First Balloon Flight


With the easing of the helium shortage, we finally acquired a tank or two of the noble gas, and headed up to the El Dorado Center yesterday to launch our new imaging platform. First flights are always a little nerve-wracking, with safety considerations and weather variables and unknowns, but we drafted a protocol, filled the balloon, and sent it up.


We had used half the tank the other day on an aborted attempt – the balloon popped – so we ran out of gas a little short of the balloon’s capacity.  While it lifted the picavet, it wasn’t especially enthusiastic about it. We brought it back to the ground, changed the 300# line to 100#, removed the bucket, and sent it back up. These weight tweaks worked well, and the balloon pulled the load gently but definitively.

Release the picavet!

A balloon is quite a different animal than a kite, and flying it took some getting used to. All in all, quite a bit less stressful than kites or quadcopters, as the helium counteracts (most of) the drop-out-of-the-sky, camera crushing effects of gravity. We were able to capture this nice image of the El Dorado County Master Gardeners Demonstration Garden, a work in progress, and one that we can hopefully document over time with additional flights.

Demo Garden from the Air

Overall, a satisfying success.  Next steps include constructing a new, lighter picavet specifically for the balloon, and finalizing the POV streaming rig we plan to fly over the crowd at a college event in October.

Having a Field Day

Puppy in a Backpack
On Friday, April 4th, Jason and I went out to Cronan Ranch Regional Trails Park to do some recon, his new puppy in tow (and eventually in the pack when she tired of hiking).  Though we brought kites, rain and lack of wind kept us out of the air.  We were able to formulate a flight plan for the following Friday, and met a group of students for some hands-on learning.

Students paired up and took to the trails armed with Trimble GPS units, gathering data for the American River Conservancy.

After a few hours of trail mapping, the group met at the rendezvous point, and we got out the kites. The maiden voyage of the 12′ delta ended up with the kite atop an oak tree, but a quick climb freed it for another go. Though there seemed to be plenty of wind at ground level, the kite just wouldn’t stay up, so we switched it out for the 9′ delta. Despite valiant efforts by a couple of students, we weren’t able to get up into any stable air, so we didn’t end up with any photos.

Despite the unsuccessful flights, students were enthusiastic about the process, and about applying what they’ve learned.  There is no substitute for field work!


Picavet Bucket Mod

Bucket Mod

It’s been pretty quiet on the flying front this winter, but we’ve got a field day planned for Cronan Ranch tomorrow, so I took a few minute to mod the picavet.  In the prior incarnation, the bucket was not attached to the picavet cross, but was instead sandwiched between the cross and the camera mount.  As such, every time the camera mount had to be changed, the bucket came with it, making for some annoying alignment issues.

To remedy, I cut away the middle of the top of the bucket (to make camera attachment a little easier, and to make the camera screen visible from outside of the bucket – the camera is always pointed straight down, and without access to the screen it’s sometimes difficult to tell if the camera is firing ), and attached the bucket directly to the picavet cross via two machine screws.  Much better.  Let’s hope the predicted winds arrive tomorrow…

A Pretty Big Kite

A pretty big kite.
New kites arrived. Pictured here is a 12′ Riviera Highlighter from Into the Wind, and we received the double lifter sled 30 as well.  We hope to get some images from above Mormon Island, a local historical mining community.  A very dry winter and the resulting low water levels have exposed parts of the town, the remains of which are typically hidden beneath Folsom Lake.

More KAP Experiments – Photomerge

Nice breeze this afternoon, so I gathered the kite and KAP rig, found a colleague – Kevin Pipkin (Professor, Mathematics and all-around good guy) – and headed down to the wetlands to fly, this time with the GoPro, set to whatever the medium (as opposed to wide) angle setting is called.

Kevin Pipkin at the Helm

Terrific wind, about at what I imagine to be the limit for the 9′ delta, and the kite pulled like a champ.  We gathered quite a few images, and a short video as well.

Kite and KAP Rig

Back at the desk, I thought I’d give Adobe Photoshop’s Photomerge feature a shot, using the “Collage” option.  Here’s the result:

Combined Photos using PShop Photomerge

Though it’s a little sketchy out at the margins, it’s actually not bad for a hands-off process.

iPhone Kite Aerial Photography

iPhone KAP

The weather was pretty good for KAP yesterday, with variable ground level winds somewhere in the 2-5 mph range, so we took the 9′ delta down to the wetlands north of the college to test out the new iPhone rig.  Gathered two hundred or so shots using Timelapse, a very useful app, and worth every penny of the $4.99 asking price. Unfortunately, I misaligned the iPhone within the protective bucket, such that each image contained a bit of the edge of said bucket.  As a result, I had to run a Photoshop action to crop the images, losing a bit of data in the process.  Nevertheless, I was able to stitch together some of the best photos using both Photoshop and MapKnitter, which I’ve mentioned before:

MapKnitter is a free and open source tool for combining and positioning images in geographic space into a composite image map. Known as “orthorectification” or “georectification” to geographers, this step covers the process of figuring out where images can be placed on an existing map, and how they can be combined, or “stitched” together.

With each successful (and unsuccessful) flying session, we’re learning a great deal.  For instance, we’ve added a can of compressed air to the field kit to deal with the inevitable dust that seems to find its way onto the camera, and before the next flight, I’m going to find some sort of ground cloth to use as a relatively clean surface upon which to set up the picavet and rig the camera.  Progress.


Flew the 9′ delta this afternoon in the wetlands below the college, and sent the NIR camera up for the first time, resulting in photos that look something like this:

Lessons learned:

1.  Flying solo is more difficult than flying with a partner.  I had to find a stable elevation for the kite, step on the line, and rig the picavet with one hand.  A few times when the camera was dangerously close to the ground, it would have been nice to have a partner to keep it safe from harm.

2.  Given the way that that camera sits inside the bucket, it’s a little difficult to operate it.  I’m going to noodle on a solution…

3.  Always bring a broad-brimmed hat and/or sunglasses.  I had neither.

4.  Always always wear gloves.  I burned through about eight wraps of duct tape in this one flying session.  I like the overall weight of the glove pictured below, I just need to find a way to add a heavy duty sleeve to that finger.

5.  A 1 minute interval is too long.  I’m thinking that 30 seconds will give more overlap, which will enable better knitting.


OpenROV Nearly Complete!

Spent a good chunk of time this week trying to get the OpenROV finished up.  After a long day of wiring, fussing, the crimping of many Molex pins, and a harrowing unwinding and untangling session with the tether wire, I was able to finally plug everything in.  It booted on the first power up!  Next week I hope to get the motors wired up and working, and then we’ll throw it in the water and see what we can see.

Success! KAP over Georgetown School

The weather is changing today, bringing cooler temperatures and, most importantly, steady wind. I took the KAP rig down to the local grade school, and after some fussing, was able to get it up in the air. At about 100′ feet the kite found a steady wind, so I attached the picavet to the line and sent it up.  The kite kept pulling like a champ, so I kept feeding it line until the line ran out.

Kite Aerial Photography - Georgetown School

After a few more practice runs, we’ll send the IR camera up, hopefully at Wakamatsu or over the wetlands below the college.

Bringing the KAP Rig Down