Postcards of penguins: Old Lyme man travels to remote island for wildlife research

Don LeRoi of NOAA holds his hexacopter, a handmade, multi-rotor helicopter that he created as an aerial camera platform for his recent trip to Livingston Island Antarctica.
Don LeRoi of NOAA holds his hexacopter, a handmade, multi-rotor helicopter that he created as an aerial camera platform for his recent trip to Livingston Island Antarctica. Tim Cook/The Day Buy Photo

Don LeRoi is often home during the day. He frequently receives large packages, some with "U.S. Navy" stamped on them. And he flies odd-looking radio-control machines in his backyard.

If you didn't know any better, you'd think he was in the CIA.

But this retired Navy officer isn't spying on you; he just got back last month from 21 days spying on Chinstrap penguins and Antarctic fur seals in the remote corners of Antarctica.

That peculiar contraption in the air? It's an aerial camera system LeRoi custom-built for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for the specific purpose of aiding Wayne Perryman's work as program leader of the Cetacean Health and Life History Program of NOAA's Southwest Fisheries Science Center.

"Scientists, when they're assessing populations of wildlife, typically do assessments when the animals are aggregated," said Perryman, who is based out of La Jolla, Calif. "Humans are lousy at estimating the number of animals in big groups. How do you deal with that? Well, typically, we used aerial photography, so we'll get a manned aircraft and we'll photograph the aggregations."

But with certain colonies or in certain areas of research, flying airplanes is just not feasible, Perryman said. Plus, large, noisy aircraft can spook the animals, rendering the use of planes not just inconvenient but dangerous.

Consider, for instance, a massive group of "tens of thousands" of walrus that are cognizant of the threat of hunters. At the first indication of danger, they'll stampede, crushing their young in the process, Perryman said.

Enter the hexacopter, a six-propeller device that can hover quietly over a colony of penguins at a height of about 100 to 200 feet without alarming them, snap a few high-resolution images with the light but high-powered mirror-less Olympus camera attached to it, and then land nearby - all remotely with a radio-control transmitter.

LeRoi, who began working with Perryman as a contractor and consultant in 1980, built the device out of radio-control hobby parts and improvised some key elements to ensure it wouldn't fall apart in

Antarctica.

It didn't. LeRoi's machine was essentially a backup on the trip, the main purpose for which was to test camera equipment "in a real field-sampling situation," Perryman said.

As it turned out, LeRoi's camera system outperformed an expensive, commercial German model and took such great photos that NOAA is already talking about using the hexacopter for research in Alaska, Perryman said.

"He's an exceptionally gifted guy," Perryman said of LeRoi. "I've made a career out of taking advantage of how smart he is."

To protect the electronic parts from sudden impact, LeRoi created a hard hat of sorts using a Rubbermaid plastic storage container. The skids, for landing, are encased in pastel-colored pool noodles on which you might more commonly see toddlers learning to swim.

"Mine bounces very well," LeRoi, 64, said. "And even if it landed upside down… this guy protects all the electronics very nicely."

LeRoi brought enough replacement parts to build two or three more camera systems and enough batteries "to last a lifetime," but the one camera survived the five-week journey that took LeRoi first to Santiago, Chile, then down to Punta Arenas, followed by a rocky boat trip on a research vessel through the Strait of Magellan, south past Cape Horn, into the Drake Passage and finally to Livingston Island.

"All these things that we learned in school and never thought we'd see," LeRoi said.

Back in LeRoi's home in Old Lyme, the camera looked barely used, not a scratch in sight.

"It flew like a champ," Perryman said. "It just performed

beautifully."

The hexacopter was a last-minute addition to the trip's list of equipment. LeRoi was originally going to test out a quadrocopter he'd built - a four-propeller system that is smaller and outfitted with just a point-and-shoot

camera.

When Perryman and LeRoi decided to upgrade the camera to the newer mirror-less Olympus - the ideal combination of a lightweight point-and-shoot and a professional-quality SLR - LeRoi built the hexacopter, a sturdier 12 inches tall and 32 inches wide.

"It was exceptionally stable, easy to control," Perryman said of the hexacopter. "Handled wind very well. When you're sampling in the field, you have to deal with the weather. You can't just stop 'cause the wind's blowing."

LeRoi said he was nervous about the hexacopter's performance, given the last-minute development of the thing.

"I flew it only once before we left," LeRoi said, "out in the backyard. For about five minutes. … But it flew, it flew nicely."

The adventure begins

Growing up in Illinois, LeRoi always had an affinity for photography.

"I saw a picture coming up on a developer, and I was hooked," he said. "For me, that was magic."

He aspired to become a National Geographic photographer; while that didn't quite pan out, his working relationship with Perryman has afforded him similar opportunities over the years, including multiple trips to Antarctica.

LeRoi was stationed in Miramar, Calif., as a reconnaissance officer who developed aerial camera systems for Navy missions when NOAA called for advice on how to use aerial cameras for scientific research. NOAA and the military, after all, shared similar needs for high-resolution images captured from a distance.

In fact, photographic quality was of such utmost importance to NOAA that it only switched over to digital five years ago, when digital technology finally began producing higher-quality images than film did, Perryman said.

What will come of the successful use of LeRoi's hexacopter for future NOAA research remains to be seen, Perryman said.

But with 30 years of collaboration, LeRoi's and Perryman's adventures are not likely to be over anytime soon. LeRoi, who spent 24 years in the Navy and is now retired, took dozens of photos during the five-week trip, channeling his inner wildlife photographer.

He also got to experience a remote part of the world alongside scientists at the American camp, Camp Shirreff: LeRoi, Perryman, Nancy Ash of NOAA's Aircraft Operations Center and Steve Gardner, another independent contractor, essentially became a part of the research crew at the camp during their three weeks on the island.

They took turns cooking, cleaning, and showering once a week with just five gallons of water. They ate memorable meals with goods from the well-stocked freezer: beef tenderloin, pork tenderloin, king crab, scallops, conger eel.

After dinner, they ate ice cream one of the researchers made, and one night, LeRoi and Ash even made homemade tiramisu.

"Who wouldn't go to Antarctica?" LeRoi said of his experience there. "Who wouldn't pay to go to

Antarctica?"

j.cho@theday.com

Don LeRoi’s camera captures an image from above of
two Chinstrap penguins.
Don LeRoi’s camera captures an image from above of two Chinstrap penguins. Don Leroi
Nancy Ash, left, from NOAA Aircraft Operations Center, and Don LeRoi, right, operate the aerial camera system he built.
Nancy Ash, left, from NOAA Aircraft Operations Center, and Don LeRoi, right, operate the aerial camera system he built. Steve Gardner
A fur seal gazes up at the camera in this aerial photo taken above Antarctica.
A fur seal gazes up at the camera in this aerial photo taken above Antarctica. Don Leroi
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