What’s old is new again. Remotely acquired imagery has come a long way from its early days of balloon and kite platforms. That said, the popularity of do-it-yourself aerial mapping and imagery is rising.
Aerial images, especially vertical photographs (taken straight down) have long held importance for surveying, military planning, and for enabling geographic data creation.
Early Days of Aerial Photography
The first recorded aerial imagery was captured by Gaspard Felix Tournachon in 1858, a french photographer operating under the pseudonym Félix Nadar. Who used an air ballon as his platform for capturing aerial imagery.
Those early photographs taken over Paris unfortunately no longer exist.
A caricature published in May of 1862 by French publication, Le Boulevard, reenacted the photographer in action.
The earliest surviving aerial image was taken over Boston on October 13, 1860 by James Wallace Black, a photographer, and Samuel Archer King, a balloon navigator. The aerial photograph was entitled ’Boston, as the Eagle and the Wild Goose See It’ and was taken at an altitude of 1,200 feet.
The earliest days of aerial photography were challenging, given the amount of equipment needed for taking a photography. Advances in photography over the years have made cameras smaller and lighter. Other platforms than air balloons emerged as viable options for taking aerial imagery.
The claim of who captured the first aerial imagery is under some debate. In 1885, British meteorologist Douglas Archibald filed a permit for a kite balloon and first discussed the use of aerial imagery captured by kite for miltary purposes in his French language leaflet, Les Cerfs-Volants militaires published in 1888 in which he claimed to have taken his first aerial image by kite earlier in July of that year. French photographer, Arthur Batut captured aerial imagery of Labruguière,France in 1888. In his 1897 book entitled “The Story of the Earth’s Atmosphere“, Archibald described his experience and proclaimed himself as the first kite photographer, stating (pg. 174):
Kites were also employed, first by the author in 1887, to photograph objects below by means of a camera attached to the kite wire, the shutter being released by explosion. Since that time kite photography has leapt into popularity, and has been successfully practiced by M. Batut in France, Capt. Baden Powell in England, and Eddy in New Jersey.
In that same volume, Archibald continued his discussion of the use of aerial photography via kites as a military surveillance and planning tool, declaring:
…kites are able to do as much as free balloons up to about three miles. They are also cheaper and more portable than captive balloons, and possess far greater elevating power, especially in windy weather, when such balloons are nearly useless.
Bert Maetens on his blog, dissects the claims of Archibald and Batut in an effort to answer the question of who first captured the first aerial image via kite. In 1890, Batut published the first book on kite photography, entitled, “La photographie aérienne par cerf-volant.”
In 1907, a German by the name of Julius Neubronner, outfitted a pigeon to take the first avian aerial photography.
Grassroots Aerial Imagery and Mapping
Aerial imagery has evolved into a more complex and sophisticated enterprise with most aerial imagery today being captured by aircraft and Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS).
Justin Lee and Oliver Yeh, two MIT students made the news in 2009 when, for $150, they launched a balloon into near-space to take pictures of the earth. Named Project Icarus, the project was created to prove that inexpensive materials could be used to reach the upper levels of the atmosphere. The experiment used a cheap digital camera, a GPS enabled cell phone, a polystyrene coolbox to house the camera and phone, and a weather ballon. The phone was programmed to capure an image every five seconds and the phone was used to capture the coordinates. The peak altitude was estimated to have reached 93,000 feet above the earth’s surface, taking four hours to ascend (the GPS signal on the phone was lost at a little of 19,000 feet). The experiment was documented on Lee and Yeh’s site and includes photograph from the flight.
Citibank’s commercial for one of its credit cards released late last year echoed the exploits of Lee and Yeh’s near-space photography with a depiction showing a group of three friends using the bank’s rewards program to buy the materials needed to launch a GPS-tracked, balloon mounted aerial video project. A nineteen year-old from England, Adam Cudworth, recently reenacted Lee and Yeh’s experiment which was profiled on the British news site, Mail Online (via AllPointsBlog).
The first grassroot effort to promote aerial mapping was profiled by Good Magazine in March of 2001 the article Grassroots Mapping: How You Can Create Aerial Cartography for Under $100, and Use It to Do Good (also check out Good’s Grassroot Mapping Slideshow). Grassroots Mapping was created by Jeffrey Warren of MIT’s Media Lab as a way to provide local communities with low-cost ways to obtain their own aerial imagery. The technique has been used in a land-rights dispute in Lima, Peru and was used to map the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.
Using balloons and kites, images are captured with digital cameras. The individual shots are then stitched together and orthorectified using MapKnitter, a free online tool. A list of the basic materials needed to launch your own balloon aerial mapping is available on the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science site. An illustrated guide (PDF) is also available in English, Georgian, and Hebrew.
In April of 2012, Google’s Lat Long Blog announced the availability of balloon and kite imagery in Google Earth.
The Sunlight Foundation, which previously was involved in drafting petitions to prevent the shuttering of government sites such as Data.gov, recently awarded Liz Barry and her team from The Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science one of its OpenGov Champions award for grassroots aerial mapping of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.