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‘Tundra Connections’: Delivering Live Video from Remote Locations

Polar Bears International (PBI) is a non-profit organization dedicated to polar bear conservation and educating people on the effects of climate change on the arctic ecosystem. For the past six years, I’ve worked with a team of PBI scientists and educators to produce a program called Tundra Connections. It’s targeted at schools, universities and community organizations, and it provides information about polar bears in their natural habitat from climate and animal experts.

In late fall, the polar bears congregate along the shores of Hudson Bay, waiting for it to freeze so they can start their seasonal migration. Once the ice forms, the bears venture onto it to hunt for ringed seals, their primary food source. While they’re waiting, we have an excellent opportunity to get up close and personal with them.

As you might imagine, there are many challenges involved with streaming a live program to classrooms from such a remote location. The operation is based out of Churchill, Manitoba, and we employ a rather unique vehicle supplied by Frontier North Adventures that’s referred to as a “tundra buggy.”

Photo by BJ Kirschhoffer.

This bus-on-monster-truck-wheels carries our mobile studio throughout the Churchill Wildlife Management Area and Wapusk National Park, located along the shores of the Hudson Bay. There’s no cellular data infrastructure, so we had to build our own microwave backhaul system consisting of 15 nodes to provide 20 Mb/s transmission capability from any of the locations we may visit. Some of these nodes are so remote that the only way to power them is via methanol fuel cells or solar panels.

We’ve set up a complete mobile studio with multiple pan/tilt/zoom cameras inside the buggy that we use to cover panel discussions taking place inside the vehicle, as well as spy on bears outside. At the heart of this operation is Telestream’s Wirecast live streaming production software, running on a Mac workstation. We use Wirecast to capture the camera feeds, audio, displays and graphics, and create the finished program to populate the Tundra Connections web page, as well as those of Explore.org and other sponsors. Each program includes a panel discussion intercut with polar bear live shots. The web interface includes a chat window for viewers to send questions to our panelists.

Photo by BJ Kirschhoffer.

As there are usually six people occupying the tundra buggy, we don’t have a lot of extra room for production personnel; the operation is pretty much a one-man band. I run the cameras, mix the show, dress the set, set up the lighting and make sure that audio levels are correct. I’ve tried to automate as much as possible and keep everything prewired so the setup stays put.

The operation has evolved quite a bit since our first “point-to-point” videoconference setup a number of years ago. Our Telestream Wirecast webcasts are a lot more sophisticated now. Since implementing Wirecast, our viewership has grown tremendously—on one occasion last year we had an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 viewers watching our program.

BJ Kirschhoffer is director of field operations for Polar Bears International.  

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