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Balloon mapping helps WCU students and staff gain new perspectives

It’s a sunny afternoon in Cullowhee, and a team from WCU stands in a field looking up at the sky. The wind is relatively calm, which is good. It needs to be. One team member stands and attaches a digital camera to a string holding the 6-foot helium balloon near the ground. A member of the team interrupts the rhythmic clicking sound of the camera’s continuous shutter by saying, “Let it rip.” The sound fades back to the stillness of the afternoon as balloon and camera sail off into the blue expanse. For a few moments, the balloon pulls out the string at breakneck speed, rattling the orange reel in the hands of one team member. Then it stops. Looking up, it seems that the string has disappeared into the blue of the sky and the balloon floats effortlessly about 1,000 feet above the ground. The team members watch closely as the balloon sways with winds they can’t feel. They look around for obstacles – power lines, trees, anything that would snag the line and send their mission to a sure failure. The team reels in the line, cautiously, and the anticipation is tangible in the warm sunlight. They are anxious to see what birds see, and to use that information to create accurate, realistic maps.

WCU student Alicia Fowler looks on as Ryan Nelsen tapes down the shutter button on a digital camera as part of final preparations for a balloon-mapping flight in Hilton Head, S.C. Nelsen has been working with Adam Griffith of WCU’s Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines to create a high-resolution map of the WCU campus using balloon-mapping technology.

WCU student Alicia Fowler looks on as Ryan Nelsen tapes down the shutter button on a digital camera as part of final preparations for a balloon-mapping flight in Hilton Head, S.C. Nelsen has been working with Adam Griffith of WCU’s Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines to create a high-resolution map of the WCU campus using balloon-mapping technology. (Photo courtesy Adam Griffith)

For the casual observer, this seems like a scene from a sci-fi fantasy: a team of scientists goes into the field and sends observation equipment up into the sky. For Adam Griffith, a WCU alumnus and research scientist for the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, this is more. Griffith, who uses the images his team collects to map different locations around the United States, sees this as a chance to contribute to an immense body of knowledge.

Griffith started using balloons in Louisiana as part of a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration-funded study to monitor the impacts of the British Petroleum-Deepwater Horizon oil spill in spring 2010, the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history. PSDS routinely makes this kind of imagery available to the media and general public available through its website. Massachusetts Institute of Technology student Jeffrey Warren approached Griffith with the idea of using balloons to snap the photographs, said Griffith, who agreed to the project. Though neither Warren nor Griffith had ever used balloons to create maps, the idea seemed relatively simple, and moreover it was extremely cost effective – much more so than hiring a plane to snap aerial photos. “Balloon and kite-mapped images are much cheaper than any other methods – usually around $100 to $200 (for the kit),” said Griffith. “Satellite imagery is extremely expensive and unavailable for small areas.”

Griffith brought the low-tech process back to WCU and began working with undergraduates (oftentimes Honors College students) to map the WCU campus. The technique also is being used to map the impacts of rising sea level in Beaufort County, S.C., as part of a large NOAA grant made to the PSDS. This work will be presented at this year’s European Geosciences Union meeting in Vienna, Austria.

In concept, balloon mapping is simple. By attaching a digital camera to a tethered balloon, one can stitch together aerial photographs to create a high-resolution map. However, balloon mapping often is more challenging than it sounds. “The system that we use is good. But every once in a while, I will overlook something and the flight will go wrong,” said Ryan Nelsen, a junior at WCU studying emergency medical care and also a research assistant for Griffith. “Sometimes the weather doesn’t cooperate, and there are also equipment malfunctions,” Nelsen says. WCU junior Kaitlyn Reda agrees that the weather can be frustrating. “It will be sunny and nice one minute and then overcast and windy then next. Conditions have to be just right,” said Reda who worked with Griffith and Nelsen on a project in fall 2011. Operators must be aware of power lines, trees and other obstacles, or the balloon will get tangled and the flight will go awry, she said.

Rachel Phipps, a junior at WCU studying recreational therapy, worked with Griffith to create a high-resolution map of campus in fall 2010. “The most challenging part was stitching the photographs together,” said Phipps. “It’s not as easy as just picking out the good photos and putting them together. It has be a straight down shot, the exposure has be good and it can’t be overexposed, and then you have to scale the photos down to fit together. Oftentimes we had to sort through 2,000 photos,” Phipps said, adding that for every one hour mapping session she spent around four to five hours stitching the photos together in Adobe Photoshop. Still, says Phipps, “It was a great learning experience.”

Ryan Nelsen (left) watches as a 6-foot helium balloon guided by Adam Griffith (center) and Alicia Fowler (right) soars into the air. Griffith has been working with WCU students for more than a year to map the WCU campus and surrounding areas.

Ryan Nelsen (left) watches as a 6-foot helium balloon guided by Adam Griffith (center) and Alicia Fowler (right) soars into the air. Griffith has been working with WCU students for more than a year to map the WCU campus and surrounding areas. (Photo courtesy Adam Griffith)

When compared with other methods of cartography, balloon mapping comes out on top every time, even with difficulties, Griffith said. Balloon/kite images are of much higher resolution – up to 10 or 15 times better resolution compared with Google imagery, he said. “Balloon images also are more current. Google Earth images are often more than 2 years old. And your images are yours to use without restriction,” Griffith said. To Griffith, open-sourcing (allowing everyone equal rights to use and share) the images and maps seemed as important as any other step of the process.

Griffith’s success working with students at WCU coincided with the opportunity to help found a nonprofit organization. In fall 2010, Griffith, Warren and five others from around the nation founded Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science, or PLOTS. PLOTS received a half-million-dollar grant from the James S. and John L. Knight Foundation to continue its work. PLOTS’ mission is to develop and apply open-source tools to environmental exploration and investigation.

Today, much of the work that Nelsen, Phipps and Reda developed with Griffith at WCU has been published on the PLOTS site (http://publiclaboratory.org/map/western-carolina-university-cullowhee-north-carolina/2010-10-01), and the maps that they have created using balloon-mapping technology are scheduled to become part of Google Maps in the coming weeks. Griffith hopes to use the research here at WCU to continue to contribute to the scientific community. “Eventually,” says Griffith, “I’d like to make an open-sourced 3D map of the area.”

Griffith also is using the technology to assist other departments at WCU. Recently, Griffith, Reda and Nelsen contributed toward research by Blair Tormey, a faculty member in WCU’s Department of Geosciences and Natural Resources, and Paul Martin, a recent WCU graduate who specializes in human remains detection and trains cadaver dogs. Tormey and Martin are using ground-penetrating radar and cadaver dogs to map unmarked graves in a family cemetery in Tuckaseegee with the ultimate goal of using the methods to better locate ancient burials. They, along with students Reda and Nelsen, will present their research at the Geological Society of America’s Southeastern regional meeting in April.

For more information about balloon mapping, contact Griffith at 828-227-2728 or agriffith@wcu.edu.

By Briton Bennett

Bennett is a senior in the professional writing program who expects to graduate in May. He has interned in the WCU Office of Public Relations since fall 2011.

 

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