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Fuel cell power helps capture wildlife footage in Scotland for BBC Winterwatch TV series

Steve Barrett, Editor, Fuel Cells Bulletin

Fuel cell technology has been used to provide a reliable source of off-grid power for remote camera units that recorded wildlife footage in Scotland for a recent BBC natural history TV series.

Capturing elusive wildlife footage can be fraught with challenges. It often involves a considerable amount of waiting around, after setting up and positioning remote recording equipment. A wildlife film crew needs patience and persistence to produce captivating footage of the natural world that will engage and inspire TV audiences.

During the production of the BBC Winterwatch programme, which was broadcast in January 2014, the BBC’s Natural History Unit opted for an alternative power supply that would ensure minimal disturbance to both wildlife and the environment while filming two spectacular wildlife events in the Mar Lodge Estate in Braemar, Scotland.

The challenge

The Mar Lodge Estate occupies nearly 7% of the Cairngorms National Park, covering in total 29 380 hectares of some of the most remote and scenic wild land in Scotland – including four of the five highest mountains in the UK.

The film crew’s objective was to position remote cameras and recording equipment at two separate locations on the estate approximately 3 km (2 miles) away from its main operating site. The production team chose one site close to where a pair of Golden Eagles had been spotted.

A separate site was set up to record the courtship ritual of the Black Grouse, a sort of game between male and females referred to as ‘lekking’, which usually takes place in early spring. During a ‘lek’ several male grouse strut around an area of ground while displaying and making a distinctive mating call, in the hope of attracting a female mate.

Remote power

The remoteness of the filming sites meant that mains power, usually supplied by the electricity grid, was unavailable. Diesel generators would have proved too noisy and cumbersome, and would have also produced unnecessary carbon emissions in one of Britain’s most important nature conservation landscapes.

In locations such as this, batteries are often regarded as the most suitable power solution. However, batteries will only supply a limited amount of power before they discharge and need changing. If the film crew was to capture these extremely rare wildlife events, then regular site visits had to be avoided at all costs.

The solution

Berkshire-based Fuel Cell Systems supplied two EFOY Pro 2400 direct methanol fuel cells, each powered with 10 litres of methanol fuel (M10) to provide a reliable source of off-grid power. The EFOY Pro units were manufactured by German-based SFC Energy, whose fuel cells are well established in the consumer, industry, and defence & security markets.

As the batteries dropped below their floating charge of 12.5 V, power was automatically supplied from the fuel cells, allowing them to be constantly topped up.

Each fuel cell was housed in specially adapted 'Peli’ cases (known as Pelican outside Europe), designed to offer ventilation, water drainage, power access, protection, and safe transportation for the sensitive outside broadcast equipment.

Spectacular results

A reliable source of continuous power was supplied by the fuel cells, to run two Bradley remote cameras along with audio and video codecs for nine days. This allowed the film crew to maintain remote video, audio, and camera control via a fibre-optic cable, while minimising disturbance to both sites.

Fuel cells run silently, and can be left in situ for long periods of time without refueling. This allowed the BBC Winterwatch film crew to obtain some excellent rare footage of a pair of Golden Eagles arriving and roosting in a tree, along with some unusual film of Black Grouse courtship rituals.

Clear benefits

‘There is growing interest from the outside broadcasting industry in the benefits offered by fuel cells,’ says Tom Sperrey, managing director of Fuel Cell Systems and its parent company, UPS Systems Plc. ‘They are quiet, easy to transport, cheap to maintain, and offer long runtimes.’

‘The environment-friendly nature of fuel cell technology makes it appealing, particularly for those production companies looking to lower their carbon footprint and use sustainable technology,’ continues Sperrey. ‘These benefits allow fuel cells to be used in a variety of different applications, and provide an effective solution for off-grid portable power demands.’

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