Desert Research Station Report
CLUI Outpost in the Mojave Desert

2833 Range Trumpet, constructed by Deborah Stratman and Steve Badgett, is a set of binaural listening horns modeled after pre-radar acoustic surveillance technologies typically used to monitor the sound of incoming enemy aircraft. They operate like binoculars that provide an amplified stereoscopic image of distant objects. The horn assembly pivots and can be raised and lowered, enabling observers to follow moving objects in the sky or on the ground. Range Trumpet is part of the growing collection of sound/space projects on display on the grounds of the DRS. CLUI photo

THE CENTER'S DESERT Research Station (DRS) near Barstow, California has continued to support programming activities for the CLUI in the Mojave region. Several individual researchers have used the site for short stays while working on projects in and about the region, including Moritz Fehr, an environmental sound composer from Germany, and Chris Csikszentmihalyi, a media artist and professor at Art Center College of Design, who worked on aerial photography platforms.  

Over the last year, the Center has been meeting with engineers and hobbyists to learn about and test different methods for getting high-resolution photographs from a slightly elevated point of view, in the range between 20 and 400 feet, at elevations generally lower than small aircraft can fly.
Some of these demonstrations and tests have been conducted at and around the DRS, and involved people who shared their technology and experience with inexpensive solutions to aerial photography. Participants included Matthew Lippincott, who has worked on balloon and kite mapping projects with the Public Laboratory, and Cris Benton, a master kite photographer from Berkeley.

Technologies tested include tiny micro-cams, GoPros, and higher-resolution still cameras, mounted on a variety of platforms, such as rockets, small remote controlled helicopters, aircraft, and blimps, in addition to larger helium balloons, hot air balloons, and kites. Photographs were taken from different retractable camera poles extending as much as 30 feet. Research was even performed on different types of throwable cameras, such as cameras embedded inside foam balls.

Several tests were conducted at outdoor photo calibration targets, left from an earlier era of aerial photography research, now unused on public land around Cuddeback Lake, northwest of the DRS.  

After a year of research, a number of conclusions were reached, some obvious, others not. For images up to 25 feet above the surface, nothing beats a decent camera mounted on a pole, such as the fiberglass telescoping Wonderpole from the American Flag and Banner Company, which extends to 22 feet reasonably safely with a full-size four-pound digital SLR on it.

To get higher, kites work well when it’s windy, and with practice you can get them up pretty quickly, and then connect a camera platform to the kite string, and let it up some more. The critical piece of hardware is the picavet cross that attaches at two points on the kite string, and which is stringed in a certain way so that the camera platform stays level, regardless of the angle of the kite string. When it’s not windy, then a helium balloon works well. Small weather balloons, with a four-foot diameter, have enough lift for a small digital camera, and can be purchased easily. You can simply dangle a camera from one if you are shooting straight down, using rubber bands to hold it in place, and an intervalometer to trigger the shutter. For angled shots, lightweight adjustable camera rigs can be obtained from sources such as for use on balloons or kites.

The problem with balloons is the helium, and lack thereof. A large helium tank weighs around 80 pounds, and can fill a balloon only six or so times. And there is currently a helium shortage, so prices are going up, and some helium suppliers are refusing to sell it to anybody but medical and industrial customers. For these reasons and more, balloons are less than ideal for regular use in the non-windy situation when a kite is not possible. The ideal replacement could come from the booming world of remote-controlled aircraft, especially multi-blade helicopters, which are more stable, such as six-bladed hexacopters.

Meetings and demonstrations were held with owners and operators of remote control hexacopter camera platforms, used in commercial photography and film productions, as well as serious RC aircraft developers, like the members of the DIY Drone online community, led by Wired magazine’s Chris Anderson. Though innovative, these devices are usually complex to maintain and fly. The most compelling mechanical solution, as suggested by DIY Drone member David Long, is a simplified hexacoptor, that flies only up and down, staying fixed automatically above the launch point by GPS, serving as an elevator to get a camera straight up, with minimal skill and fuss. This contraption is in development, and will be field-tested at the DRS.

2876 Los Angeles-based artist and CLUI Wendover Residence Program participant LeRoy Stevens installed a large subsurface metal sculpture at the DRS. “Viewers” of the work use a variable-pitch metal detector to “see” the piece. CLUI photo

2834 View of the DRS taken from a camera suspended from a weather balloon. CLUI photo

Images from the Low Altitude Aerial Expo 2012

Cris Benton’s kite: the tail helps to stabilize the kite.
Cris Benton explaining his Picavet Cross camera suspension system.
Cris Benton’s full frame digital SLR kite rig.
Mathew Lippincott shows his kite cam rig.
Ben Loescher with a fully extended Wonderpole.
Sohrab Mohebbi, Helki Frantzen, and Jen Hofer experiment with a throwable camera.
Mathew Lippincott's warm air balloon heats up ambient air due to dark plastic and iron oxide dusting on outside.
Aurora Tang with the tried and true helium weather balloons.
Different off-the-rack helium blimp camera platforms were tried, with boosters to augment their lifting capacity.
Eric Potter at a crash site of a small RC helicopter test.
Aaron Kraft of AirKraft Productions preparing his hexacopter for CLUI demo flight.
Oliver Hess and Kate Moxham performing rocket cam tests.