My Big Blue Balloon

As promised last week a while ago, here’s an update on current research:

In case you’re wondering what a Big Blue Balloon has to do with research that’s supposed to be somehow related to geography, spatial information, or social media, let me help you: What’s a Big Blue Balloon? First of all, it’s a vehicle of some sort, because it is not stationary (though in all likelyhood cannot move autonomously). Second, it’s in the air (at least as long as it’s inflated!). Thirdly, it can or cannot be “manned”. In the latter case, it is an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle! Or UAV for the acronym lovers among us, and “drone” for those who prefer more catchy names (and abhor acronyms). And that’s the new project I am working on: Retrieving data from UAVs, and integrating it with existing spatial data infrastructures and user-generated geographic content (in case you haven’t noticed, that was the link to this blog’s overall theme). Yes, I know, everyone’s into drones right now, but I content myself that we’re looking into them from a distinctive angle, i.e. the data integration issue. We are also in the process of procuring a “real” UAS (that’s Unmanned Aerial System, including the ground control) in the form of a Mikrokopter, but due to legal, institutional and corporate issues, this is delayed (though not canceled).

In the meantime, we (btw: “we” means my collegue Laura and myself, and the credit for discovering and procuring the subject of this post is entirely hers!) have been looking into DIY-MUAVs (that would be Do-It-Yourself-Micro-Unmanned-Aerial-Vehicles) and grassroots aerial photography. There is an astonishing amount of activity (mentally taking a note here on a future geosocialite blog’s topic), but we have decided on this:

Source: Breadpig Shop (

It’s actually from the Public Laboratory’s for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS), and there is a lot of info on their web pages that I am not going to repeat here – go there and see for yourself. For the lazy among you or those short on time: It’s filled with helium and can easily carry one camera. Ordered, shipped, “assembled” and camera mounted (a Nikon Coolpix P6000 affixed to some polystyrene for protection), and ready-to-go. Erm, wait, we need helium. A lot of it. Do they sell this in a DIY store? Fortunately, the JRC does all kinds of things I still have no idea about. So after asking around, we found a large helium gas cartridge. After some very early test, we were ready for our first real field trial:

Source: The Author (who is trying to get the &$%&§ interval shooting mode to work)

Lift off! Source: The Author

Up Up and Away! Source: You guessed correctly, the author.

Our Big Blue Balloon performed nicely, climbing up to an altitude of around 100 meters (then a helicopter flew past in what seemed a decidedly close distance, and we opted for less altitude), and taking lots of pictures with this camera on interval shooting:

Source: The Balloon

After making a stroll back to office, we parked our Big Blue Balloon in the basement. The image taking were of mixed quality, some excellent, a lot of them blurred and distorted (we have to work in the fixture to the balloon). Unfortunately, the GPS of the camera is quite weak, and did not obtain and coordinates after the first few images (can’t be a lack of satellites in line of sight, can it?). We tried to ortho-rectify some of them with, but with mixed success – the base layer is not very good, and since we mostly took images of some greenery, there are not that many structures on the ground to allow for good rectification. But not bad for a very first trial, I think.

So we are now devising two experiments with it: First, to get images from above to stitch and ortho-rectify the semi-automatically, and second a panoramic 360° shooting.

PS: My boss has produced a cool short video taken during the first trial. Because of privacy etc. (we attracted some attention with this, so there are a number of people in the video, and we can’t ask them all for permission), it is not public – you can ask me for the link and password if you think I will trust you 🙂


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