Balloon Launch F-01 – December 5, 2012

Originally planned to launch as part of GIS Day, and then having been three times delayed by weather, we finally launched the first balloon imaging mission on December 5, 2012. The original intended use for the data was to supplement GEO 106’s TreeCampus USA inventory, but it was not completed early enough for that application. Dr. Beth Johnson, as well as a handful of students, were very helpful in giving a hand for this launch.


As part of the 2012-13 geography budget, UWFox had purchased a DIY imaging kit from BreadPig (and Public Laboratory). That, combined with a Canon Powershot a4000 from a Best Buy Black Friday sale, and a chopped up two-liter bottole, made our rig.

We mostly followed the open-source instructions, rigging a metal loop as the main connection to the cords and equipment.

Dr. Johnson rigs the balloon to the cord.

We followed the the guide almost completely, with only one exception: We tied a cord segment directly between the ballast mooring and the balloon’s main metal loop. The full line was attached to the loop separately from the mooring line, as was the full reel. By doing this, we cut out the worry of having to untie anything from the mooring; instead, we just cut that segment to launch.

Then, we filled up the balloon and began the launch!

Fill ‘er up.

Still filling.

Thomas Petersen holds down the fort (the juice jug ballast wasn’t enough!) just before liftoff.

Here I am, rigging the DIY camera capsule (made from a two-liter bottle and packing tape).

Hold on a minute… False start


Going up.
We kept it in the sky for about 45 minutes, using that time to walk completely around the campus for more coverage.

Walking Route

Once the tether was extended to nearly its maximum (1000′, though a slight southerly breeze left the balloon at a lower angle than zenith), we walked together around the campus to get the maximum coverage possible.

We were lucky in that the campus provided nearly 40 acres (a 1/4 of 1/4 of a section) to roam without worrying about power lines. Trees were another story, and our walking route left Dr. Johnson somewhat nervous about getting bush-wacked.


The camera took pictures through the entire launch, and we ended up with around 2500 image files.

I put them all of the images together in this video, for fun:

I looked through all of the photos and tried to choose a selection that best displayed the campus. I ran them through Adobe Photoshop for some processing using a saved action bot, hoping to enhance the underexposed images and sharped their focus.

I then used PublicLab’s MapKnitter tool to compile the best of the files into a mosaic:

(It’s also available for download in a variety of GIS formats).

All-in-all, successful for a first run. I’m hoping to learn some lessons and make Launch 02 go even smoother in February.


Lessons Learned

  • I limited the first mission to 45 minutes because we thought that would be the limit of our camera’s data capacity and battery charge. I was conservative by about 50% on each.
  • Something with the PowerShot a4000’s settings apparently turned off auto-exposure and auto-focus when I set it up in continuous shooting mode. Some processing helped, but the focus was still soft.
  • works as a processor, not just a mosaic builder. I worked a lot harder to line every picture up perfectly than I needed to
  • The reel from the Balloon Mapping Kit is tied as a loop on the end, so no worries of running out of cord and watching your balloon fly away.
  • Make sure you launch with a friend! Beth’s help on this was irreplaceable.

Author: Andrew Shears

Andrew Shears is an Assistant Professor of Geography at Mansfield University in Mansfield, Pennsylvania. His research interests lie at an intersection of the human-environmental nexus, and includes branches of mapping, technological, memorialization and urban geographies. He lives in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania with his wife Amy, a professional photographer.

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