■ The Wildlife expert and TV presenter, 45, talks about thermal imaging and life-saving drones
What’s the most useful tech for doing your television shows about animals?
The advance in drone technology over recent years has been very useful. Until three years ago our aerial footage would be done with a Cineflex camera mounted on a helicopter. Now drones have advanced to the stage where we can just get one out of our backpack, fly it and have broadcast-quality footage in minutes. It’s revolutionised the TV programmes I’ve made.
When have drones been most useful?
We got trapped in the Arctic ice in Greenland doing my new programme Expedition. We were in kayaks and the ice was moving all around us. We used a drone to find a way out of the ice into the open sea and it’s not exaggerating to say it might have saved our lives.
What else has been useful in the wilderness?
Satellite mapping. I was recently in the rainforest in South America. The rivers weren’t even on the most recent paper maps but satellite imagery showed us where they were and the drop in elevation. That has completely changed exploration. You can look at portions of forest and see by the density of the trees if there’s a water source nearby or an impenetrable gorge. Google Earth Pro is amazing. You can save chunks of it to access offline.
What’s not so useful?
Satellite-phone technology is the same as it was ten years ago. In the rainforest, if you haven’t got a clear view of the sky satellite phones are still useless.
What do you use to spot animals?
Thermal imaging is very useful, particularly at night, and in the rainforest. You can point it into a blank expanse of green and a bird or animal will show up. We use cameras by FLIR but you can get thermal-imaging apps for your phone as well.
What tech developments can help animals avoid extinction?
The SnotBot is an exciting development. It’s a drone with petri dishes attached to it. They are flown into the spout of air and mucus expelled by whales when they surface. Scientists are able to use the mucus in the petri dish to analyse the health and genetic history of the animal.
How can amateurs go about spotting animals?
Trail cams. They’re a great way of watching wildlife you wouldn’t see with your own eyes. I use trail cams by Bushnell. I have one on our local badger sett. I very rarely see the badgers myself but the trail cams show them going about their nightly life. There are also lots of apps now that help you identify animals and trees. They’re fantastic tools for young naturalists.
Do you use wearables?
I use a Suunto GPS watch. It tracks how far and fast I’m going and how many calories I’m using, which is critical when I’m doing an endurance event. When I did the Devizes-to-Westminster kayak race, which was 125 miles in 24 hours, I needed to ensure I was moving at a consistent average spend and the Suunto Spartan did that brilliantly.
What gadgets made an impression on you when you were younger?
My camera was a huge part of developing my interest in animals and nature. It was a hand-wound Olympus SLR camera and I was 12. You need to learn a certain amount about animals to stand a decent chance of getting a good picture of them. It was a life-changing bit of tech for me.
■ Steve Backshall hosts One Wild Night at the Royal Geographical Society on December 14 to raise money for the World Land Trust, pleasance.co.uk