Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Building an Actobotics Kite Aerial Photography Suspension Rig

The Kite Aerial Photography community is one of those groups where the members are sort of eclectic, and get tons of enjoyment from capturing unique aerial imagery by hanging a camera from a kite.  Anyone who has tried KAP gets not only the satisfaction of flying kites, but the reward of seeing a bird's eye view in the images.  I was hooked from the first session, and have been flying cameras on a string ever since. You've decided that you want to be part of "that" group, and want more information on ways to get started.  As a KAP nerd, I think I speak for the entire group by saying, "Welcome!"


People have been using Kites to capture aerial photography for over a hundred years.  George R. Lawrence made a name for himself using a series of kites to lift a 50 pound camera in 1906 to document post-earth quake San Francisco.  Most modern day kite photographers use a suspension rig which was designed by Pierre Picavet way back in 1912. What has changed is the quality of the cameras, the design of the rigs, and even instant gratification in seeing the images through wireless networks.  I will focus on the actual rig that holds the camera in this thread, and show how you can create your own.  

I'd also like to suggest that you check out the Kite Aerial Photography forum.  There are hundreds of photographers that discuss everything KAP, and should be your primary resource when you start your journey towards kite photography.  Before you even think about launching a KAP rig, please keep in mind that hanging a camera from a kite string can be dangerous.  If the kite fails or the camera falls from the rig, you could potentially cause serious damage to your camera, and injury or death to anything underneath.  I would recommend that you never fly your rig over the top of people, and ensure that there is a safe zone in case of failure.  

What sort of Kite do I need?

I have 4 kites that I use in my KAP quiver.  3 of them are soft kites called FlowForms that do not have any struts or a rigid frame.  Unfortunately, they do not make the original Flowforms anymore, but there are similar alternatives.  The nice thing about these kites is that they are very stable in the sky, which is critical for capturing great imagery.  The less the kite moves around, the less the camera will move around as well. Many fly a Delta kite, which comes in many sizes.  Hopefully it's obvious, the more wind the smaller the kite you need and vice versa.  

What kind of camera do I need?

I once told a worrisome friend of mine when he watched me hang a camera over the water from a kite, "There is always risk in being awesome."  Just understand that with the risk of launching a camera hundreds of feet in the air, there is a chance that you may lose or break it.  So, don't send your shiny new dSLR camera up when you don't know what you're doing.   There are plenty of low cost solutions that will get you amazing results while you learn the ropes.  That being said, you need a camera that has the capability to take pictures automatically.  This is called an intervelometer.  Some cameras have it built in, some use external triggers, and some can be hacked with custom firmware to accomplish this.  I'm not going to go into a lot of detail on what camera to use.  For this thread, I'm using a GoPro HD Hero 3, which has a built in intervelometer.  It's light, wide angle, and easy to use.  My first camera used in KAP back in 2009 was a Canon SD900 running the CHDK hack.  Since then, I have used 7 different cameras.  There are many options.

Do I need to build my own suspension rig?

Not really.   You can buy Kite Aerial Photography rigs that are ready to go.  I suggest browsing the options at www.brooxes.com.  I think that one of the most enjoyable parts of the hobby is building your own rig. I've created many different rigs from static to full remote control.  At this point, I fly 95% of the time with an Auto-KAP rig.  It's simple, and I still get the shots I'm looking for.  Auto-KAP basically takes and rotates the camera while it's in the air.  You can also add tilt to the mix.  Since Kite Aerial Photography is many times a solo activity, I find that Auto-KAP is the simplest way to get the most out of your session.


For this article, I've built a panning rig using Actobotics parts from ServoCity.com.  I've used a channel mount servo gearbox and hub gear reduction to slow down the rotation, so that the camera has time to take pictures for a number of seconds before rotating to the next stop.   I've also added the AuRiCo, Automatic Rig Controller, which operates the continuous rotation panning servo.  I've set it up to rotate a small amount, and then wait a few seconds before moving again. This really works great on a rig that has Pan and Tilt.  

The picavet suspension, which helps keep the camera level to the horizon, uses aluminum beams with eye hooks on the end.  Normally, I use PeKaBe ball-bearing blocks, which are smaller precision pulleys that really give the smoothest possible picavet.  However, in order to keep the cost of the rig down, eye hooks work just fine.  

Here is the rig without the aluminum beams, and a compact picavet package from Brooxes.com.

With the rig ready, now you're set to go and fly your kite.  The camera suspension rig is not attached directly to the kite.  It's attached to the kite line about 100 feet below the kite itself.  This helps with stability.  The Actobotics rig above rotates 360 once every 8 minutes or so.

Unlike Ellen's selfie, this one isn't going to set any Twitter record.  However, one of the outcomes of using auto-KAP is the aerial self portrait.  The Actobotics rig worked well, and I was able to keep the kite aloft for about 45 minutes.  

The result is an aerial view of my current home town, Paddock Lake, Wisconsin.  My house is even in the shot as an added bonus.  No leaves on the trees yet, as spring finally arrived a few weeks ago.  

The internet has a wealth of information on Kite Aerial Photography, so do your research before making any design decisions.  I find it very enjoyable to build your own rig and play with different configurations.  Having a simple, auto-rotating platform for your camera will make Kite Aerial Photography easier and more enjoyable.  Fly safe!


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