Introduction: Kite Aerial Photography (KAP)

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Design and manufacture your own mechanical intervolamerter trigger for your old digital camera.
In this project we'll see how to make your own camera trigger from recycled, reused, and re-purposed materials, many you may find laying around your home!

One starry night of sleepless lasagna-tummy, my mind wandered to my bloated Bolognese belly.
After the third antacid and mouthwash I had an epiphany. Maybe it was the double chese and garlic turf war, maybe the chalky effervescence creating a toxic nerve-gas, I don't know. I lost track of everything over the last 5 glasses of red.
I had a vision of my expanded belly carrying me upwards, all I was able to grab before my feet left the ground was my sunglasses and camera. I was carried to the sky photographing my way upwards. I had broken into the stratosphere when.... *blink*
It was over.

A quick look on Google the next morning revealed that apparently more than just me has a reaction to a cocktail of food, alcohol and medicine, and as far back as 100 years. Intrigued, I checked Instructables to see if anyone had done something similar, to my surprise (and to date of publish) they had not. I was inspired to create my own aerial photographs. Since I am not familiar with the methods of making my trigger from 555 timers, I needed to make a mechanical trigger. As a twist I would use recycled and re-purposed materials and combine it with an old abondoned digital camera to take photos from my kite.

While electronics may be second nature to some, to others (myself included) they are a mystery. I did not want wiring or programming to be a deterrent, for this project this element is removed entirely. In addition I wanted a design that would not compromise the camera housing. This rules out opening the camera to solder on a trigger.

My guidelines for this project were:

  • use as much recycled content as possible
  • budget of around $50
  • able to function with any digital camera
  • no special camera function (or special plug)
  • no specialty knowledge (eg: no electrical / arduino / 555 timers etc.)

With the ideas laid out, I was set to take some aerial photography, and maybe have an adventure along the way.

Enough talk...... let's build!

Step 1: The Kite

Researched pointed me towards a few possible options to ahieve the required height. The original idea was to use a balloon filled with helium to generate the lift. This idea is still good, however I wanted to make something portable, and riding the bus with a giant balloon isn't a great way to make friends (or is it?). Instead I opted for the more passive method of a kite.

Kite design is everything. There are countless varieties of kites, and luckily there are a few that lend themselves well to this application. I suggest doing your own research to determine which style fits your needs best. I chose a design that was simple, easy to fly, able to achieve lift in any wind, and large enough to accept a payload. The delta conyne satisfies all my criteria. With a little sleuthing you may find dimensioned plans online that you can use to build your own.

As I was on my way to find materials to make my kite (rip-stop nylon and wooden dowels), I happened upon a kids store nearby which had the exact kite I was looking for, in the size I needed (6'+ or 1.8m+ from wingtip to wingtip), and was on sale!
An actual quote from the cashier "I can't believe you're buying this, it's been in that corner of the store for years."
The kite cost $30. The remainder of the budget was spent on the line, more on that in step 9.

The only downside is that the kite is kinda pink.

Step 2: The Trigger - Materials

Battery operated motor turns a toothed cam which depresses a plunger to activate a camera shutter; A basic mechanical intervalometer.

Method of Attack:
Since electronic timers were out, I had a blank slate on how I wanted to approach assembling the trigger. After a brief review of of my options I discovered that there are unlimited ways of making a trigger assembly. This is just one. Actually this one in particular had maybe too much thought put into it. I wanted the largest possible audience to participate. This instructable will show you a simple method to achieve timed photographs, automatically, with recycled and everyday items.

It was time to get dirty, and creative. I compiled a few collections of cd spindles to free up a spare. The paint sticks were free from the hardware store. The pen and pushpins were liberated from the tyranny of the office supply cloest. The toy bunny was a gift from my sister, to which I thank her by mutilating said gift. As for the casette? Vhs is a relic from a bygone era best forgotten. There will no tears shed for it's fate.

Almost everything used for the trigger was recycled, found, or free:

  • CD spindle
  • clicky pen
  • push pins (around 30)
  • paint sticks used for mixing paint
  • nuts, butterfly nuts, washers
  • 90 degree angle bracket
  • 3 x 50mm (2") steel mending plates
  • vhs casettee
  • electric motor from kids toy
  • camera mount (from old tripod)
  • plastic tubing (can use washers or plastic spacers instead)

tools needed:
  • glue gun
  • hobby knife
  • pliers
  • screwdrivers
  • safety goggles (seriously)
  • rotary tool (optional)

the methods used are specific to the materials on hand, your project may differ, improvise as needed.

Step 3: Material Modifications

A few of the materials I used required minor modifications to allow this assembly to work.

Paint sticks:
These act as the spine of the assembly. The wood is soft, light and workable. Since I wanted the assembly to be used with any camera it needs to be adjustable.
Simply mark out an elongated rectangle on the paint stick and use a hobby knife to cut through.
paint sticks can be found free in your local paint store

Push pins:
The pins will act as teeth for our motor to grip on to. These push pins have plastic heads which are not needed. The heads can be easily removed with a set of pliers.
During operation, the teeth may catch on the motor during rotation, this was solved by grinding each tooth with a slight angle, allowing the motor to slip into the grooves of the teeth easier.

Camera mount nut:
Most mounts will have plenty of thread to allow a firm grim between your camera and the mounting surface. However you may need to add a small collar (or washers) to the threads for a snug fit.

Clicky pen:
In the interest of having a smaller assembly I chose to cut the pen down to size. Originally the pen measured 20 cm (8"), and was reduced to around 7.5 cm (3"). It's vital that the pens' clicky mechanism still work. It should be a stubby, operable, pen.

Step 4: Trigger Assembly - External

The idea was to use the spinning motion of a small motorized toy to operate the shutter of my camera. However, mounting the motor directly to the camera was out as the motor for the toy turned much too fast and would have spun about 10 times between shots, this would have shook the camera too much and produced jittery shots. Since stability is an issue I needed something that slowed down the pace of that tiny motor. Sticking to the idea that I wanted to keep this project out of the realm of wiring and electronics I was left with stepping the rotation of the motor to a speed which would allow shots at intervals I wanted.

First, I stripped the toy to just the motor and a gear that was attached to the rear legs of the bunny. A portion of the cd spindle was cut away allowing the turning part of the motor to be placed inside the spindle while the housing a battery was outside the spindle. The motor and housing was glued to the top edge of the spindle as shown.
Next, small oval was cut about 90 degrees from the motor opening allowing the pen to be inserted then glued in place. The pen tip is what will trigger the shutter on our camera, and will need to be pointing out. The clicking portion will be operated by the rotating cam inside the spindle.

Step 5: Trigger Assembly - Internal

For the 'guts' of the trigger I created a cam to rotate around the spindle and trigger the clicky pen. For this I busted open an old vhs cassette and used one of the tape spools. The inside diameter of the spool was a snug fit on the spindle, the vhs spool opening was widened a little to allow it to spin freely on the spindle.
Then I hot glued the modified push pins to the outside rim of the spool, these formed the 'teeth' that would step the spool forward eventually engaging the cam with the pen.
The cam was made from a small metal tongue found inside the vhs cassette. The tongue is bend to fit around the cassette spool with the tapered end sticking out. The cam was glued to the inner wheel on the spool and bent into position.
A small piece of tubing was used between the spool and the spindle to achieve the proper height needed to allow engagement between the motor and the teeth.

This was by far the most difficult step, take your time and make sure you've got the teeth spacing and cams set properly, there is not much you can do to modify this once you have it assembled. Your only option may be to dismantle and start the inner workings again, so be patient.

Step 6: Closing the Assembly / Testing the Teeth

The top of the cd spindle conveniently screws to connect with it's base. To ensure the motor engages with the toothed spool a piece of large gauge tubing was placed under the spool. The size of the plastic tubing collar is important, not enough and the teeth will not engage, too tight and the spool will not turn. I estimate a tubing length of 25mm (1"). Luckily the tubing is forgiving and has some give, just don't overcut or you will need a new collar.

Video of the motor engaging the teeth. On the center of the spindle you can see the metal tabs acting as my cam, slowly stepping towards the pen.

Other projects that incorporate mechanical non-destructive methods to achieve time-lapse:
this one using an old servo
this one made from k'nex
this one using a small motor

Ive seen KAP rigs that use the typical, to the MacGyver, to the bizarre.
Check out what other people have done and find one that suits you. I made this prototype with a $50 CAD budget and found materials. Who knows, maybe you have enough to make your own too!

Step 7: Kite Streamers

I may have scored a deal on my kite, however streamers were not part of the package.
As a requirement for flight, kites do not need streamers. However flying without them is like driving a car with no steering wheel, a bad idea. Streamers act much like the fin on a weather vane, keeping your kite angled towards the wind, allowing for maximum lift.

Streamers are nothing more than a means to add drag to your kite (windsocks function the same way and can be used instead of, or in combination with streamers.) For this I decided to make my own using everyone's favourite unnecessary grocery item: the plastic shopping bag.

The original intent was to use an unaltered bag as a sock and just tether it behind the kite, acting like a parachute. While this worked it looked ridiculous. My kite was made fun of by all the other kites for looking frumpy and trashy. I told my kite it was prettier than all the other kites, and that being pink is much more eye-catching than flashy streamers on the other kites out that day, but it was no consolation. That night I stayed up and made my very own streamers.

Two shopping bags make one streamer:
  • Cut down the sides of the bag, lay flat, cut into strips.
  • Gather the ends from one side and tie off with string.
  • For the boy scouts in the back section try adding a lengthened loop during your tie-off so you can attach the streamers easily to the kite.

Step 8: Putting It All Together

Mounting camera to the rig:
By adjusting the slider and swivel arm the camera can be placed directly under the nib of the pen. I have found the best success by turning on the camera and engaging the shutter slightly, thereby only requiring the slightest increase in pressure from the pen to complete the action and take a picture.

Attaching the rig to the kite:
I aimed to make my rig as light as I could, however the heaviest load will be the camera itself. My camera was about 3 times heavier than my rig. Assembled the entire rig with camera weighed less than 700g (1.5lbs). If you have a strong, consistent wind you can mount the rig wherever you chose. In many instances though you will need to get the kite in the air before attaching your payload. Through trial and error I determined that there is a threshold of turbulent air from the deck to around 15 m (50'), past this the air seems to move faster and smoother. This was my marker.

The assembly is hanging about 15m (50') from the kite, around the threshold mentioned. In the picture you can see that the rig is suspended between 2 points on the line in an attempt to add stabilization by allowing the rig to swing independently of pulls in the line.

The solution is to have a cradle capable of suspending the rig and allowing it full travel regardless of any fluctuations or turbulence, however I was not able to complete a more comprehensive stabilization cradle for my rig. See the last step of this instructable for links to more information on cradles.

Step 9: A Word on Line

Consideration was taken to which line to get with this kite. While my kite isn't the largest on the block, it was going to be under stress not designed for your average flyer due to the payload. If I had any hopes of keeping my camera and rig in one peice i was going to need a line that was light enough to be lifted, but strong enough to withstand stress on the line.

Side-bar story time:
My first line bought was a nylon composite purchased at a dollar store, this snapped on the third outing. The good news is that the camera rig wasn't attached yet. The bad news is that it snapped while I had 60m+ (200'+) of line out. I was also in a downtown city park. It's quite a feeling watching your new favourite toy sailing away. the kite flew just like a paper airplane, catching rogue wind and slowly drifting farther and farther away from me. Turns out it landed around 550m (1800') away. I managed to find it in an alleyway with a few bums hanging around it poking it with a stick. Maybe they thought it was a gift from the sky, or maybe they thought it was a normal hallucination from all the paint they were huffing. Either way I claimed my kite and made my way back. The lesson here is to do your homework before having to confront the homeless.

The remainder of my budget was spent on new fishing line. I bought a high-stress fishing line for around $20 which I found at a hardware store. The line was rated for 50lbs of stress (a fisherman friend tells me this is, in fact, not high-stress as they make lines capable of up to 150lbs+). If there is more than 50lbs of stress on the line the kite is just as likely to break as the line, so there is no need to go higher in this case (though i have plans for a larger reinforced kite with much heavier line).

Before you go flying, a good idea is to measure out your line into measured intervals with markings (I used 10m or 30' intervals). This way you can estimate the height of the kite by how much line is let out.

Step 10: Flight (finding the Right Conditions)

I hate waiting.
It's hard to have a project ready for testing, and then having to wait for conditions to be favorable.
During assembly construction the sunshine was bright and the wind was brisk. The first week after the assembly was complete the weather was nothing but rain. The following week had no wind. Finally, after a few days of frantically running around the park trying to tow the kite higher my legs had enough. It was time to find a different approach.

Realizing that springtime weather is fickle at the best of times, it was time to change my tactic slightly. Instead of waiting for wind, I decided to go find it. Being coastal I knew some of the best winds are where land meets water, and since I was ready for a vacation anyways, I made a trip to the real west coast of Canada.
A longtime favourite destination of mine, I come yearly to Tofino/Ucluelet to surf, hike, and get away from it all... and now I can add 'fly my kite' to this list. The area here is extreme, where the landscape has been visibly altered by the intense winds from the Pacific Ocean.

If I couldn't find my wind here, this project would never get off the ground. pun intended

Step 11: Aerial Photographs

The day this flew the winds were well over 20km/h (12.5 mph) with a consistant direction, the conditions were perfect! There were a few moments where I thought i was going to have the line snap on me again, maybe I was just gunshy from the last line I had. The kite held, so did the line, and so did the little toy motor.

Empirically I've determined the following:
  • minimum windspeed required with no payload: ~4km/h+ (2.5 mph+)
  • minimum windspeed required with payload: ~17km/h+ (10.5 mph+)

The entire rig held up well under the punishment of crashing more than a few times. Eventually the motor snapped off and the rig was no longer operable. At the time I had shot over 400 shots from the air (and one partially corrupted file that must have been taken while crashing).
Once home I was able to organize the photos. Sadly, due to the lack of a leveling and stabilizing rig many of the shots were too blurry, and in some cases unrecognizable. Of all the pictures taken aproximately 30 were of a quality I would be comfortable sharing.

With a

Step 12: Final Thoughts and Further Reading

As you may have noticed, my rig is attached directly to the line itself. In KAP terms this is nothing shy of barbaric. There are sophisticated rigs out there (for sale and hand made) that use a series of strings and pulleys and are designed to level the rig and add stability, ensuring quality shots. I attempted to build this into my project, however could not complete a design prior to contest deadline. For further reading on rigs, including types of cradles used, see the links below.

Further reading:
There's no shortage of people who have attempted homemade kite aerial photography. This guy's page reflects many of the same thoughts and struggles I went through designing my rig.
Of course, just the mention of KAP will bring many people to point to this guy, and while he is good I want you to think of this: Wayne Gretzky wasn't the only good hockey player on the Oilers (or Kings). Meaning that yes he is good, but not the only great one. Use a wide range of reference to make your kite, following in someone else's steps is sometimes boring, so be creative and try out our own ideas!
The last link you should check out is one from our own community, you shouldn't even consider my project until you've completed this one.

The design challenge was the use of recycled and re-purposed materials, this Instructable demonstrates that it is possible. With a slightly more reasonable budget and more refined techniques this can be applied for even better results.

This was a fun learning experience. I recommend this project to everyone with the inclination to try something new. I'd love to see what a bird's eye view of your city looks like, or your crashed attempts. Good luck!

Happy making :)

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