Balloon Mapping Success!

[Guest post by Britta Ricker]

A huge thank you to Alan for organizing Balloon Mapping in Vancouver on August 16! It was a great success! I, @bricker will be guest blogging about the launch of the balloon! Key lesson, even if you think the balloon is full, fill it up some more.

We were using the Kickstarter balloon mapping kit from The Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS). This kit included a 5.5 foot weather balloon, 1000 feet of line, and all the various clips, carabiners, rubber bands, and zip ties necessary for balloon mapping. All we had to provide was the camera and the helium.

The PET bottle rig

The day before our expedition, we made the necessary preparations. I obtained the helium tank. Alan followed the instructions to create the “PET bottle and rubber band camera rig”, and installed the CHDK firmware hack on a Canon SD550 camera to allow for 10 second intervals between photos. Based on the camera’s 2GB memory card and the age of its battery, we knew we could reliably expect one hour of flight time, but not much more.

We discussed various possible sites to map around Metro Vancouver, but most of the sites we considered (such as the South Fraser Perimeter Road construction or the Musqueam village of C̓əsnaʔəm) were either too far away or too close to the airport flight paths. In the end we chose to do our first mapping flight at Northeast False Creek, which would provide us interesting views of this potential development site, the nearby Georgia Viaduct, and the SOLEfood urban farm.

Filling the balloon

Sam and Alan filling the balloon

On mapping day, Alan and I met at Carrall and Pacific along False Creek at about 3:20 pm. Sam Walker, Duncan Ranselm, Michael Weisman, and Jessica Hallenbeck joined us shortly there after. We scoped out the location (found a shady place to get things set up, pun intended) and got started!

We followed the instructions provided in the balloon mapping kit as closely as we could. We found the directions to be very clear and very helpful!

We did not bring a measuring device so as the balloon got bigger, we were not sure how big to let it get. I was getting nervous and thought the balloon looked plenty big so we tied it off and did a test flight.

As we were blowing it up we were joking about if the balloon could carry a small dog or not.

The zip ties that came with the balloon are sensitive in that when you try to tighten them, they frequently unzip since they are releasable. We added electrical tape to secure the balloon even more.

Filling the balloon for the test flight. Is it big enough yet? (No.)

Zip ties in place. Later we added some electrical tape for good measure.

Getting excited!

Let it go up!

We decided test flight #1 was a success. Now let’s put the camera in place!

Anchoring the balloon with some old tires

Assembling the camera rig before flight

OK, lets do this, Alan has his work gloves on!

We let the balloon go but it is nothing like we expected. We expected it to go straight up but it kind of hovered and swayed in the wind.

A bit heavy

Uh oh

Then it started to get higher! Ok this is starting to look good!

Oh wait, no! That is not supposed to happen!

Wait for it, Wait for it. The balloon starts to go up again, Ok this is good.

No! Crash!!

Crash from camera’s POV

At this point Alan starts running with it as if it is a kite.

Run Alan Run!!!

It has become very clear we have not filled the balloon nearly enough. Lesson learned: When you think it is big enough, let it get bigger. The balloon is pulled in. The zip ties are released (now we were very happy that they are easy to release) and we fill the balloon some more.


Attempt #2 is looking much more promising

Up, up and away in a beautiful balloon!

Us down below

Official successful launch time was 4:37pm PDT. We intended to keep the balloon in the air for one hour.

The team is in place so that three people are holding the string at any one time. Two with gloves, a third holding the spool.

Once we had reeled out all of the line, it was difficult to estimate how far away the balloon was. Were we close to that plane? Are we going to hit those buildings? I ran to the other end of the parking lot to stand directly beneath the balloon so we could tell how far we had gone.

Tiny Britta directly below

Eventually I reached the fenced-off edge of the parking lot and could follow no further. We were surprised to discover later how close we had come to the buildings!

Look out on those balconies!

After we reeled out all the line and the balloon was at maximum height, we tried to walk around a bit with it. Around this time, unbeknownst to us, a colleague of ours was out walking her dog in Mt. Pleasant, more than a kilometer to the south, and snapped a picture of our balloon far in the distance:

The balloon spotted from Mt. Pleasant by Sarah Mathisen Przedpelska (click to zoom in)

We were walking around the seawall at around 5:00 rush hour on a sunny day in Vancouver. Meaning there were bikes and people everywhere!!!!! Surprisingly only three people asked us what we were doing. One security guard for the building in which we used their parking lot, and one woman pushing strollers, and one person who wanted to lock the gates to the garden where we ended the balloon mapping expedition.

We walked as far west as the Plaza of Nations, but were hemmed in by trees, power lines and light posts. We could walk no further. We stood there for a long time, deciding what to do next, with the balloon idling over the water… giving us dozens fairly boring pictures of boats!

Boats. Not what we wanted.

Feeling like we had already accomplished enough, we relocated to the back of the SOLEfood parking lot and began reeling the balloon back in.


Almost there

Reeling it in

A job well done

We brought the balloon down around 5:30 pm. We deflated the balloon and packed everything up. Alan started looking at the photos and it all looked good! Amazing!

Our first look at the photos!

We then headed to the famous Casa Gelato, for 200 flavors of ice cream! Over the next few days, we began loading the photos into MapKnitter, stitching them together into a seamless panorama. Link to MapKnitter panorama (in progress): NE False Creek

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