Kite Aerial Photography

(on the cheap)

One of the things that's been done with kites for over a hundred years is to lift cameras.  Of course, when a camera used wet glass plates and "small format" was four inches by five, the camera, rig, and timer might weigh ten pounds or more, and photographers quickly found that shutter speeds measured in multiple seconds were impractical for a rig that would almost certainly have some motion due to the wind.  The kites of the day were none too stable, which didn't help, though the Hargrave, Conyne, and Cody were good lifters and more stable than many prior to 1900.  Once dry emulsions, roll film, and simple cameras became popular, kite aerial photography, or KAP, started to really take off -- by 1930 there were cameras available that weighed only a few ounces, though they were hideously expensive to hang from a contraption of sticks, string, and muslin.  Even so, it was these cameras that led to the invention of the Picavet suspension and the first really practical KAP rigs.

Things are much easier for the KAP enthusiast now; small, light cameras and timers are cheap, and with a little scrounging, it's possible to build a KAP rig for a cost comparable to the first roll of film and its processing.  That's where I'm planning to start.

7 June, 2002

A quick prowl through two local thrift stores (second hand stores stocked with donated items, often contributing profits to a charity, in case they're called something else where you are) yielded two physically identical, but differently colored and marked "toy" 35 mm cameras.  These are fixed focus, no flash, no exposure control (shutter speed looks like either 1/30 or 1/60 second), designed for 100 speed film in daylight and absolute minimum cost; many such are given away as premiums with a purchase, subscription, or similar.  This pair cost me a total of $3, and they have a couple important features for my KAP plans.  First, they're very light; I haven't got a suitable scale, but they probably don't weigh as much as three ounces each, exclusive of film.  Second (and I verified this in the store before plunking down my hard earned bills), if the shutter release is held and the camera wound, they will take a picture each time a frame is fully advanced.  This is an important point, because I have another similar camera (except with flash) that will wind and release continuously, but without the shutter actually opening.  I've heard reports that (some) disposable cameras will shoot each time they're fully wound, but there's no way to open the camera and verify the shutter operation without exposing the preloaded film.  With these cameras, I know for sure that they'll work because I can see them working when I test them.

For those who want to search for similar cameras, these two appear to have come from the same molds, but have different color plastic and different brand names; one is yellow and marked Lifelong® while the other is silver and has DS-Max and HC 2000 Focus Free.  Both have black backs, lens covers that lock the shutter release, and two black non-slip grip panels on the front.  They aren't marked with lens information, but the lenses appear to be approximately 30 mm focal length and are probably either f/22 or f/32.  They also have small windows on the film door that allow reading the ISO information on the film cassette without opening the camera, and automatic resetting film counters.  The one I have that doesn't actually open the shutter when wound through is a Kalimar Spirit F (though I should emphasize that the Kalimar, and nearly every other 35 mm "toy" camera, would work on a single shot KAP rig, my goal is one that will shoot an entire roll of film on a single flight).

I don't have any pictures of these cameras yet, and haven't yet started construction of the rig, but what I hope to build is a fin stabilized pendulum rig with two anemometer drives; one drive will rotate the camera platform in a horizontal plane, so that the camera will take a panorama of pictures as it turns; the other will drive the film advance while the rig holds the shutter release; hopefully I'll be able to synchronize the two drives so that the images overlap and can be (after processing and scanning) electronically stitched together into a single panoramic image.  I also plan to add a delay trigger, probably based on either a mechanical timer or a Silly Putty delay mechanism, to start the film advance after allowing time for the kite to lift the camera to a suitable height.  As a backup, in case I can't get enough power from an anemometer to advance the film (35 mm has considerable drag in pulling the film from the cassette and across to the take up spool), I have several radio control servos that were part of an R/C rig that's no longer legal to use (because the transmitter and receiver don't meet modern frequency control requirements); these can be easily converted to simple gear drive motors and run from small rechargeable batteries.

As a long time builder of model airplanes and rockets, I have a basement full of balsa, plywood, plastic and wire scraps; these will be used to make up the rig itself.  I'll have to buy or build a kite, since I don't have any that can lift the weight of the rig (which I expect to be close to a pound, all told) except in high winds (which are bad for the steadiness needed for photography with a slow shutter).  Given use of scap materials, I may be able to build the rig without spending any actual cash.  Keep watching this page for developments.

12 June, 2002

I managed to complete the first installment of an important experiment today: learning whether any of the kites I already have are capable of lifting a camera.  The answer appears to be yes, at least given appropriate wind conditions.

I've so far been able to test my Pocket Parafoil in Beaufort 3 and Beaufort 4-5 conditions.  In the lower winds, it will lift at most half a pound (225 g), and at that the line angle below the load is so low that I'd have to have hundreds of feet of line out in order to raise an ultralight rig high enough to get proper "aerial" photography perspectives.  With the higher winds (when I was testing today, there were several kite surfers having a high old time, and the waves on Puget Sound were about 15% white capped), however, it's a whole new game; the line was singing with the combination of tension and vortex shedding in the wind, and the kite was pulling hard enough that I started to worry, while pulling in, about snapping the 30 lb line I usually fly it on.  In this wind condition, this little Pocket Parafoil, just 19" x 15" (48 cm x 38 cm), pulled hard enough to lift a full two pounds (900 g) of lead shot and still maintain a decent line angle below the load, around twenty degrees.  That would let me get a KAP rig 100 feet up with less than 500 feet of line -- which is enough to really require a winder of some kind for retreival (not enough room to walk the kite down anywhere I fly), but easily within reach.  I was also pleased to note that, although the kite danced quite a bit in this wind, very little of that movement was transferred to the bag holding the test weight; I doubt motion induced blur would be a big problem with a well made rig.

Unfortunately, I also found that, though much larger, my Conyne double delta doesn't handle higher winds well -- I've gotten the sail asymmetry that was causing it to dive to the right corrected, but at Beaufort 4 the keel spar starts to flex (even after changing to stiffer one).  I may have to just break down and change this kite to all fiberglass spars, but as it stands, it won't fly in enough wind to lift a decent load.

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