Robotic Blimp - Aerial Cam Platform - Idea? at

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Old February 4th, 2004, 10:55 PM   #1
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Robotic Blimp - Aerial Cam Platform - Idea?

Hello all. I've got an idea, and I'd like to hear some of your opinions on it. In short, it is a concept for a new low-cost aerial video platform. Forgive the long and detailed post, as I'm trying to include as many details about the idea as possible.

I am involved in a video project with someone who is really looking for some aerial shots, and a helicopter is out of the question due to budget. The shots need to be from 50 to 100 ft. above the ground ideally.

We discussed the potential of using a radio controlled helicopter suspending a camera. Problem is, the camera is somewhat heavy (even for a large R/C chopper), plus the glow fuel (special oil/fuel mixture used by R/C engines) sprays gunk all over everything - plus a minor failure of the chopper would almost certainly mean the loss of a $2000+ camera.

I considered also the "spyder cam" which runs a camera over a series of suspended wires and cables, but this requires substantial rigging and prep. Not exactly an "open the box and let it fly" solution.

Looks like the rental of a bucket truck or crane to suspend a cam and an operator is the only solution in this case. This of course is still an expensive option.

I am a software engineer by trade, and I dabble in amateur robotics every now and then. The other day, the light finally came on.

My Solution:
I have worked out on paper a theoretical machine, which when built, would solve this problem. I am considering a robotic, autonomous blimp - a thin skinned helium filled balloon, perhaps 6 to 8 ft. in diameter, which would suspend a camera platform. (In this case, a cam weighing up to 2.5 lbs, about that of a GL2 with battery and tape). This blimp would be controlled and navigated by its own onboard computer. The computer would position and stabilize the blimp wherever it is needed. The blimp would also carry pan/tilt/ (and possibly even zoom) control servos to adjust the camera. The unit would have an uplink which would be hooked up via a wireless transmitter to a laptop computer. An operator at the laptop would control the pan/tilt controls of the camera.

The unit would be navigated by an onboard GPS receiver which would position the blimp anywhere in space (altitude and specific ground relation coordinates). Because the unit would fly itself, there would be little or no "pilot training" involved. The system would fly itself as a response to simple specific instructions input through the laptop. Example: “Move 20 ft. at a bearing of 180 degrees, descend to 75 ft. Go.” and the unit would respond by flying to the new waypoints.

I figure the unit would maintain its position in a sustained wind of up to 5 mph, and should be able to carry enough power (between batteries and solar cells) to remain on station for up to 60 minutes continual.

How it would be packaged:
If I move forward on this project, it would obviously be in the direction of future resale of the product. If it fills my need, it will fill the need of other videographers.

The unit would come as a fully assembled and programmed kit. It would consist of the balloon material, flight computer and GPS unit, the payload (onboard computer and camera mounting, which would have a standard 1/4-20 camera mount screw, and so on), solar cells and battery holders, as well as software for control via. laptop computer, plus the uplink (which is a simple, small box which plugs into the USB port on any laptop computer, and gives line-of-sight control in excess of 500 ft. range).

I figure the selling price on the unit would be between $2000 and $2500 (not including laptop, as any laptop running Windows could be used). Buy the kit, add a laptop and any camcorder up to the maximum weight, and you now have a fully functioning aerial video platform.

Detailed Operation:
The producer would purchase the unit. They would also purchase a canister of compressed helium which is safe and readily (and cheaply) available from a local supplier. It would cost a max of $50 in helium to inflate the blimp for a day's operation. Inflate the balloon with helium, attach it to an anchor with a tether. Then mount the camera to the under-balloon bracket. Weights and ballast are then added to bring the balloon to neutral buoyancy. Turn on the laptop and plug in the USB transmitter. Open the program on the laptop, and allow the GPS to get a starting fix.

The laptop operator then specifies a “target” location in relation to the start location. For example, 300 ft. at a bearing of 45 degrees, and an altitude of 200 ft. above ground level. Click “Go” and cut the tether. The balloon / blimp would then fly itself (using a system of 3 electric fans) to the proper location and orientation. The operator would then adjust the pan/tilt of the camera using the laptop keyboard.

The unit would also feature a small wireless camera, which would film through the eyepiece of the camcorder and transmit the signal back to a portable hand-held TV at the controller’s station. This way, ground crew can see a live image of what the camera is filming.

This could also be expanded to allow the unit to fly a programmed path of waypoints to get moving shots. The unit would only move at 5 to 10 mph, but that’s better than nothing.

Finally, the unit would have an external “fail safe” circuit. If the unit ventures too far off course or has a power failure, a special emergency power supply dumps to the altitude control fan to force the unit towards the ground. So if a large breeze blows the unit off course faster than it can correct – it will goto fail safe and land without floating your camera into the next county.

Possible Uses:
-You need to shoot a car driving on an open country road as if from a helicopter, but budget doesn’t allow $5000 per hour for the chopper rental.
-Filming a local sports game (think little league) from 200 ft. above the field.
-Ariel video / flyover of a customer’s place of business
-Fly a camera over a lake to capture water sports
-Supports enough weight to carry a top quality 3-CCD camera like the GL2, perhaps a smaller version would also be available to carry cams up to 1.5 lbs like the Canon ZR series of single chip consumer cams.
-You get the idea

Advantages over other solutions:
-It costs a lot less than a real helicopter and aerial film crew.
-It is stable. Even a leak will not force the crash landing of a camera. Very little chance of crashing.
-It is a simple reusable solution. After the day’s use, just drain the helium from the balloon and fold it up. Use a fresh charge of helium the next time a flight is needed.
-It is nearly silent, so any audio recorded from the ground won’t have an obnoxious helicopter or other engine running in the background.
-You shouldn’t need a permit in most areas to use the system. Unpack and fly it anywhere, including urban areas.
-You could use a crane for the same purpose, but you’ll have a hard time suspending a bucket truck over a lake. ;-)

Is this idiot for real?
I’m afraid so. This technology has been used by hobbyist robot enthusiasts in “find the survivor after a disaster” type challenges since 1995. All the parts are available and proven and have been used to robotically control R/C airplanes, helicopters, and airships. I would just need to assemble them and write the software to make it happen.

This sounds pretty complicated in design, but in operation, it would be fairly simple (for the actual end-user who knows nothing about robotics).

So am I really nuts or am I on to something? If I could produce a unit that would actually function, and I could demonstrate that it would indeed function reliably – would video producers around the world begin buying it up?

I’d be happy to answer any other questions about this. Again, it’s just an idea at this point, not a sales pitch for an existing product. I’m just looking for some feedback as to whether or not this truly fills a need in the market. Maybe this already exists and I’ve never heard of it?

Anyway – feedback??

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Old February 5th, 2004, 07:45 AM   #2
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If you could build a platform that met these spec's for under $3K, you would have folks lining up at the door!!!

I'm guessing that your total weight would be WAY over 2-3 LBS when you add the control systems, pan/tilt, transmitters/recv's and an additional cam. That would mean that your envelope would need to be MUCH larger. A much larger area would get pushed around that much more by wind so you would need bigger motors and batteries, which add more weight and need and even LARGER lifting envelope.

The other problem I see here is that despite the improvements in GPS accuracy, building it as autonomous just complicates things. You'll have an operator, let them manage where they want the thing. I kind of doubt that you would always know the exact Lat/Long to tell a GPS to position the blimp.

All that said, it sounds like a great idea and if go forward with it, let me know, I'm up in flag and would be glad to help.
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Old February 5th, 2004, 08:44 AM   #3
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Kevin, I really like your ideas and you present yourself very intelligently. Therefore, it's easy to see this working.

I'm interested and would like to keep tabs on your progress. I would purchase something like this in the $1500-2000 range. After $2000 it gets a little pricey because we're all buying cameras in that range...generally, I and others don't like to pay this kind of money after forking out the investment in the camera.

You seem to have it right by doing 2 versions. Can i suggest 3 versions? One for casual users like you mentioned...someone like dad shooting his kinds football game with his for the mini-pro cams like a gl2...and one for semi-pro cameras like the the JVC HD10u (i own this cam).

I'd buy one for sure if it does everything you described!

Christopher C. Murphy
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Old February 5th, 2004, 09:15 AM   #4
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Cool idea, but I wonder if the balloon would be able to
maneuver well enough to actually get the shot you
'really' want.

What about something more along the lines of a STOL
(slow take off and landing) 'predator' type of model aircraft
along the lines of nasa solar powered plane?
Jacques Mersereau
University of Michigan-Video Studio Manager
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Old February 5th, 2004, 10:20 AM   #5
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Hope this doesn't hurt too much, Kevin, but its been done before. Contact a professional camera operator and jib owner, Hank Geving at 310-798-4247. Hank is a great guy and I am sure will be happy to share his experiences with his "blimp cam" with you.

You can mention my name for a referal.

Wayne Orr
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Old February 5th, 2004, 10:39 AM   #6
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Hank has an imdb listing - just thought I would mention it:
Christopher C. Murphy
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Old February 5th, 2004, 11:26 AM   #7
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A casual Google turns up a few versions of this idea, although none are likely as cheap as you suggest, Kevin.

If I may, rather than use a "tap" camera that rephotographs the camera's viewfinder and transmits it, why not just use a transmitter that uses the camera's output? Widely available in many flavors, including microwave bands.

Christopher, your thoughts on pricing--a $3000 retail item would rent for maybe $150-$200 a day. Obviously this is a specialized item, not something that one would need all that often unless you had multiple projects requiring aerials. Would you be adverse to renting an item like this for a few days as needed, or would you see yourself able to justify this as a $2000 purchase?
Charles Papert
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Old February 5th, 2004, 12:02 PM   #8
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I guess that I was thinking that it could be useful as a constant tool in the toolbox. You know how a steadicam gets used more if you own anything, it could be a signature shot.

I'm just thinking that my use would be shooting various things in my state. I live in New Hampshire and it's considered one of the most beautiful states because of the seasons, coastal views, mountains, historic districts etc...not that many helicopter's around that can get close to these things. I might have spoke to soon before thinking it through - but, my initial reaction was one of "hey, cool...$2000 for something i could use in my shoots. i'd add it to my signature style."

You are right Charles, I should have thought a little more carefully.

Christopher C. Murphy
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Old February 5th, 2004, 02:13 PM   #9
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Sounds like a great idea, but I'm thinking it cannot hold the
camera "steady" enough? Last I heard GPS isn't accurate
enough to the inch or couple of centimeters? If the platform
only detects movements in yards/meters then that will probably
be too much?

I'd also hate to see the failsafe (too much wind) kick in when
it's flying over a lake or hovering over a sports game where
people are running all over the field....

Rob Lohman,
DV Info Wrangler & RED Code Chef

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Old February 5th, 2004, 08:53 PM   #10
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I have a lot of experience with RC flight and I think 5 mph wind will be constantly exceeded, especially at altitude. At 100 feet off the ground, even the calmest day sees some wind. Your blimp would get knocked around. If you add heavier, stronger power systems, the camera can no longer be lifted. You see the problem.

IMO, a large gas powered helicopter is better.

If you have a light camera (under 2 lbs) you can probably even use a powerful electric like the ECO16.
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Old February 5th, 2004, 10:44 PM   #11
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Thanks for everyone's feedback. Some good thoughts on the idea.

I've done some more figures today, and here's what I've come up with:

-The mass of the entire system (except for the actual air envelope and camera) would be right at 9 lbs. on (estimated slightly on the high side).

-In order to lift 9 lbs, plus the mass of the envelope itself, plus the mass of a 2.5 to 3 lbs camera - plus a bit of extra positive boyancy, the lifting capacity would need to be around 16 lbs of helium. That's a lot of helium.

-I've located a source for large helium advertising balloons. They produce a 10 ft. diameter which will float its own weight plus 14 lbs. It would require nearly 2 full cylenders of helium to fill.

This sounds high, and it certainly is for the average hobbiest. But for a semi-pro, this could still be a great solution. It is large, but so is a full sized helicopter. You have to drag 2 full gas cylenders to the shoot location (at 150 lbs each) - but I've seen vidoegraphers set up massive scaffolds and crane systems also. The actual cost of helium is about $30 to $50 per cylender refill, so it would cost $60 to $100 to inflate the unit.

The figures I used above assume plenty of power (2 x 6 cell R/C battery packs), along with 3 standard stock R/C car motors. I have raced R/C cars for years, and we run those cars flat out full bore for a solid 5 minute race with 6 cells. I'm sure a direct drive propeller running at 10% or 20% rpm would last plenty long enough with 12 cells of power, especially if quality cells are used. It may not run a full 60 minutes, but even 15 to 20 minutes on a charge would be nice. (It's a lot cheaper than renting a real chopper for that time).

It should also have enough power to overcome some wind gusts. My only real concern is that a 10 ft. sphere baloon presents a LOT of surface area to the wind.

I've also figured the selling price would need to be in the $2500 to $3000 range - a bit higher than expected (I actually made up a parts list and priced it all out).

Idea for a smaller version:
I've also worked in CCTV systems in the past. There are some darn fine CCTV cams on the market. 500+ lines and very small. It may be more plausable to use a smaller CCTV type camera with a UHF transmitter for the signal. I could probably get the balloon size down to half or even smaller not having to hoist a 3 lbs camera (plus the brackets to hold it). The image quality wouldn't be as great, but heck - if it's smaller and more usable, it's still the best 100 ft. areal image the average guy can afford.

At any rate - I think I'll begin tinkering with a miniture prototype in the next couple months. I'll rig up a small (12 to 24") balloon with smaller motors, but keeping the proportions of size and power correct. See if it's actually controllable.

Thanks again!
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Old February 5th, 2004, 10:49 PM   #12
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Are you thinking of 540-type motors? That would have to be a hell of a large propeller, even if there are 2 or 3 of them, to keep a 10ft diameter blimp from being blown around. Considering that the blimp will probably weigh 10 lbs or more when rigged, it would take an extremely large, powerful propeller setup to move it at all, even in completely calm air. In 15 mph gusts which you will probably encounter, RC car motors will be nearly worthles IMO.
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Old February 7th, 2004, 03:09 AM   #13
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This is an intriguing idea.

GPS is accurate to about 10 feet. Specialized units can be much more accurate to a few centimeters, but those require a stable platform to determine a precise position.

As for the balloon, what about a more rigid blimp design? The slender shape would be better able to cut through a headwind.

I was considering using an electric-powered glider and a wireless camera. Just a pipedream for now.

Helicopter rentals are about $600 an hour for a McDonnell Douglas MD 500. Of course you'd be hard pressed to get something like that 100 feet off the ground in certain locations.

Someone came up with a tethered balloon as a shooting platform, but that was for still photos.

Dean Sensui
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Old February 7th, 2004, 03:28 AM   #14
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This blimp won't be autonomous and won't need radio transmission of the image/control signals.

You're going to tether it when you build it, because you're not going to inflate your blimp only to watch your camera and the rest of your investment rise up, up, and away, or be inaccessibly blown over some large body of water, or worse, a Wal-Mart. (Talk about throwing caution to the wind!) And since you're tethering it, you might as well have an operator at one end of the tether, and make the tether out of your signal cable.

If you're intent on building an untethered autonomous system, you might want to check with the FAA first to find out what regulations they'll be trying to get you on.

Where were you thinking of using this? I note you live relatively near wide open spaces. This will be useful for testing purposes, but arial videography of featureless, motionless desert isn't especially interesting. But unleashing an autonomous airship in a populated area is bound to raise eyebrows of authorities. Fears of terrorism being what they are, any problems your blimp garners you aren't likely to end with the local cops.

Hey, good luck. Put me down for one too.
All the best,
Robert K S

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Old February 7th, 2004, 06:23 AM   #15
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UHF transmission is ALWAYS spotty at best with a minature transmitter/antennae. I again recommend microwave band as something of an improvement, affordable versions exist.
Charles Papert
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