PipeCam: Shallow-Water Exploration with Raspberry Pi

In what began as a personal challenge he issued to himself, [Fred] is in the process of building an underwater camera that’s capable of long-term photography in shallow waters. He’d like it to last about five hours on a charge while taking a photo every five minutes. Ideally, it will be as cheap as possible and constructed from readily available parts. Solving the cheap/available equation would theoretically make the camera easily to replicate, which is the third major requirement.

[Fred] has recently made great strides, both in the circuitry and the capsule design. The latest version uses a Raspberry Pi 3 with a V2 camera module and runs on a 12 V, 2.4 Ah rechargeable lead-acid battery. Everything is mounted on a piece of hardboard that slides into a 110mm piece of PVC. At one end, the camera looks out through a 10mm  acrylic lens fixed into a heavy-duty PVC fitting, and a DS1307 RTC provides a handy clock for shooting time lapses. With a friend’s help, he pressure-tested the housing and found that it can withstand 4 bar without leaking. He is still doing dry tests and trying hard to resist the urge to throw it in the water.

PipeCam is a work in progress, and [Fred] has many ideas for improvements. He’d like to add an Arduino to govern the battery use and provide its vital signs back to the Pi, and add an LDR to decide whether there’s enough light to warrant turning the Pi on to take pictures.

PVC is great for custom capsule building. But if you want to get started with underwater photography a little faster and want to build something instead of just buying a GoPro, try sealing your camera in something that’s already watertight.

14 thoughts on “PipeCam: Shallow-Water Exploration with Raspberry Pi

    1. Yeah $5 cammeras – or for that matter anything of use in a “thrift” store outside of the US is not a possibility it seems. It would be nice to be able to pop into a store and pick up even half of what seems to be available on every street corner in the US. Never having been there I can only base my observation on comments posted on HaD. Perhaps some enterprising person could bundle some of this cool cheap stuff up and send a container or 2 to those of us south of the equator would be greatly appreciated – we really do lack a lot of the stuff you guys have access to. The best we can do is order something sight unseen from Ali express or Bang good. ordering from the US is not feasible as the postage charges, that’s if the company will even ship outside of the 50 states, are astronomical

      1. I’d like to know where this store is, that’s selling $5 cameras!
        I recently spotted an A400 (3.2 megapixel)Canon in a Goodwill store. It had green, crusty contacts in the battery compartment And they had it priced at $21 USD.

        1. I have also observed crazy, unrealistic pricing at thrift stores on technology. But there are many stores where you can negotiate a price with a manager for much less. When the deficits of the item are explained (missing connector cables, storage media, non-charge-holding battery) and they see that you have $5 in hand ready to offer, you can usually make a deal.

          My real-world experience in bargain basement electronics has been garage sales. People selling old tech at garage sales have a better idea about its level of obsolescence.

          Treasure City Thrift is a local, Austin, thrift store that frequently has blowout sales pricing tons of goods at 25-cents apiece. http://treasurecitythrift.org They’re so swamped with inventory, sometimes they just have to move volume to get their showroom cleared to a manageable level of items.

        2. Oh man I hear ya Goodwill overprices the heck outta their electronics (the ones they don’t sell online at their auctions). !0 bux for speakers that are crappy and $5 at Five Below new lol. I have seen many crazy prices there. If you hit up the dirt towns where every person with a substance abuse problem files for a 501 non-profit (I have to assume some sort of govt boot strap program is paying for this scheme) to put some sort of ” Blah Blah Ministries” thrift, you will probably have more luck. I currently live in a town with two overpriced thrifts and the rest are consignment shops, which is code for rich people thrift I guess. All are useless. I miss our old location. There were 4 on the same street. Used to hit em up after dropping the wife off at work and always found a treasure or two. Now I am in the same boat as OP and have to rely on holiday trips to visit my fam in the sticks to find cool deals :( It also means the wife and nephew and niece don’t get as many cool random gifts and I find less esoteric electronics to learn about.

      2. [Saabman],
        it is not that way “on every street corner”,
        No, I’m not taking you literally, some of the $5 thrift store bargains you read about here are closer to “once in a lifetime” finds. But fun none the less. (Like the HP-25 or HP-12 calculators that I picked up for $0.25, and $2 respectively) Now, thrift stores do have their “staples” such as wall warts, USB cables, inkjet printers, monitors, (now, I don’t see any CRT computer monitors, but they were everywhere 10 years ago), but flat screen monitors (13-19″ for $10-20), VHS players for $5, CD players for $5. Just like the ESP boards that were found in “remote selfie buttons” at Dollar Tree a couple years ago, I never saw one in all of the stores I checked. About 10 years ago, one of the local thrift stores used to sell wall warts and USB cables for $1, but that same store now wants $4+ for them. At the same store I could have bought (and did) a WRT router for $5, now they want $10+…

  1. The main mistake was starting with the Raspberry Pi. Of corse the Raspberry Pi is a really useful board but not the correct choice here where low power is a significant requirement. The Raspberry Pi is based on a SIC intended for set-top boxes where power is plentiful and therefore has no low power or deep sleep modes.

    I see a lot of projects like this where people start at the wrong end with their design. Instead of looking at the goal and then finding the best parts for the job there is a tendency for for people to think, I have a Raspberry Pi and am going to use it to do this.

    While any project that gets you tinkering with stuff is good experience it is a shame that shoehorning a Raspberry Pi into everything seems to be the go to solution for everything.

    1. This. E.g.. esp32 has a camera interface and would cheerfully run for years on a battery that size powering down between shots. I am however jealous of the OPs sea – there’s nothing to film on the edges of The Channel.

    2. Agreed. Pi is not a good application for this. I’ve done a few camera projects using exactly the CHDK method mentioned above and while the pi is great if you have access to power/network and need to remote access the rig, but if all you want to do is snap frames then CHDK a cheap camera and call it done. If you also want telemetry do your typical low-power ESP data-logger setup.

  2. only 5 hours?
    I’ve quite happily been running a Pi Zero W with the v1.2 camera, continuously, off a fairly modest USB power bank for around that long. It was while I’ve been testing optimum camera locations while running motion-eye OS (which I think can do time lapse as well as simply recording on image change) before I go to the effort of running permanent power.

    Not sure an additional RTC is really necessary with a Pi and having a Pi 3 is certainly overkill – they could probably just run it all with a plain Pi Zero, turning the camera on and off from time to time. Google seems to suggest a Pi Zero at idle (which it will be until it needs to take the photo) can be around 80mA (0.4W) so that’s loads of up-time on a 10000mAh battery, without the need for anything other than the Pi + camera (and a bit of shell scripting to capture the images on a cron job).

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