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Streaming Video Exploration Makes the World a Little Smaller
Both armchair explorers and scientists are making use of new video technologies that are able to see more deeply than human vision can.

In my teens, while living outside Charlotte, N.C., and operating a lawn business in the hot southern summer sun, I quenched a part my musical thirst by listening to two fairly eclectic radio stations: WFAE and WNCW. Both had a few hours each week of ballads, with WFAE hosting a long-running NPR radio show called “The Thistle & Shamrock.”

These ballads, though, were not the English gentry variety that Sting laconically sings about in “Fields of Gold” on his Ten Summoner’s Tales album. Rather, they were hard-scrabble Appalachian and Scots-Irish ballads about unrequited love and untimely death.

Sometimes both were combined into a single ballad. But, just as often there were the songs about deaths at sea or in the mines, those places where loved ones would never be able to visit and mourn because they were so inaccessible.

It’s the kind of song Gordon Lightfoot popularized with “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” about a big ship from “some mill in Wisconsin” going down 15 miles from safety on Lake Superior in a November gale. Or the kind of song that a too-soon-gone Canadian singer, Stan Rogers, memorialized in the rollicking “The Mary Ellen Carter”:

She went down last October in a pouring driving rain / The skipper, he’d been drinking and the Mate, he felt no pain / Too close to Three Mile Rock, and she was dealt her mortal blow / And the Mary Ellen Carter settled low.

In the imagination of a 15-year-old boy in the South, Three Mile Rock was just as mythical as Bigfoot and as unattainable as Shangri-La.

Yet, as a late-40s father with three children in college, I’m rediscovering the potential awe of distant locations, thanks in no small part to the use of streaming video for exploring remote places.

As any viewer of recent Expedition Unknown episodes will tell you, streaming is helping to make many of these far-off places more accessible through the curious eyes of Josh Gates and his capable production team.

It’s like the explorers of old—be it National Geographic’s first editor, Gilbert Grosvenor, or even Ellie from the Pixar movie Up!—have reemerged with new tools to replace, or at least augment, the shovels in a new wave of exploration.

From drones to underwater rovers, exploration-based television production in the world of miniature wireless cameras does more than just entertain and educate the viewer. It ultimately educates the scientist, archaeologist, or intrepid explorer by giving a wider perspective on terrain and overall exploration layout without needing to unnecessarily disturb natural habitats with the use and hefty cost of a full-size bathyscaphe, helicopter, or submarine.

For sure there’s a bit of the hyperbole—Gates did a search for the Yeti that returned more questions than answers, but did so with a set of tools that spark the imagination of a future generation of explorers.

For instance, visual imagery streaming isn’t the only tool being used. Several episodes have showcased the use of night-vision and infrared cameras, which allow extra-sensory capture that the average human couldn’t see, let alone record.

Even more interesting is the use of laser-based radar, or LIDAR, which is used in drones alongside visual imagery streaming as a way to map surfaces. Without having to penetrate or disturb hundreds or thousands of years of undergrowth, a LIDAR-equipped drone can map many areas to uncover manmade structures. The results are turned into three-dimensional maps and coupled with satellite images or live streams as a way to further explore key findings.

This doesn’t replace shovels in the dirt or divers in the water, but it helps make pinpoint-accurate archaeology more (and, environmentally, less) impactful.

So take it from a 15-year-old-turned-50 amateur explorer: We’re just scratching the surface of finding the gold of El Dorado, even if what we’re finding is newfound respect for civilizations that have come before us now that we can “see” their contributions in a whole new way. You can read more about these innovations in “Digging It! Streaming Video in Mining and Offshore Exploration.”

[This article appears in the July/August 2018 issue of Streaming Media magazine as "El Dorado!"]

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