Kaitlyn Reda, a student at Western Carolina University, wrote this blog post. It is geared towards audiences newer to balloon mapping. What is Balloon Mapping? Balloon mapping is a do-it-yourself concept that allows anyone to take aerial pictures of any given location. It is similar to Google Earth, but the methods are much more accessible and, more importantly, the pictures are of a much higher quality. This is due to the lower altitude of the pictures relative to the ground. This method can be used for means of observing vegetation, erosion, and determining distribution of population of an area.
Why is the Balloon Mapping of WCU Important? Western Carolina University has undergone a multitude of changes, even as recently as the past school year. For economic and educational reasons, it is important that WCU is represented accurately and in the best light. This is done through media, such as the school website or ads on billboards. One very important aspect has been overlooked: outdated visual images of campus. When considering which college I wanted to attend, I was just as interested in the aesthetic nature of the school as well as the academic nature. I even used Google Earth, a program that pieces together satellite images so that any location can be observed. With this tool, I was able to observe the areas surrounding the campus, as well and the size and appearance. If you search Cullowhee, NC using Google Earth, WCU is almost indistinguishable. The pictures are extremely out dated, and many locations where there are currently buildings are covered with vegetation and trees. Unfortunately, many prospective students do not realize this, and they look at these outdated pictures and potentially lose interest- I know I did. Once I finally came to an open house at WCU, I fell back in love with the school. Balloon mapping helps you visualize places for what they truly are, and the process of mapping and the finished product can give you a new perspective on the same places you see every day.
What do you do with the images? The purpose of taking the pictures is to create a composite of all of the images to create a large picture. First, you must sort through the pictures to find which ones work best. Lower altitude shots are a better option compared to higher altitudes. This is because more pictures can be used to create the image, and not as much overlapping will happen. Also, choose pictures where you cannot see the sides of buildings, this means that the shot was taken directly over head; these pictures may be difficult to obtain on particularly windy days. Less overlapping means more precise placement and less directional error. There are two programs that will help you create a mosaic. The first tool is a website called Map Knitter. This program creates a print screen from Google Earth of whatever geographical location you took pictures of while mapping. You can then upload pictures, one at a time, and rotate, warp, and distort the image until it is a perfect match to the proportions on the Google Earth image. Unfortunately, there are a few downsides to this program. I, personally, am not entirely comfortable using a program that relies on the Internet. I am not technologically savvy, so any time something takes too long to load or freezes, I become antsy. Also, the individual pictures can only be adjusted from the corners, which limits the precision that can be obtained. On the other hand, this program is simple and straight forward, and should accommodate the needs of the every day balloon mapper. The other tool that can be used is a photo shop program. This program allows for a more precise image because it can be modified from multiple locations- not just the four corners. An inconvenience of this program is that it costs money. If you are a serious and avid balloon mapper, this is a worthy investment. Also, the program does not provide you with a print screen, so you have to manually create one from Google Earth. This program also allows you to color match all of the images so that the final image looks like a single picture, not a mosaic of multiple smaller ones. Map Knitter does not have this feature, so the final image looks like it is made up of multiple smaller images.
How do you do it? Balloon mapping is surprisingly simple, especially considering the high quality of the products. Balloon mapping requires a large balloon that is filled with the correct amount of helium. If there is too much helium, the balloon will be very difficult to control. If there is too little helium, the balloon will not be able to reach a decent altitude. A kite string is attached to the bottom of the balloon, with the other end attached to a spool so the string can be collected or released at the discretion of the mapper. A camera with a protective cover (made of a 2 liter soda bottle) is attached a few feet from the base of the balloon. The shutter of the camera must be taped down, so that the picture taking is occurring at a continuous rate. It is important to be aware of your surroundings when balloon mapping. Trees, power-lines, and tall buildings all pose difficult problems with hilarious solutions. It seems as though every time I go balloon mapping, I am running around with a kite spool trying to get the balloon out of a tree, or I am trying to pelt the spool up a hill and over a power line. For this very reason, it is an easier process when a group goes mapping. Once you are done mapping, make sure that you have a location to store the equipment as well as a way to transport it. For anyone who is interested in mapping, here is a word of wisdom; do NOT sit with the inflated balloon in the back seat of a pick up truck. It will either pop, or give you multiple bruises. I found that skipping through campus with the balloon was not only a great form of exercise, but a great was to start conversation and make friends.