processing power. “It takes computers. It takes software. It takes a lot of things,” Fontanot says.

Some agencies have upgraded to 4K resolution, which captures four times as much data as 1080 dot-per-inch high definition. 

Roy Wood, Former Chief of Interpretation, Katmai National Park and Preserve
Our ultimate goal with the bear cam is to inspire people, because you’re really only going to take care of things you love.”

Roy Wood Former Chief of Interpretation, Katmai National Park and Preserve

The NCTC plans to add a ­second eagle cam with 4K to get another angle of the nest and serve as a backup in case the first camera goes down, McBride says. “It will give us a little bit different view, a little wider view, a little more flexibility.”

It takes too much bandwidth to stream in 4K, but the agency can record 4K imagery to a media card. The zoo has a few 4K-capable webcams, too, but also doesn’t plan to stream with the higher resolution. Most viewers don’t have 4K-capable devices now, but “that’s going to change in the next few years,” McBride says.

MORE FROM FEDTECH: Find out how the National Park Service is using virtual and augmented reality. 

Technology That Doesn't Disturb Nature

Webcams that livestream 24/7 need to work at night and in the dark. Rather than use bright lights that would disturb the animals, the National Zoo’s cameras have a “night mode.” Commonly used for security cameras, the technology includes a sensor that reads the daylight, similar to the ­auto-adjust for brightness on a ­cellphone. In addition to the night mode, some cameras include an active infrared emitter that radiates light largely out of the visible range. 

NCTC’s Eagle Cam has night vision but with a special kind of infrared light; staff were afraid the yellowish glow that older infrared cameras emit would ­disturb the eagles. Instead, the eagle cam ­technology uses an undetectable light, the kind that would be incorporated into a ­high-powered ­security system. The eagles don’t seem to notice, McBride says. Microphones on the animal webcams also allow viewers to hear the cries of the panda cub at the zoo and the ­cheep-cheeps of the fledgling eagles in West Virginia. 

It takes a lot of work, says Robinson: “It’s not as simple as just sticking a camera in a tree.”

The payoff, though, is valuable. “It’s amazing to see the so-called ­personal, the intimate lives of this wildlife,” he adds. “Technology makes it possible.”

Smithsonian’s National Zoo (pandas); National Park Service (bears); U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (eagles)

Become an Insider

Unlock white papers, personalized recommendations and other premium content for an in-depth look at evolving IT