Field Report: The Bear Necessities of Broadcasting Live From The Tundra

In late fall, polar bears begin a seasonal migration to the shore of Hudson Bay. They wait for the bay to freeze so they can venture onto the ice to hunt for their primary food source, ringed seals. While the bears wait, a small broadcast crew stands ready to transmit the event to a world-wide audience.

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, BJ Kirschhoffer, director of field operations for PBI, has worked with a team of PBI scientists and educators to produce a unique program called Tundra Connections. Targeted at schools, universities and community organizations, the main objective is to expose people to polar bears live in their natural habitat while learning from climate and animal experts.

Every year, in the late fall, there is a seasonal migration of polar bears who congregate on the shore of Hudson Bay and wait for it to freeze. Once the bayfreezes, the bears venture off onto the ice to hunt for their primary food source, ringed seals. While they are waiting, Kirschhoffer and the PBI crew have an excellent opportunity to get up close and personal with the bears.

Polar bears wait until the Hudson Bay freezes to venture onto the ice and begin looking for their favorite food, ringed seals.

Polar bears wait until the Hudson Bay freezes to venture onto the ice and begin looking for their favorite food, ringed seals.

Location Challenges

The operation centers on the remote town of Churchill, Manitoba, 1000 miles north of Minneapolis on the shores of Hudson Bay. It’s a community of around 900 people and in the late fall there are as many polar bears as there are people. Many of the locals purposefully keep their cars unlocked in case someone needs a quick shelter from a surprise bear encounter! In fact, the location is so remote, it only received cellular service a few years ago.

The Tundra Buggy offers a new definition of roaming

The BPI uses a custom-designed “Tundra Buggy”, which more resembles a monster-truck-sized bus. It was supplied by Frontiers North Adventures for the broadcasts.

The Tundra Buggy ventures out each day along the shore of Hudson Bay in both the Churchill Wildlife Management Area and Wapusk National Park. Because infrastructure for live streaming is practically non-existent unless you are “in town”, Kirschhoffer and team had to create their own bandwidth to serve their needs.

“We have a 20Mb circuit we purchased from the local ISP. The bandwidth starts and ends in Churchill itself, right across from the most popular restaurant in town.

From there, we maintain 51 miles of wireless Internet that blasts this 20Mb of bandwidth out to the Tundra and then to our Tundra Buggy. We’re using pretty nifty equipment, most of it not designed to hit a roaming vehicle. Essentially, we’ve created our own cell network out there that delivers very high quality and high speed Internet to just a couple of targets. It’s been a fun project to try and figure out and evolve over time.”

The PBI staff must maintain 51 miles of wireless links, some mounted on old watch towers like this.

The PBI staff must maintain 51 miles of wireless links, some mounted on old watch towers like this.

PBI and its partners, Frontiers North Adventures and Explore.org, have deployed a full microwave backhaul network with around 15 nodes to cover the 51-mile area. PBI shares the bandwidth with Explore.org as they have polar bear cameras in the area as well. There are antennas all over the area including some unusual places like a 300 foot tower at an old research facility that used to shoot rockets up to study the northern lights. These multiple links allow seamless coverage, enabling the buggy to choose the best signal to get the full 20Mb.

Beyond the challenges of connectivity, power is another concern for the mobile broadcast studio. There is a 1000 amp-hour battery bank stashed under the floor similar to what one might see in a small camp or off-grid home. A very large, high quality invertor is used to take the 12-volt power and turn it into a clean 120V. The operation needs to stay as quiet as possible, not only for the bears, but for the studio broadcast as well.

The 1000 amp/hr invertor is mounted inside the Buggy, providing clean 120Vac to power the video and audio equipment.

The 1000 amp/hr invertor is mounted inside the Buggy, providing clean 120Vac to power the video and audio equipment.

Live from the Tundra

Inside the buggy, Kirschhoffer has created a sophisticated, but power conscious, broadcast studio. At the center of all this cutting-edge gear is Telestream’s Wirecast live streaming production software running on a Mac workstation. Wirecast captures camera feeds, audio, displays and graphics, and creates the finished program stream feed that populates the Tundra Connections web page as well as those of Explore.org and other sponsors. Each program lasts about 35-45 minutes and includes a panel discussion interspersed with live shots of the polar bears outside.

The team huddles around the broadcast table inside the Tundra Buggy.

The team huddles around the broadcast table inside the Tundra Buggy.

“We have 6 people typically rolling around in the buggy, so we don’t have a lot of extra room for production personnel. It’s pretty much a one-man band, more or less. I have to drive the cameras, mix the show, dress the set, do the lighting and the audio, as it’s all done by one person. I try to automate as much as possible, and everything is pre-wired for lights and audio, so everything stays put,” says Kirschhoffer.

Last year, the show was still broadcasting in SD with older SD cameras and Firewire connections. For 2014, Kirschhoffer experimented with newer Sony PTZ HD cameras and capturing video as IP streams via RTSP directly into Wirecast, which re-encodes to 720p HD for the output stream. With shared bandwidth and power restrictions, they try to stay around 2-2.5 Mbs for their output streaming bandwidth. “One of the discoveries made this year is that using RTSP streams seemed to require a lot of processing cycles on the computer and the audio can lag the video, so next year, we may switch to external HD encoders to try and lighten the load on the computer and re-balance the power consumption," says Kirschhoffer.

The Tundra Connections program runs for four weeks in the fall with a couple broadcasts in the spring as well. Each of the weeks has a different headline sponsor/partner that helps PBI reach a greater audience. PBI assigns different sponsors to each week’s broadcast and then builds panels of different experts and sponsors. During the summer, once these panels (typically 4 people) are built, the show content and rough outline are created. When October rolls around, everyone shows up in Churchill, collects the assets and puts together the story.

“On the day of the broadcast, we set up a table in the buggy, fire up the LED light panels, and then the moderator introduces where we are, how people can ask questions, then we start going through our content,” says Kirschhoffer. “So, it’s me and four panelists, hopefully with polar bears outside the window.”

Depending on the age group they’re talking to, different topics are covered such as “what do polar bears do?” and “why do they act the way they do?”

BJ Kirschhoffer, Director of Field Operations for PBI.

BJ Kirschhoffer, Director of Field Operations for PBI.

Kirschhoffer can at any time cut from the studio to the outside cameras using Wirecast’s PIP feature. Or we can switch to full frame and have the specialists talk about what’s happening outside with the polar bears. The production system permits easy insertion of graphics, pictures and video supplied by the panel. This helps convey information about the bears, where they are, how the ice is changing, and resultant polar bear behavior.

The program’s evolution over the last six years from what started as purely point-to-point video conferencing to these sophisticated webcasts made with Telestream Wirecast has grown the viewership exponentially. “We had a day this year where we had almost 17K computers connected. If we figure most of those were classrooms, we could estimate one-quarter to one-half million students were watching our program. It’s really been exciting to take this from basic videoconferencing to where we are now,” says Kirschhoffer.

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