Kite Aerial Photography
Inspired by an article
in MAKE Magazine, I wanted to give Kite Aerial Photography
(KAP) a try. I originally wanted to start simple with the basic,
stationery rig described in the article but using a modified
CVS disposable digital camera so I could take photos at a
timed interval and not have to bother with film processing. I
wasn't having any luck hacking the camera and then I saw a video
showing a remote controlled rig built using a VEX Robotics
Kit. I found one on clearance at the local Radio Shack.
The most commonly recommended kites for KAP cost $100 or more
(the most popular is $200), but for my first try I bought a cheaper,
smaller kite for $40 and a plastic spool of kite string. The
winds at the Jersey shore are strong enough that I didn't need
a huge kite.
managed to build the rig entirely from parts included in the kit
except for two small brackets I bought to hold the sides to the
top. I tried to use the lighter pieces from the kit to keep the
weight down. I also used multiple gears to give me finer control
over the turning. For the picavet
suspension that hung the rig from the kite line, I still used
the wooden design described in the original article.
The First Try
On August 14th, my wife Christine and I took my camera rig and
kite down to Cape
May Point State Park in Cape May, NJ. It has a decent sized
beach, good winds, and isn't too crowded. There's also plenty
to photograph: the
lighthouse, the shore, the
WWII bunker and the nature preserve.
I brought along the entire kit of parts and various tools in
case I needed to make any last minute adjustments or repairs.
We flew the kite up about fifty feet before attaching the wooden
picavet suspension. I first tested the suspension using a small
bag of sand that was probably a little heavier than the metal
rig. It bowed a little but held up and the kite was able to lift
it, so I hooked up the actual rig and attached the camera to the
rig using plastic pull-ties.
The rig went up in the air. Christine operated the remote while
I held the spool. She was having a hard time telling where the
camera was pointing, but she was able to take a few neat photos:
As I was letting the kite up higher, one of the handles on the
spool popped out and the spool was pulled from my hands. I chased
it across the beach and grabbed it before it got away. However,
the lack of tension on the string caused the kite and rig to descend
and the rig had hit the ground. When I grabbed the spool again,
the kite ascended and rig went back up, but it was tangled into
the line and some of the metal had bent. It was too messed up
to take any more photos. I popped the handle back into the spool
and as we began to pull the kite and rig back down, the wooden
suspension broke. Luckily, a small part of the rig was still tangled
in the line so it did not come crashing down to the ground. We
quickly pulled in enough line that I could untangle the rig from
the line and put it down.
Unfortunately after I detached and put down the rig, the spool
broke again and slipped out of Christine's hands. I tried to chase
it, but it had already gone over the dunes and inland where there's
a large lake, swamp and forest. The kite went across the lake
and into the swamp before the line got caught on something. The
kite itself was up several hundred feet in the air and the wind
was strong enough that it wasn't coming down any time soon.
At this point I gave up on the kite and we took our stuff back
to the car. I was ready to give up on kite photography completely,
but Christine drove us around the local roads to see if we could
get closer to the kite. We found a nature trail and walked it
as it twisted and turned through the swamp. We got closer to the
kite and eventually spotted the spool and line stuck up in a tree
near the trail. I found a long branch and was able to snag the
line. I pulled the line down enough that Christine was able to
take a smaller branch and twist it into the line and began reeling
the line around it. With the tension off the spool, I was able
to knock it out of the tree, but after all the trouble it gave
us, we decided to keep using the branch to reel in the line.
took turns as our hands got tired and it felt like the line could
break at any moment, but eventually we were able to pull the kite
safely to the ground. It was quite a feeling of relief and I decided
to not give up on KAP.
The kite-saving experience felt like the ending of the movie
there was enough coincidences to save the day and almost make
you believe in a higher power (or Mel Gibson):
Due to other circumstances, it will be a few weeks before we can
get back to the beach. In the meantime, I'll repair and improve
the rig before we try again:
Hopefully next time we'll get a lot more great photos.
When I bought the VEX Robotics Kit, I also picked up the separate
programming kit that lets you write small programs and download
them to the kit controller. I could write a program that would operate
the camera rig without the remote control. It could turn every 10°
and take a photo, lower the camera angle a little, repeat the sequence,
If I really get into Kite Aerial Photography and don't mind investing
some more money into it, there's even more possibilities:
I used my small 3 megapixel Canon SD110 camera with the rig. There
are newer, higher resolution compact cameras available for less
than I originally paid for the SD110. If I didn't mind messing with
the camera, I could also wire the shutter and zoom buttons directly
to the controller. One camera I looked at, the Pentax Optio S6 even
has builtin wireless networking. It can be operated remotely from
a laptop and can even download photos on the fly. I wonder if its
range and battery life are good enough for KAP?
Even if I attach some sort of directional indicator to the rig,
it'll still be hard to tell exactly what the camera is looking at.
Some advanced KAP rigs have small wireless "spy" video
cameras to them. I could see what the rig was pointing at using
a cheap portable TV.