Back from the desert

Here we are, back from the desert! Nowhere was an incredible adventure that we are happy and proud to have experienced. We had an awesome time in the desert, and made many great friends.

Balloonwise, we had what I think we can call a mitigated success. That is a long story.

Digging Holes

Digging holes

A lot of sweat and love was needed to prepare our launch pad

For the first few days, we dug holes in the ground, to set up all the anchors we needed and a nice landing pad. We made way more holes than we needed, and most were way too big, because we had no clue of how to make anchors properly. Fortunately, Aqua gave us good advice on how to do that, which put us on the right track and finally allowed us to have good anchors we could rely on.

All in all, it took us quite some time to have a launchpad with which we felt confident, and we were ready to inflate the balloon at the end of Monday afternoon.

From Inflation to Ready

Balloon preparation

Closing and attaching the balloon after inflation

Inflation was very fast (5-10 minutes), but closing and attaching it properly proved to be tricky. We thought we had a good idea of how to do that, but it turned out that our method did not work properly with the pressure and movements of an inflated balloon. Had we not gone with double security on everything, we might have lost the balloon even before its first real flight! The trick was to keep the system rather simple: zip-ties to close it (with the neck vertically folded). Then to attach it: fold the bottom of the neck up, around a loop of rope, and zip-tie around the fold, so that the rope loop is trapped inside that newly created balloon neck loop. If people ask me, I might draw a schema of that one day, but I’m afraid we did not think of taking pictures of that.
Once this was done, we added another “security” rope loop around the neck a bit higher up, with a zip-tie below it to prevent it from slipping. As you can see in the picture, everything we did, including inflation, prior to having the balloon properly attached, were done within a safety net, properly anchored to the ground. You’re never too cautious with things that want to fly away! Especially if you only have one shot.

Up, Up, It Flies!

On Tuesday morning, we were ready and eager to fly the balloon, and start taking pictures. We were very happy with the behaviour of the balloon with the light breeze that we had, it went almost vertical, and we took some glorious pictures on that day.




Awesome view on Nowhere, from above


Life is Tough

At the end of Tuesday, as celebrations for the beginning of the festival were happening, the wind started to blow more seriously. We had to land the balloon in emergency, with the help of a few good souls (thanks again to them: Aqua, Sam, Tessa, I think there were others but cannot remember, please correct me). The conditions were as hectic as can be: very strong wind, and the whole festival dancing and cheering around our landing pad! We nevertheless managed to secure the balloon down on the pad, and protect it under a tarp. At that moment, having nothing more to do, we just went partying with the others, attending the melting of the Nowhere bell by Dave and friends (and that was great!).

A few hours later, I came to the landing pad to check that everything was all right. But all I could find were two big chunks of pink-red latex on the ground. A friend was gone. Balloon was gone.

We had a simple, intimate burial ceremony with close friends on Wednesday evening.

Good bye, balloon! You were a great friend.

The adventure starts

Sorry about not posting much for a while, but we were busy working hard on the project, not having time to blog about it!

Hopefully, we will be able to spend more time blogging when we come back, because, yes, YES: we are going to the desert, in a few hours from now. Right now we are busy packing and preparing computers, camera and everything, we might even find the time to sleep a few hours…

In the meantime, to reward your patience, here’s a picture of the box that will contain the camera:

An orange polystyrene box with a lot of tape and wires

This is a pre-version, the attachment mechanism changed a lot since then.

We’re all excited to go in the desert and play with the big balloon! But now, I gotta pack and sleep a bit.

See you guys in 10+ days with awesome pics and videos in our bag!

wires taped to the batteries

Measuring power consumption – the MacGyver way

Power consumption is a big issue for us. We would like to be able to leave the balloon up taking pictures for as long as we can. And we would like to know how long that would be.

One of the main suspects of “battery eating” on the balloon is the camera. It is not the only one, but that is the subject of other articles.

So, I (guijemont) had at hand the camera we want to use (a Canon PowerShot SX110 IS), AA batteries, some wire, alligator clips, adhesive tape and a multimeter. And I wanted to get an idea of how much power the camera draws.

A bit of theory

My idea to measure the power consumption was to use one of the expressions of Joule’s Law that says:

P = V I

Or in other words, the power the camera draws (P) is equal to the voltage (V) of its power source multiplied by the current intensity going through it (I).

V is easy to know: 2 AA batteries in series is 3 Volts, right? For more precision, I measured it with the multimeter anyway.

Then we want to know the intensity. That’s where MacGyver comes in.

Enters Angus MacGyver

To know the current intensity, I needed to have the multimeter in series with the camera and the power source. My mullet-hair-styled solution was to tape the wires to two ends of the batteries, as shown on the picture.

wires taped to the batteries

Adhesive tape: an engineer's best friend

This allows me to plug the multimeter easily to the other ends of the wires, while the battery compartment is closed (else the camera won’t start). At the same time, the tape acts as insulation to make sure the multimeter is not short circuited. The tape I had was really thin though, and as you can see on the picture, the wires kind of got through, so I had to apply several layers of tape on the batteries.

With that in place, all I had to do was to plug the multimeter to these wires, in ammeter mode, start the camera, and measure!

If it fails, try harder!

Unfortunately, MacGyver science is not exactly deterministic. Apparently, something in the circuit (yes, I am looking at you, cheap multimeter!) had a non negligible added resistance, meaning that when the camera was asking for a lot of power, the voltage provided by the batteries was dropping. The firmware interprets a low voltage to be caused by the batteries getting empty, warns the user about it, and shuts everything off. At least, that is my theory on what was happening, hopefully I have readers who understand this better and can tell me if I’m on the right track or misinterpreted things completely.

But for every electrical problem, there is an (unsafe) MacGyver solution! In this case, I just added another battery in the circuit, with the help of more tape, wire and alligator clips.

Camera, MacGyver-plugged to the multimeter through an extra battery

Camera, MacGyver-plugged to the multimeter through an extra battery

I wasn’t too sure the camera wouldn’t explode due to the added voltage (I had around 4.2V instead of the recommended 3V), but sometimes, you just have to take risks!

It turns out this circuit worked quite well.

The results

I measured the voltage of the 3 batteries in series before and after the tests (they took quite a hit). This was around 4.20V before and 4.02V after (not sure that much precision is needed, I guess we can retain 4.1V).

The following scenarios were measured, in Amperes. I added the power values I calculated in Watts (knowing the power source was about 3.1V):

  1. standby, screen off: 0.09 A (0.37 W)
  2. screen on, objective closed: 0.3 A (1.23 W)
  3. screen on, objective out: 0.35 A (1.44 W)
  4. maximum seen when taking a picture or preparing with autofocus (AF): 0.49 A (2.01 W) (happened at first pre-press, with autofocus)
  5. maximum seen in the process of taking a picture with AF off: 0.37 A (1.52 W)

Other parameters I tried to change, such as the Image Stabiliser (IS) did not seem to change consumption. Note that these measurements were done in fully manual mode. Having automatic adjusting of exposure might suck slightly more power.


Assuming the only difference between (1) and (2) is the screen, we can say the screen eats around 0.86 W. Therefore, we hopefully can expect the following power draws:

  • standby: (1) = 0.37 W
  • picture taking time (5) – (screen power draw) = (5) – ( (2)-(1)) = 1.52 W – 0.86 W = 0.66 W

As an example of consumption, if we take a picture every minute, and it takes us 1s to take a picture, the average consumption would be around:

(59 * 0.37 W + 1 * 0.66 W)/60 = 0.37 W

In the same way, with a picture every 10s, we would have an average of 0.4W. If we can’t get the screen off, we need to add its consumption (0.86W, ouch!).

Note that the measurements might not be that precise, and the voltage was higher than normal, so we shouldn’t really assume anything more than:

  • standby eats around 0.4 W
  • taking a picture eats around 0.7 W for an unknown amount of time (I guess ~ 1s)
  • the screen eats around 0.9 W

Therefore, for our usage the most optimistic average (taking a picture takes a very short time, screen always off) would be 0.4 W, the most pessimistic one would be the worst we measured with AF off and screen ON: 1.5 W (we won’t need AF because with the balloon high enough, we can use a manual infinite focus).

The Balloon Project

For you only dear reader, here is the highly anticipated description of the balloon project.

Let’s start with a bit of context. It all begins with a man known as Ugo (or sometime Nerochiaro), who heard about a cool event called Nowhere. In a nutshell, Nowhere is a participatory art festival, where attendants are supposed to contribute something to make the event cool. Or at least that’s my understanding of it.

Ugo had an idea for Nowhere: how about we took some pictures of the event from above? And what if, to achieve that, we used a helium-filled balloon?

I guess you understand both the name of the project and of the blog.

Ugo motivated some friends, and we are now a small team studying all the aspects of how to put a balloon in the air, with a camera attached to it. We also try to think of what can be achieved with such a set-up, beyond mere “pictures from above” (time lapse videos? a map of the festival? suggestions are welcome in comments).
Since an image is worth a thousand words, here’s an incredibly beautiful schema by yours truly, explaining the whole idea:Balloon with camera attached, high above ground, anchored with a long piece of string

The whole idea is pretty simple. It is. Until you start investigating about the details. And there are many to study: what balloon should we use? How do we attach the camera? How and when will the camera take pictures? How do we power everything?

Believe me, this is only a small subsets of all the issues we are trying to address. The good news for you, reader, is that it will provide us with a lot of matter to put into words for you to read.

This is an adventure. I think that with the experiments already conducted, we have passed the point of non-return, and we will either succeed …or, well, fail, or be somewhere in between, but I believe that we will have some cool pictures to show in July.

Stay tuned for plenty of gory details of our investigations, encompassing fields such as “simple” mechanics, fluid mechanics, signal processing, computer vision. But expect as well a whole lot of “duct tape science” and MacGyver methods for about anything.

Hello, world!

Greetings, reader!

This is the start of a blog telling you the marvellous adventure of a bunch of freaks launched on a project involving balloons, cameras, electronics and stuff.

We are pretty excited at the awesomeness that can be achieved in this crazy project, yet a bit frightened by the complexity it might require, even though it all gets back to a very simple idea.

Soon, we will tell you all about the balloon project, please stay tuned by subscribing to the rss feed (if you know what that is), or just by coming back later for more!