In 1992, Matt Moneymaker had an experience that would change his life. Some local farmers had told him about a number of mysterious sightings deep in the forests of Ohio. Without the internet or social media, Moneymaker did what you did back then: He placed classified ads in the hope that these witnesses might come forward and share their story and, crucially, the location where it had happened.
“I went to the area where they had seen one, and I found tracks. And we heard their sounds, and I was at that point very, very, very committed to getting some video footage of these things” he told Engadget. Those things? Bigfoots. “From those classified ads, I got a bunch of calls and was able to plot them on a map. And then I actually talked to some of the witnesses who introduced me to other people in the area.”
In the thirty years since that lo-fi expedition, Bigfoot research has advanced significantly. Today your typical “squatcher” (as they informally call themselves) is more likely to carry a GPS and night vision goggles than a compass and binoculars. Because in a world of satellite broadband, 100-megapixel cameras and full-color night vision, blurry photos are starting to look a little quaint. Squatchers need to up their game, and they know this.
Moneymaker is no stranger to the hunt. He is the President of the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization (BFRO), but is perhaps best known as one of the main investigators on Animal Planet’s Finding Bigfoot. The show attracted millions of viewers and made its protagonists celebrities in the squatching world. But Moneymaker now hopes technology, not cable TV exposure, will be the tool that bags him the proof needed to silence the skeptics once and for all.
“Scientists will say that all these sightings of Bigfoot are just actually… they’re bear sightings, and people are mistaking them for bigfoots, and it's just, that never happens.”
This was one of the first things Moneymaker explained to me during our interview and it turned out to be eerily prescient. Just days later, a new study did the rounds claiming that most Bigfoot sightings were likely just bears. The related paper was technically published just before we spoke, but most media didn’t pick up the story until after.
As Moneymaker tells it, the reverse is true. “The very first thing their mind wants to compute is ‘it's a bear’” he said, adding “rather than, ‘this just couldn’t be a bear, this is walking on two legs and has long arms like a man and doesn't have pointy ears and a snout.’” Needless to say, for squatchers, they didn’t need a scientific paper to tell them that skeptics will assume most sightings were actually something ursine.
So how does a serious squatcher like Moneymaker think we’ll eventually put the matter to rest? The answer isn’t on the forest floor, it’s in the skies.
Last September, Moneymaker was invited to take part in the Bigfoot Basecamp Weekend in Ohio. It was here that he demonstrated his latest tech concept for finding these elusive creatures. At its core is a Mavic 2 Enterprise Advanced drone by DJI combined with Dronesense’s search and rescue software with a little dash of people power. Effectively, the same setup one might use to find a lost hiker, just with claws instead of Cliff bars.
It’s important to note here that the Mavic 2 EA isn’t quite the Mavic 2 you see being flown by enthusiasts, wedding photographers and real estate professionals. The EA version is the same platform, but with more sensors and about three times the cost. Or half the cost of the equivalent Matrice series. The important feature on the Mavic 2 EA (and also the newer Mavic 3T) is the high-resolution thermal camera.
The revolution here isn’t so much the technology, as drones and thermal cameras are not new, it’s the price. “Thermal on a drone for $6,500? That's revolutionary. You know, that's a huge difference in terms of it being accessible and available to common non-governmental entities” Moneymaker said.
The live audience was originally there to be entertained. But according to Moneymaker, it turned out to be another part of the equation.
“We had an open speakerphone with the pilot, who was a few miles away. The audience was able to watch all this on a very big screen. [...] And on a very big screen, you can see more heat targets. So the audience was able to help direct him toward heat blips, and he was able to move his drone closer.”
As the event was a successful proof of concept, I asked Moneymaker why they don’t do them more often. “Using one at the Basecamp event was probably the first time that a thermal drone had been used systematically at a Bigfoot area. And so we're gonna go back and do it again in October” he said, before reminding me that squatchers rarely get funding and rely on sponsors. “I guess the point is, we'd love to go out and do that right now. We're trying to line up a benefactor to help us do that.”
Unfortunately, no Bigfoots were found on this occasion, but representatives from the local government seemed impressed enough that they pitched Moneymaker an idea. “[They] were really interested in tourism development around paranormal things. They had success developing things for Ghost Hunter tourism, that it brought people to little places, forgotten places that nobody ever had a reason to visit.”
The inspiration for using a drone with a thermal camera came from the Netflix show Night on Earth. Specifically the behind the scenes episode Shot in the dark. Much of the footage in that series wasn’t thermal, instead likely shot with something like Canon’s ME20F-SH which runs well into double-digit thousands for the body alone. But it was enough to spark the idea.
Still spinning from the Netflix series “Night on Earth”. WATCH IT!! Just two episodes and one is the behind-the-scenes cut, which is even more interesting. Thermal-drone technology now exits to do vast sweeping counts of large mammals with a line of drones. It can be used by BFRO
— Matt Moneymaker (@MattMoneymaker1) February 24, 2020
If you’re thinking about dabbling in a bit of squatching and have a modest budget, Moneymaker recommends investing in a good handheld thermal imager. The BFRO has even tried developing its own. The next thing he recommended was the best drone you can afford. At least with these two items you have aerial visibility during the day and the handheld for night. Make sure the thermal imager can record, as military style scopes don’t always offer that and visual evidence is obviously key here.
If you were thinking about night vision goggles, Moneymaker recommends getting an IR illuminator. “Even third-generation military night vision, if you have an in very dark conditions and you don't also have an infrared illuminator then you're not going to see very far.”
Between budget-stricken squatchers and other enthusiasts there isn’t a huge number of folk out there actively looking for Bigfoot, which is why most sightings are accidental. Logic would follow, then, that as phone cameras have proliferated the opportunity to catch a Bigfoot on camera has grown along with it. Not so, says Moneymaker.
“That's totally naive and ignorant. Because most sightings happen when these things are running across the road in the middle of the night in front of a car. That's your common Class A sighting. So unless you have a dashcam running, which most Americans do not, then you're not going to get it.”
Data for US dashcam use isn’t helpful, given the amount of population living in non-Bigfoot areas, but in Canada, it’s estimated that one in ten vehicles have at least one camera.
Moneymaker’s more enthusiastic about potential sightings from an unlikely source: Law enforcement. “I think there’s more potential that footage is going to come in, in the course of a law enforcement call and investigation than from us, because there's just more of them.”
And he’d be right. According to the drone center at Bard University, over 1,500 state and local agencies across the country are regularly using drones. That said, of that number only around 500 are using a model that supports a thermal camera. Even then, there’s no guarantee that they have one installed. This is at the state level, but we can be fairly confident that federal agencies are not using any DJI products at all, making sightings by the FBI, for example, extremely unlikely.
Perhaps a more accessible technological tool is social media. The BFRO has a strong presence on Facebook which allows it to receive potential sightings from anywhere. Before, cases were logged on the BFRO website, but the advent of Facebook started putting these posts in front of people that might otherwise not have been looking for Bigfoot news. Now, sightings can be shared around a local area swiftly and other witnesses come forward that might otherwise have kept it to themselves.
But there’s a negative aspect, too: Social media is famously an incubator for hoaxes, misinformation and outright lies and when your subject matter is already considered by many to be on the fringes, trust can be squandered just as quickly as it’s built. Or at the very least it makes it hard to know what’s sincere and what’s just for clout. Moneymaker says it’s not uncommon to see compilations of mostly fake videos with the occasional real sighting mixed in.
And there’s perhaps an even more formidable foe lurking in the shadows: AI image creation. All those Dall-E pictures you’ve seen recently may seem like fun, but in the right hands, the same tools can create some remarkably realistic pictures. For example, the one below, created by Instagram user Bitsquatch who is very upfront that these are not intended to be interpreted as real in any way, he only does it for fun.
“What I'm trying to do is just sort of visualize some of these classic Bigfoot type stories and some of the legends and the kind of the, the greatest hits so to speak” Bitsquatch said in an interview on an episode of the Bigfoot Society podcast.
“When I first started doing this, I was gonna send some messages to the various Bigfoot podcasts to say, ‘hey, be on it, be on the lookout, because it'd be pretty easy to fake an image’” he added. “Trail cam images, for instance, are very easy to create. I've never posted one. But the few I did, were like, wow, that that could definitely pass as the real thing.”
For the squatching community, that means they’ll have to work even harder to have any evidence taken seriously. That, compounded by the lack of funding is forcing people like Moneymaker to get more creative.
“One of the ways we're hoping to be able to support this is with a monetized live feed of the searches, like you would have a monetized feed to a concert. That's a lot of times now what the younger generation does, they'll have a Twitch feed. So we could potentially apply that to what we're doing.”
If all this seems like a lot of dedication for something that the mainstream has very little time for, that’s because it is. But then, tell that to the team of scientists that recently captured footage of a black-naped pheasant pigeon. First documented in 1882, the bird had long since been assumed extinct.
A team of researchers from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the American Bird Conservancy spent weeks on a rugged, remote island off the coast of Papua New Guinea, enduring extreme conditions. The hunt was proving fruitless, despite private funding and a high level of local knowledge. But, two days before the end of the expedition, the elusive bird was caught on a camera trap. It was a chance encounter that would change all of their lives, putting to bed 140 years of belief that the creature was nothing more than a myth.
Image Credits: Pictures from the Basecamp weekend in Ohio provided by Allison Babka for CityBeat.