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The Future of Aerial Mapmaking: Cheap Helium Balloons

The Future of Aerial Mapmaking: Cheap Helium Balloons
Public Lab

Most of the aerial imagery you’ve looked at, probably on Google Maps, is shot from high-altitude airplanes that are able to capture images of earth where one square pixel represents about one square foot of land. This resolution is better than what you’d get from a satellite, where a pixel covers maybe a square meter. From a satellite, you can make out a vehicle on the road. From a high-altitude airplane, you can tell if it’s a car or a truck.

Neither option, though, can really bring you down to the intimate view of children playing in a park fountain or hot-dog vendors on a sidewalk. Some DIY aerial mapmakers have toyed with collecting this level of data from remote-controlled airplanes. 

"You hear about people using them experimentally," says cartographer Stewart Long. "But they’re all kind of… unofficial, and not really legal."

The Federal Aviation Administration doesn’t particularly like amateurs piloting unmanned aircraft over our city streets. (This is also why commercial drones for domestic use, in their various forms, are still a ways off). But here’s a catch: no one says you can’t do your own aerial map-making of cities and landscapes with a balloon. Or a kite.

The Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science, a project of Long’s with several partners, actually sells a $95 DIY balloon mapping kit that will get you started. "The design of the platform is very specific so it doesn’t fall within regulations," Long says. "By that I mean you can pretty much do whatever you want with this thing."

Public Lab does, however, recommend that you stick with some basic FAA rules to stay on the safe side. Don’t float these things – they come with 1,000 feet of line – within five miles of an airport. Also, pretty much the entire city of Washington, D.C., is off limits. Outside of these guidelines, though, you can strap a basic camera to one of Public Lab’s balloons (they recommend strapping down the camera in continuous drive mode) to create aerial maps of significantly better resolution than Google Earth’s.

At this distance, you can get down to the centimeter, enough to capture the dotted lines on a road, or the tiles on a roof. You can even differentiate plant species, a valuable tool for scientists who might use these DIY images to track soil erosion or sensitive wetlands. The whole idea is an ingenious mix of high and low tech, of rubber bands and helium and open-source software (Public Labs also has a platform called MapKnitter that will help you stitch the images together into one big mosaic). But aside from its basic techie appeal, this tool is trying to take map-making – for centuries the province of people who are in charge – and give the rest of us that power, too.

"For the most part, the pictures you look at in Google are not taken by Google," Long says. "They’re taken by a couple of providers out there, and they license the data. There’s not too many people out there collecting mapping data. And it’s important for the public to have that capability. It shouldn’t be only in the hands of a few people."

These maps could be used to capture oil-spill evidence that officials won’t acknowledge, or to record a permanent record of fleeting events that might be easy to forget. Here's one aerial map taken of the Occupy Oakland encampment with one of Public Labs’ balloon tools.


Mappers: Ben Rodriguez, Michal Migurski, Stewart Long

And here's the same map zoomed in much farther than Google Earth will ever take you:

Public Lab has so far sold about 500 of these kits, more than 20 percent of them to aspiring map-makers outside the U.S. Long estimates that even more people have constructed their own kits from scratch using the how-to guide Public Lab provides as well. Google itself is also now incorporating some of these images into Google Maps and Google Earth. In several random locations around the country, Google Maps will zoom you into a surprisingly intimate city scene. In Jamison Square in Portland, Oregon, for instance, you can actually make out those children playing in a fountain. That's thanks to this project.

For a sense of what else is possible, take a look at some of these other aerial images, from the full archive on Public Lab’s website.

Here's Mission Delores Park in San Francisco, captured on a sunny Saturday this May:


Mappers: Bobby Sudekum, Stoney Vintson, Nelson Minar, George Chamales, David Holstius, Ben Rodriguez, Gwen McKay, Matt Shultz, Molly Hankwitz, Stewart Long

All of those dots turn out to be picnickers:

And here's a map Long took of the Burning Man festival in 2010:

And a close-up:

Lastly, here we have researchers in LaPlace, Louisiana documenting the erosion of the shoreline at the mouth of an oil spillway.


Mappers: Scott Eustis, Paul Thibodeaux, Scott Anderson, Shannon Dosemagen

Top image, of Davis Square in Somerville, Massachusetts, was mapped by PLOTS Boston and Parts and Crafts.

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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