Ever lived somewhere without a view?  Blocked by trees, blocked by houses, or just down in a depression?  Ever wanted to see the countryside from above, but can't afford to learn to fly an airplane, or rent a helicopter ride, or buy a hot-air balloon?

Well, i think there should be something you could do about that.  There must be some way that, presuming you have a backyard, you can elevate yourself sufficiently far off the ground that you see forever on a clear day.

Here are some ideas as to how.

  1. build a structure
    • if it's to be permanent, you need a structure that would survive wind and rain
    • ideally, it would be retractable, so it could be stored when not in use, and the sight of it wouldn't bother the neighbors
    • one option: low-cost metal-bar rectangular scaffolding, like the kind often seen at Burning Man
      • that would take several people and quite some time to assemble, and the rectangular nature means that its stability would be questionable.  cost?
    • alternately, the structure would not have to support a human, but rather just be a platform for a tethered, remote-controllable camera
  2. hot-air balloon
    • unfortunately, even a cheap hot-air balloon setup costs around $20,000
    • for this purpose, to elevate a single person you should be able to buy a very small balloon and stay tethered to the ground - however, i haven't yet found a "small" or inexpensive balloon
  3. helium balloons
    • helium-filled weather balloons are much cheaper than any hot-air approach
    • there exists a precedent: Larry Waters, by some account the 1997 Darwin Award Winner
      • a true story, based on an event in 1982, though the Darwin account is very inaccurate
      • he used: "45 weather balloons and several tanks of helium"
      • reportedly the man and his lawn chair "streaked into the sky" - this is because, unlike our goal, he chose to become untethered
      • weather balloon statistics are at Scientific Sales Meteorological Balloons
      • in the Darwin account the balloons were "more than four feet across", but by Larry's account they were "approximately seven feet in diameter each"
      • 7 feet is a very large 2-3kg balloon, with potentially ~2kg of lift
      • 45 balloons might give ~90kg of life, which is enough to lift an average adult male (at least 70 kg), perhaps even make him "streak" into the sky
      • a fascinating page on Balloon Lift with Lighter than Air Gases says that a 7' balloon can give nearly 5 kg of lift, but then subtract the weight of the balloon
      • it also mentions that the volume of helium required would be very expensive and even dangerous to work with
    • helium is a rare and non-renewable resource
    • hydrogen is renewable, easily produced and is 25% more buoyant than helium
    • Parabounce
      • a commercial helium balloon service, allowing a single person to "bounce" up to 30m high
      • they provide a balloon, harness, and technicians, rented by the day ($$$)
  4. periscopeperiscope
    • it might be possible to get a view from high-up without actually elevating your body
    • could build a periscope with a very, very high end-piece
    • is it necessary to actually have a tube, or can the end-piece be isolated at the top of a tetrahedron, as in this illustration?
    • unless there was a motorized assembly at the top, the view would be fixed in one direction
  5. remote camera on tethered balloon
    • safer than elevating your body, and doesn't require any kind of tall structure
    • needed: a videocamera, a weather balloon, and a video screen on the ground
    • if the tether line is used to transmit the video, the weight of the cable would have to be considered
    • otherwise, you need a way to transmit the video down to a ground receiver, which is potentially more complicated and difficult
    • a small camcorder weighs around 1kg, which one or two weather balloons could lift
    • ideally, you'd want a way to control the pitch and yaw of the camera
    • or, you could point the camera straight down, let it record everything it sees, and have a source of cheap aerial photography
  6. remote camera on personal helicopter
    • traditionally, personal (RC) helicopters have been really hard to control and very expensive every time they crash
    • Draganflyer from rctoys.comthere are two models:
      • Draganflyer3 ($750) can carry up to 1 ounce - enough for their eyecam, bundled together for $900
      • Draganflyer X-Pro ($5000) is larger, more maneuverable, and can carry up to 1 pound
    • claims "3 state-of-the-art piezo gyros incorporated in each Draganflyer make our helicopter easier to fly"
      • looks really promising!  except for issues like wind, etc. and the $900 price tag...
      • ordered one anyway, August 2002.  it arrived and it turns out to be really, really difficult to fly.  reasonably robust fortunately (survives crashing well, at least nothing permanently broken) but after a few weeks i still couldn't control it.  sold it on eBay for half what i paid for it.
    • more expensive RC helicopters e.g. Mikado Model Helicopters
      • approximately $1000-$2000 depending on configuration
      • from page Airborne video with MIKADO Logo20
        • "I have always been fascinated to see the world from birds-eye view - one is able to see so much more at a time than by standing on the ground.  Starting from some years ago, the technology to make this dream reality has finally become available for a reasonable price."
      • no mention of any kind of stabilization... must be incredibly difficult to fly
    • the MIT Information Control Engineering Lab built a Aerial Robotics Helicopter in 2002
      • uses cutting-edge algorithms so that it is stable and easy to control
      • they were able to attach a camera and shoot Emmy-award winning footage of New York City
      • news release: MIT's robotic helicopter makes first acrobatic roll
      • there is not yet any product version of this; perhaps in a few years
  7. remote camera on RC airplane
    • 2007-07: DIY Drones describes several amateur UAV projects, including how to buy the parts and put them together.  It's turning into quite an active field!
    • 2007: Small French company Pict'Earth shows an amazing video of hand-launching an RC plane, viewing realtime video from it, capturing high-resolution images with GPS coordinates, and draping the result in Google Earth.
    • On the entry on the GE blog: "From PictEarth staff.  Hello we have been working on PictEarth for more than a year now.  There is one video camera (low res) with images streamed down real time to the ground. This is what we use for live update. But a digital camera shoots 7 - 9 megapix images at the same time. In post process we get images from the camera. With these images we can go as low as 3 cm resolution.
      We can provide the full packaged solution : from the UAVs to the video goggles, software, fine correction services... to meet your exact needs.  We have worked so far on many applications : agriculture, archeology, industrial areas, road surveillance... If you have to fly bigger areas, we also offer a regular plane platform but often projects fit into the UAVs possibilities."
  8. kite aerial photography (KAP)
    • KAP has a long history (the first aerial photos were taken with kites)
    • most people doing KAP today are hobbyists
    • there is a large and wonderful website on this subject
    • a few people have tried using a digital camera or a videocamera, but most simply put a conventional camera in a rig that allows pressing the trigger remotely
    • RC Aerial Photography works with things besides kites as well - model airplanes, gliders, helicopters, rockets, robots, etc.
    • one university even has a class on it: ES 555 Small Format Aerial Photography
    • there are some macho people into an extremely dangerous sport called kite jumping, but it doesn't look like a recommendable way to achieve an elevated point of view!
  9. Tiny UAVs ('unmanned aerial vehicles')
    • These are actually airplanes, not helicopters, but as of 2006 they are becoming available smaller and cheaper than ever before.
    • The company MLB (spyplanes.com) sells a 25-pound unmanned vehicles for $50,000 a pop.  They have a drag-and-drop UI for steering the planes.  CEO says "You send the plane off with instructions to photograph a certain area, and you can get 3-inch-per-pixel images,"

Have any ideas to contribute to this effort?

ronehr contributed the following:

"I saw a movie once with Steve Martin called 'A Simple Twist of Fate' in which Steve uses a balloon of some sort with a parachute suspension system attached to some kind of netting (looked like a fish or cargo net) to off-set his weight. He was able to jump into the air and free float for what looked like a hundred feet or more both vertically and horizontally. I also ordered an info pkg from Towanda KS one time long ago that advertised a system of using a weather balloon and a surplus army parachute. it reads like this:
"Parachute Blimp. made from a 28 ft. military surplus parachute and a weather balloon. very easy to build in just 10 minutes. Lots of fun. Make yourself weightless. It's like being on the moon. You can jump over houses, trees, buildings and jump hundreds of feet into the sky. You can also float through the sky like a hot air balloon. costs approximately $150.00 to build. Plans $8.00 BW Rotor co. inc. p.o.box 391 Towanda Kansas 67144"
I also have many info pkgs on back pack style helicopters."

I couldn't find any online references to "parachute blimp", nor is it known whether Steve Martin's character was elevated with special-effect trickery or not.

Eliot Weitz wrote:

What do you think of a web page that would allow people to take turns controlling cameras on remotely piloted vehicles around the world with the pictures being captured in real time on a web page? I figure if you set up 10 or so hot air balloons at around 10K feet at key cities around the world you could allow many people to watch the video and change control from person to person every couple minutes. What do you think?

I think it's a great idea.  Somebody should do some initial testing with a small balloon/blimp, then launch a startup.  As long as there's a website, SkyWeb(tm) could call itself an "internet company" and have a great IPO.