This Week in the Classroom: Aerial Photography via Balloon for Under $30

This quarter, my students have been building an incredible number of STEM-based projects in preparation for a show-and-tell science fair in March.  Every year, I often recycle two or three projects, assigning particular journeys to particular students for particular reasons.  And every year, I try to introduce something new.  This year, a student suggested unmanned flight.  I don’t have a quadracopter handy, so we settled on balloon flight.

Just like in the 1800’s.  We were hoping for something that looked like this:

Aerial Balloon Photography from the 1850’s

We were able to capture this:

Up in the Air

Stay on after the jump to see the rigging and get instructions to build your own balloon photography rig for under $30.

When gearing a balloon for flight, we need a few materials to create the camera rigging.  Feel free to modify based on your needs:

  • About 2 feet of 3/8″ T x 3/4″ W strips of a light, strong wood.  We used recycled pine.
  • One point and shoot camera, somewhere between 50 to 100 grams in weight. (Mine is a Sony CyberShot)
  • One 1/4″ coarse threaded 1/2″ long machine screw
  • A handful of #6 x 3/4″ wood screws
  • A handful of small eyelets.
  • Kite string
  • Duct tape.
  • 2 36″ latex balloons filled with helium ($11.99 for 6 balloons at Party City, $7.99 for helium fill-up)

All of this material, except for the camera, can be bought for between $30 and $40 at a home improvement store or craft store such as Micheal’s.  I sourced the party balloons from Party City, but you might have a better party store near you.

    1. Cut the 3/8″ stock into 2 parts @ 4″ and 4 parts @ 3.5″.
    2. Assemble using #6 screws as shown in the photo below.  Make sure you pre-drill.  Wood this thin will split before you blink.  Install the vertical cage bars so the wood secures the camera, but does not interfere with function.DSC03654
    3. Drill a 1/4″ bore hole for the machine screw.  Insert 1/4″ bolt.
    4. Install eyelets around front and back to act as anchors to the balloon line.
    5. Insert camera.  Most point-and-clicks come with a screw insert in order to stick it on a tripod.  Industry standard is 1/4″ coarse threaded.  Any coarse threaded bolt will do.  I used the same trick to mount my cameras on some large camera rigs last year.
    6. Tie assembly to balloons.  Tie kite string to assembly so now it hang between the line to you and the lift of the balloons.  My student’s design draft below:Balloon Diagram
    7. Turn on the video function, send it into the air.  You will end up with video sounding and looking like this:

Maybe you can engineer a stabilizer and get a better, calmer shot which doesn’t induce vertigo in its audience.  As it is, the camera stays still just long enough, just often enough, for me to extract a few great looking shots.

Some notes:  In our test run (our only run to be exact), we had 13mph winds.  This was enough wind (especially once the balloon went above the tree/house/building line and hit an incredible amount of wind shear) to rip the balloon off the rig.  Good news:  The camera, with luck, will survive the fall.  In reality, A&H insurance (SquareTrade rocks, btw) is cheap and should be a given with any “classroom-use” camera.  If I were to try this again, I’m looking for a calm day and a sturdier rigging.  Maybe something which reaches over the balloon like a net.  Also, latex leaks helium like gangbusters.  You have about eight hours to get this rig together and running before you will run out of gas.  Literally.

Make it safe & keep the rubber-side down this week..