University researchers prepare 150-km panoramic image of New Mexico using digital camera...

University researchers prepare 150-km panoramic image of New Mexico using digital camera and stratospheric balloon


New Mexico, 28 December 2006 – Worthwhile? Even NASA knows that it can’t always rely on satellite imaging when a natural disaster strikes. This is why Igor Carron, Assistant Director of the Spacecraft Technology Center at Texas A&M University (TAMU), recently used a stratospheric balloon with several of his students.

They’ve used a simple point-and-shoot digital camera to record hundreds of images over New Mexico. And by using inexpensive commercial software, they’ve stitched together these images to create large panoramas of up to 150 km which are as accurate as the more expensive maps produced by NASA or companies such as DigitalGlobe which sells data to Google.

Igor predicts that “traditional GIS will be replaced by user fed data and applications” and that his project is just the beginning of “remote sensing for the people by the people.” High altitude balloons can be deployed in a matter of hours and provide emergency remote sensing thereby enabling first responder’s situational awareness and give adequate trajectories to rescuers. It would also enable the diffusion of imagery to a large segment of the population looking for information thereby reducing the strain on the telecommunication system of the affected area.

On September 4, 2006, Igor Carron and his students took place as a ‘payload application’ of the Louisiana State University’s High Altitude Student Payload (HASP), sponsored by NASA’s Balloon Program Office. And they took more than 4 GB of pictures. Originally their intent was to integrate one by one all these images on an application like Google Maps or Google Earth using the GPS information provided from the balloon. They soon figured out that this was too complex and would not be imitated in the real world with people who would not have the combined skills of photographic overlays integration using the Google Maps APIs, orthographics projections and Adobe’s PhotoShop.

But when they started to use PhotoShop, they soon realized that they needed several dozens of gigabytes for working space. So they decided to change strategy to produce their large panoramas. The panoramic images were stitched together with Autopano Pro, a commercial implementation of the AutoStitch software. Then the images, which were ‘weighing’ dozens of gigabytes, have been put online by using another commercial software, Zoomify.

“The big difference with satellites is really the following. With satellites, you are bound to follow its orbit and you cannot get an assessment of the ground conditions until the satellite flies over the area (which can take up to three days). And then, when the satellite flies over the area of interest, there should not be any clouds otherwise you are bound to wait for another three days. In our case, we have the same issue with cloud cover but we can also launch a balloon or use a UAV in a much more responsive manner,” said Igor.

In case of disasters of enormous proportion such as Hurricane Katrina, Igor thinks that armed with cheap cameras, inexpensive balloons and easy-to-use software, almost everyone could provide quality maps to first time responders.