My interest in flying a tethered balloon with a camera system started back in July of 2006. Since then, I designed and built a sophisticated camera system, purchased a 7 foot diameter helium balloon, and have talked about flying it over Boulder to take aerial photographs. Almost 4 years have passed with enough yak shaving and procrastination for me to vow to finally do this on not one, but two New Year’s resolutions. I can finally and proudly say that I flew the balloon and the camera system over my South Boulder neighborhood and it was a tremendous success!
My initial interest in the subject goes way back to my Master’s Thesis that involved the design of a micro air vehicle control system for DARPA. The justification for the thesis work was that there is a strong need within the military (and other agencies) for visual knowledge of an environment that is best provided by an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). However, UAVs can be difficult to operate, so much research has been invested in developing autonomous UAVs that can operate on their own, which is exactly how I was funded for my research project.
Flash forward to 2006. I no longer live in Boston, but I am still working in the aerospace industry. Instead of designing control systems to fly aerial vehicles, I am designing control systems to point scientific payloads on satellites in earth orbit. I pick up my first issue of Make magazine while visiting my parents and am immediately blown away by the advancements in low-cost, robotic-like electronics that are available to the average hobbyist that used to be top-shelf military grade components. I subscribe to the magazine and request all back issues, which included their premiere issue focused on kite aerial photography. I have an epiphany. Kites can fly above the earth in a relatively fixed location and orientation without any sophisticate control system, which allows people to focus on building camera payloads to take incredible photographs. I am convinced that I have short-circuited all of the work that has gone into UAV control system development. I realize that there isn’t always wind to fly a kite. Duh. I think back to my childhood and remember helium balloons. I am a kid again and having fun with a balloon. It is the answer. I am convinced that the answer is to fly a helium balloon with a camera instead of investing precious time and money on developing sophisticated autonomous UAVs. I research the market and learn that three companies visibly cater to this type of market: Southern Balloon Works, SkyDoc Balloons, and Allsopp Helikites. All of these companies do impressive work and had my epiphany long ago. But they don’t design precision pointing systems for NASA, I do. I convince myself that I can buy a balloon from one of these vendors, build a sophisticated camera payload, and point it better and for cheaper than anyone else using low-cost hobby electronics.
We are now in July 2006. I spend some of my free time furthering research on the topic, ordering a balloon from Southern Balloon Works, buying a Canons S3is camera, buying and learning to work a BasicStamp-based Parallax BoeBot, buying a camera cradle from ServoCity, and ultimately building a pretty nice semi-autonomous gimbaled camera system to fly on the balloon. Of course, there were issues or I wouldn’t be writing this in 2010. The real-time video downlink from the camera had numerous issues. I eventually worked out the kinks between the RC transmitter and the video downlink and wound up with a reliable RC/video system. I also got involved in mentoring a FIRST robotics team which was a valuable experience, but that also ate into my free time for such extracurricular nerdy activities. Ultimately, it came down to priorities and focus. There are a few things I can say with complete conviction and one is that when we make something in our life a priority or if it occupies our focus, it will be done well and it will be done quickly. So although you could say that requirements creep caused me to try to make the system too autonomous or I got caught shaving a yak, when it comes down to it, flying a helium balloon just wasn’t a priority and didn’t occupy my focus for the past two years despite the fact that I really wished it would.
Sometimes, things in life don’t go as planned and we have to accept them for what they are, decide to fight against them, or a little of both. When it came to this balloon project, I would like to think that I went with a little of both. First, I was fortuitous to become friends with Sam and Lars, who have helped me tremendously in literally getting this project off the ground. Second, I made the conscious choice to abandon the lost cause of a BasicStamp controlled “smart” camera system and to pursue a remote controlled camera system that was well within my means. What was amazing was that after making that choice, it only took three weeks to make the adjustments to the system, get my friends onboard with the project, and ultimately fly my gimbaled balloon camera system. You can probably begin to understand now why I am proud of this accomplishment.
Instead of explaining the as-built system in writing, I thought it would be easier to watch it in action. So check out the overview video below.
And now onto the premiere flight of my tethered balloon camera system.
As you can see from the video, I think the first flight of this system went very well. The as-built system functioned as I had hoped, but the balloon proved to be much less stable than I expected. In some ways, that actually makes things more fun, since it provides me with a justification to improve upon the system It may not be the game changing invention that I dreamed of years ago, but I am glad that I dreamed and proud that I had the courage to try to make it come true.
Be sure to check out the photo album to get a sense of the quality of the photos. There are some fun ones in there! The photo below highlights the improved resolution that near earth aerial photography can provide compared to satellite imagery. Also, if you want to see this photo and two others in Google Earth, down the this KMZ file.