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Storm Chasing

Building a Roof-Mounted Dome Camera

Our previous roof-mounted camera was an extremely useful tool during storm chases, not only to record video with an unobstructed view, but also to serve as an extra set of eyes behind us. Here's a video showing the construction of the previous version:

However, the video it produced was in standard definition, and as the industry moved towards HD, we needed a new camera that could compete. The existing roof-cam's casing was too small to house even the smallest HD camera, I set about designing a new camera housing from scratch.

This new design required a camera that had the following capabilities:
- Record at 1080p full HD
- Send live video output back inside the vehicle (so I can aim it)
- Can be powered externally (no worries about batteries)
- Can be controlled externally (power on/off, & record on/off)
- Provide feedback of camera state (recording status)
- Fixed lens (dramatically reduces image vibration)

That's a lot of requirements! With months of research, I could not find a camera that met all of these needs.
The closest match was an HD Hero from the folks at GoPro.
However, the stock camera did not have the capability to be controlled remotely. Since this was an absolute necessity, I got out the soldering iron and cracked open the case.

*PLEASE NOTE: You WILL void your warranty if you attempt this*

Here's the shutter button. This is one of the controls I needed to bypass by connecting my own wires to it. The other button is the main power button on the front. I ran the wires for the power button (red), the shutter button (yellow), and the ground (green) through the circuit boards and out towards the back. There was no good place to run the 3 new wires, so I removed the accessory backpack connector and ran the wires out through there. The camera operates just fine without it.
Here's a view of the modified camera with the hole plugged up with hot glue, to act as a strain relief. Here's a front view of the modified camera with the wires coming out the back, ready to be connected to the rest of the roof-cam.
The roof-cam base is made out of wood and has a Bescor MP-101 motorized pan/tilt head mounted inside. The protective dome for the camera is a 12" diameter, 1/4" thick Acrylic hemisphere from EZ-Tops. Polycarbonate is a much stronger plastic, but it isn't optically clear, it scratches easily and it cannot be made into a true hemisphere. Acrylic is better-suited to this application. Here's the completed base, with dome and pan/tilt mounted inside. The entire top lid hinges up to permit access to the camera inside. The whole unit is sealed to be as water-resistant as possible.
Inside the housing is a "break-out-box", which takes a single 15-pin cable and splits out the signals to go to the camera, pan/tilt head, and routes power. Without this, there would be about 7 cables going back inside the vehicle instead of 1! On the other end of the 15-pin cable is the control box (inside the vehicle). This is how the camera is controlled and powered. Inside is an LCD TV to display the video output, 5V & 6V power supplies for the camera & pan/tilt head, and buttons to control it all. The finished control box. Additional A/V ports on the side allow me to send the live video output to other devices for live internet video streaming. The entire unit is powered by a 12VDC vehicle power plug.
The GoPro HD Hero mounted inside the housing. It's on a ball head to make fine-tuning the positioning easy.  The roof-cam mounted on the roof. The PVC pipe vents act to prevent overheating when the camera is in direct sunlight. They also help prevent fogging of the dome.  The roof-cam mounted on our Nissan  XTerra chase vehicle, which is also outfitted with hail shields for all glass windows.
In 2012, I added an additional feature -- a revolving wiper for the dome. This clears away water drops and is controllable from inside the vehicle. Close-up of the wiper blade and the GoPro HD Hero camera inside.   The new roof-cam installed on the chase vehicle, with the new wiper installed.

Here's a video from our "Rolling Thunder" web series,
showing some more details about the roof-cam construction:


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© Dave Lewison. No reproduction without permission.