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:
We were able to capture this:
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.
- Cut the 3/8″ stock into 2 parts @ 4″ and 4 parts @ 3.5″.
- 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.
- Drill a 1/4″ bore hole for the machine screw. Insert 1/4″ bolt.
- Install eyelets around front and back to act as anchors to the balloon line.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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..