Friday, October 15, 2010

Imaging Earth from 120,000 feet: Four Years Later.

Just the other day I was wondering how some off the shelf technology had evolved over the past four years. My gold standard is when we flew one of the best and one of the cheapest (less than $500) camera with the largest optical zoom aboard a NASA helium balloon. Four years ago, that camera was the Canon S2 IS (it is the camera in this box). It had a 5MP sensor and a 12X optical zoom and could take a 4GB SD disk. We set out to have a rig that could fire the camera every twenty seconds for the next nine hours (out of twenty, some of these hours are at night!). A little Rube Goldberg'ish set up, but it worked flawlessly:

And we got these beautiful pictures from 120,000 feet. The resolution for this 12X optical zoom at 120,000 feet was pretty like the notch before last in Google Maps as shown in this entry (or about a 1 meter resolution).  Here is a presentation my undergrad students presented then:

The site for GEOCAM is here. The attendant blog is here. All the photos can be used for research purposes and featured some interesting elements (like a plane in this shot)

What do we have for the same price four years later ? The Canon SX30IS : a 14.1MP Digital Camera with a  35x wide optical zoom. So about four years later, we can have a camera that is 3 times better in both resolution and zoom. Wow! If we could extrapolate, this camera could provide about 1 foot resolution (30 cm) or probably enough to see a larger sign than this one or this one. In terms of memory, our limit was 8GB (we got a 4GB instead and 1600 photos) but nowadays, you can buy a 32 GB card for less than $100 ( the Transcend 32 GB goes for $65, while the Sandisk 32GB goes for $85) and a 64GB for less than $300 (the SanDisk 64GB goes for $299, the Kingston 64 GB goes for $218 ).4GB got us 1600 photos at 5 MP, so a  32GB SD disk could shoot about 4200 photos and a 64GB could shoot about 8400 photos. Imagine the type of pictures and maps you could get flying this thing at 120,000 feet up. If you are in the U.S. working with some undergrad students you could probably do this as the HASP folks are looking for payloads for the upcoming HASP/NASA balloon. The difference between this balloon and a home made one is that this one will probably fly for 20 hours covering more than 200 miles of terrain. This means that you could probably beat our world record.

From Greg Guzik
Please find attached here the Call for Payloads (CFP) for the September 2011 flight of the High Altitude Student Platform (HASP).  HASP can support up to 12 student payloads (providing power, telemetry and commanding) during a flight to an altitude of 124,000 feet for up to 20 hours.  Details about previous HASP flights and the student payloads flown can be found on the “Flight Information” page of the HASP website at    Details on the payload constraints and interface with HASP can be found on the “Participant Info” page of the HASP website at
Applications are due December 17, 2010 and selections will be announced by mid-January 2011.
If you have any questions about the application materials or HASP, feel free to contact us at
We will also be conducting a Q&A Teleconference about HASP and the application process on Friday, November 12, 2010 at 10:00 am (central time).  Groups who have previously flown on HASP as well as new organizations should plan on attending this teleconference.  To participate, dial in to 1-866-717-2684 a few minutes prior to the conference time.  When requested enter the conference ID number 6879021 followed by the # key.
Also please forward this e-mail to any others that you fee might be interested in applying.
Greg Guzik
Ps: Please note that we are still intending to fly HASP 2010 payloads during May 2011.

The main reason the photographs taken during our flight are unique revolves around the fact that the data is free for anybody to use and because satellite imagery uses push broom technology as opposed to full square CCDs. The big difference between these types of shots and those taken from low flying drones and planes is the ability to image a larger swath of land (the balloons at an altitude three times higher than the altitude flown by long range commercial aircrafts) and a low cost camera that does not require GPS or compass ( In When You Become the Map I made the case that if you stitch enough photos together then you don't need to be integrated to Google Earth/Maps, you have just produced a new map yourself) making it a potential tool for rapid imaging by the citizenry in case of disaster. We showed that the making of maps could be done very simply by feeding all our stock photos directly to Autopano Pro (that still costs about $100). We actually pushed the envelope of that software (and talked at length with their dev people) then but I think looking at what it can do nowadays, it could handle 8000 x 14 MP photos.

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