Hollow’s Balloon Mapping Test Flights
by Eric Lovell, Hollow cartographer
Well folks after dealing with a bit of a helium shortage crisis, some rainy days, and some unanticipated tree snags, the balloon and camera rig have gone airborne! Before I get started illustrating to all of you the trials and tribulations of Hollow’s initial balloon mapping experiences, I must thank my colleague, or partner in crime (PIC) if you will, in these experiments: Mr. Pepperoni.
Mr. Pepperoni came through at the last minute to supply Hollow with enough helium to run numerous balloon mapping beta tests before the Hollow balloon rises above the streets of McDowell County. I also need to thank Barb Lovell for documenting Hollow’s test flights and also for helping me steer the balloon away (and out of) any trees, power lines, buildings, etc.
We ran two balloon mapping tests this week. While I was unable to obtain useable images to stitch together, this week’s testing enabled us to tease out some of the difficulties that are bound to emerge during any balloon mapping experience.
Test 1 (May 14, 2012):
Ok, we have finally obtained all of the necessary ingredients necessary to make a high resolution map! Now we just need good weather! Is that too much to ask? I have just returned from the Pacific Northwest where I became very comfortable with the consistent afternoon drizzle but I am now back east…come on Mother Nature…work with me here!
Judging by the forecast and a quick observation out the window, the weather conditions were not going to be ideal for flying a balloon and especially for obtaining fog-free images. The temperature was approximately 60°F, there was a slight breeze (approximately 3 mph) coming from the north-northeast, a subtle fog had set in, and the sky looked everlastingly overcast…oh well, this balloon needed to take flight.
We started off the day’s test run by preparing the balloon for flight. This included inflating the balloon, mooring it to my trusty rusty toolbox, and securing the point-and-shoot camera within the housing rig. For testing purposes, I am using an Olympus 770SW. This camera seems to work pretty well, especially on days like today because it’s waterproof. My only critique is that it may be more ideal to have a camera with the lens positioned in the center of the camera body rather than at the top right of the camera. As you will see later on, I continuously ran into a problem of having the plastic housing creep into the area of interest…almost like that person in the background of your old photos that had no idea that they were photographed. Once the rig was completely assembled, the camera trigger was pinned down and the camera was shooting continuous images, we were ready to release the balloon and see how it flies!
The rather chilly spring temperature, low-pressure system, and the light showers that started as soon as the balloon was released seemed to have a substantial impact on the balloon’s lift. In cooler temperatures helium, like any other gas, contracts, which ultimately means that more helium is needed to fill the volume of the 5.5 foot balloon and to give it enough lift to tow the camera rig. Because the weather was not ideal and we knew that we would have to perform another trial run on a better day, Mr. Pepperoni was not interested in supplying us with additional helium. Nevertheless, the balloon and camera rig still managed to raise approximately 100-150 feet in the air before seeming to hit an invisible ceiling. This was probably just a pocket of cooler air. On the bright side I was able to obtain some extremely high-resolution shots of my parent’s garden! Is that a tomato plant I see? No…I don’t think so.
Test Day 2 (May 16, 2012)
Wednesday was beautiful! It was about 75°F, the sky was clear, it was very sunny, and there was only a slight breeze (approximately 6 mph) blowing from the west. Although these almost ideal conditions, we assumed that the slightest breeze may induce some troubles with flying the balloon straight up into the air. After our first trial run, we had made a few adjustments to stabilize the camera within the housing and to avoid the housing’s obstruction of our area of interest. To my surprise, the balloon withheld its helium very well while being stored in my garage. Because we had problems with lift on the first run, Mr. Pepperoni decided it would be best to put a bit more helium in the balloon. We added approximately 10 cubic feet of helium to the balloon.
It seemed that the wind had almost died down completely whenever we were ready to release the balloon; however, as soon as the balloon lifted about 25 feet, the wind picked back up and immediately took the balloon towards my neighbor’s property located slightly west of my house. This was not my own personal mapping area of interest but luckily my neighbors had no qualms about us accidently shooting their property. During this test run we quickly surpassed the 100-150 foot limit of the first flight and let out approximately 400-500 feet of line
As the wind took hold of the balloon, it quickly became clear that several large trees that appeared to be far from the flight path would become dangerous obstacles that would either pop or hold the balloon or snag the guide line. As you can see by this picture obtained by the camera rig, we made contact!
Luckily, the rather durable chloroprene balloon bounced off the tree like Dustin Garrison (WVU running back) stiff-arming his muscle-bound Clemson linebacker.
As the balloon ascended above the oak trees, its westward trajectory resulted in a line snag. This snag gave us a pretty big scare. I knew that if I tried to pull the line too hard that I would run the risk of breaking the guide line and the balloon and camera would be gone forever but I also knew that if I brought the line back in too quickly that I would risk running the balloon back into the tree and end our flight in an unfortunate manner. We decided that the best plan of action would be to reel the balloon in as close to the tree as possible and hope the wind would die down enough to give the balloon a bit of vertical rise. SUCCESS! As we unsnagged the balloon we realized that what we thought of as pretty ideal flying conditions were not so ideal after all. It may also be best to find a better location to test the balloon, such as an open field or park.
We were reeling the balloon back in to examine the quality of images obtained by the camera when a gust of wind immediately sent the balloon back on its westward journey. Again, the line became snagged in the same tree, only this time the balloon wanted to circumnavigate the tree, which we knew would not end well. With a bit of patience we managed to eventually unsnag the line and bring the balloon safely to the ground.
I would say that this flight was a successful test; however, the housing continued to obstruct our area of interest. It seems as though the impact of hitting the tree and the ebbs and flows of the wind shifted the camera within the housing. Once again, I need to make some augmentations to the housing and figure out a better way of stabilizing the camera within the rig. You can see that we obtained some great aerial photos; however the housing is very intrusive.
Once all of these factors are accounted for, I believe the community and I are going to get some AMAZING aerial photos of the different communities in McDowell County.
As for now, Mr. Pepperoni has made his way to Athens, Ohio. He is waiting at my friend’s apartment while I blog about Hollow’s balloon mapping experiences and meet with my LKCCAP colleagues. We will soon be in the Charleston area and if the weather cooperates, Elaine and I may run a third test run. Hopefully this time we get some great clear shots to share with you all! Thank you for following our progress and please check back very soon.