This post compares technologies for aerial photography, but it is also about how tool choices can embed values, including transparency, openness, and accessibility, into the growing popular culture of mapping.

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Falkirk Young Archaeologists’ Club takes a self portrait from the top of a carp fishing pole.

Most map imagery is collected by airplane or satellite and processed by GIS (geographic information system) professionals for planners, environmental scientists, archeologists, and other end users. However, recent advances in digital cameras have boosted the power of kites, balloons, poles, R/C planes and drones to acquire high-quality images, enabling both traditional end users and attracting new mapmakers.

Many prefer to control their own imaging techniques so they can collect images on-demand. This new and growing class of users want a reliable and repairable kit to integrate into their group or institution. While low-cost drones are grabbing lots of attention, balloons, kites, tall poles, and other “low-tech” systems have important roles to play in the future of mapmaking because they integrate well with towns, community groups, and volunteer initiatives better than drones.

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Balloons: friendly, fun, findable.

Public

A string running up from the ground to a kite or balloon acts as a big “I am here” sign, enabling people to find me, talk to me, and ask me questions. I can explain why I’m taking photos and what they’ll be used for. Accountability is embedded into the technique itself, and every flyer is transformed into a goodwill ambassador engaged directly with the concerns of the surveilled.

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A most unusual application of the Balloon Mapping Kit in Central Park. Credit: Liz Barry

Sociable

The physical spaces I fly through are also social spaces — most environments I want to image are full of people. While the short-term goal of a flight is to get a specific picture, the long-term goal is to always have up-to-date imagery. The long-term usefulness of an imaging technology therefore lies in the social acceptability of its frequent use.

Drones emerged from military research for battlefield operations, not service to civil society, while kites and balloons have emerged from public art and entertainment to become useful observational platforms. This context affects public perceptions — the very existence of armed drones will affect the operational constraints placed on unarmed drones, while the shear ridiculousness of arming a kite or balloon will preserve their peaceful and fun image.

Drones were invented to hide their operators’ location and intentions. Their first public appearances were in dystopic fictions and realities, and they do not have a “good neighbor” image. There are good uses for drones, but balloons and kites traditionally celebrate good weather and good times, and make for fun and inviting events.

Accessible

Building and flying kites and balloons and lofting poles are not hard skills to learn, and the materials are rarely expensive. Volunteers can be mustered more easily than with drones, and kites integrate well with all ages and initiatives. Communities can adopt and control kites, balloons, and poles better than drones, which require advanced electronics and computer skills to modify. Inaccessibility encourages schadenfreude — drone crashes are not usually met with understanding or sympathy.

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Dan Beavers’ homemade eyes in the sky, following my easy cut delta plans.

Quality Data

Understanding a photo requires on-the-ground knowledge. While any low-cost system can encourage mapping by observers, kite and balloon mapping encourage mappers to become on-the-ground observers because they have to walk or float around the site.

Operational Efficiency

If I want to map with a drone, I probably won’t just send it out the window; I’ll get in a vehicle and go to the site. Kites work great flying off the backs of boats, bike trailers, and very slow cars. If there is accessible terrain to move a vehicle through the site, a kite or balloon can leverage a vehicle’s mobility, much like trawling for fish. With the price difference between kite and balloon gear and a low-end drone, I could buy a kayak, a small motor boat, or a cargo bike. Take the following differences into consideration:

Bormatec MAJA drone as used by Conservation Drones

  • Price: $1,300 ready to fly
  • Commercial use: Illegal in U.S.
  • Flight time: 1 hour
  • Payload: 1.5kg payload (likely to be legally limited to 500g in U.S.)
  • Top wind speed: 18mph
  • Range: 10km (line of site must be maintained)
  • Max altitude: 450 ft (legal limit)

Public Lab Balloon Kit + Low & High Wind Kites

  • Price: $300 ready to fly
  • Commercial use: Legal
  • Flight time: Dusk to dawn continuous
  • Payload: balloon: 1kg, kites: 1-5kg
  • Top wind speed: Balloon: 10mph, low-wind kite: 5-15mph, high-wind kite:10-30mph
  • Range: Ground obstruction dependent
  • Max altitude: 500-5,000 ft (150-1500m) (check your jurisdiction).

Resilience in the field

My homemade kites have four materials: wood, string, tape and tyvek. I don’t need spare specialty components or fuel, and local substitute materials are always available. Commercial kites can be patched with tape, fixed with a needle and thread, and made with a sewing machine. Even very durable drones will eventually break some part that must be sourced from a manufacturer, while excellent kites can be made entirely out of sticks and leaves.

Research and Development

While drone development can involve computer programming and precision manufacturing, kites and balloons have been around for centuries, and almost everything I’ve wanted to do has already been done and documented. Even though billions are being spent on drone development, kite lovers are staying competitive with very little professional research.

For example, the Internet’s large KAP community continues to investigate off-wind flying techniques in use by kite fishermen for 20-plus years. Photography kites were very advanced a century ago, and while contemporary kites are made from far better materials, the payload stabilization and ascension techniques used back then were often more advanced than current techniques.

Conclusion and Resources

Kites and balloons are people-friendly, kid-ready, fun, easy, cheap, and accessible methods for getting map imagery and encouraging dialogue and transparency. They help make mapping what it should be — a fun thing people do, rather than a scary thing that gets done to them.

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Mathew lives in Portland, Ore., where he works on design issues in sanitation through the Cloacina Project, is faculty at the Pacific Northwest College of Art, and designs civic science tools as a founding member of the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science.