GSA Annual Meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana, USA - 2018

Paper No. 173-2
Presentation Time: 9:00 AM-6:30 PM


PANNER, Matthew1, SHEEHAN, Nathaniel1, KIMBALL, Mindy A.1 and CARTER, Abigail2, (1)Geography & Environmental Engineering, US Military Academy, 745 Brewerton Road, West Point, NY 10996, (2)History, Seattle University, Seattle, WA 98122

What options do you have when you want the revolutionary benefits of imagery from Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) but you cannot fly them in your target location? All is not lost. This project explores methodological considerations, benefits, and drawbacks of an alternative to conventional UAVs called Balloon Mapping. In 2010 after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a group of citizen scientists and do-it-yourself (DIY) enthusiasts created a way to get high resolution imagery without violating the restrictions on air traffic and access to public lands. That effort evolved into what is now called Public Lab Balloon Mapping, an open-source low-cost way to gather and share imagery that uses digital cameras on balloons or kites.

Our project does not allow UAVs for a number of reasons, to include air space restrictions, regulations at our own institution, and prohibitive equipment costs. We used a DIY kit from Public Lab and attempted to gain UAV-like benefits to augment our geophysics investigation of a Revolutionary War fortification at West Point, New York. The main goal of the project was to investigate buried structures at these fortifications in advance of future restoration, but we immediately identified the need for high resolution imagery as a means of better communicating our results to stakeholders. Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) surveys revealed human-made structures in the subsurface, and the results of the surveys are “depth slices” that are georeferenced and layered on surface photos. The scale of our investigations range from 5 meters to 100 meters, and the existing publicly available imagery is at an optical resolution that actually distracts from visualizing our results. We successfully collected high resolution imagery using the DIY Balloon Mapping technique, and gathered useful insights for future applications. The primary take-aways involved logistics and equipment factors, training of the balloon handlers, and having the end-user of the imagery on-site during data collection. We are excited about future applications for Balloon Mapping, and urge other researchers to give it a try. The benefits of balloons (or kites) just may be the revolutionary old method that gets your project off the ground!