Balloon mapping helps WCU students and staff gain new perspectives

By BRITON BENNETT ’12

It’s a sunny afternoon in Cullowhee, and a team from WCU stands in a field looking up at the sky. The wind is relatively calm, which is good. It needs to be. One team member stands and attaches a digital camera to a string holding the 6-foot helium balloon near the ground. A member of the team interrupts the rhythmic clicking sound of the camera’s continuous shutter by saying, “Let it rip.” The sound fades back to the stillness of the afternoon as balloon and camera sail off into the blue expanse. For a few moments, the balloon pulls out the string at breakneck speed, rattling the orange reel in the hands of one team member. Then it stops.

WCU students Alicia Fowler and Ryan Nelsen prepare a camera and balloon for a mapping flight in Hilton Head, S.C. Photo courtesy of Adam Griffith

Looking up, it seems that the string has disappeared into the blue of the sky and the balloon floats effortlessly about 1,000 feet above the ground. The team members watch closely as the balloon sways with winds they can’t feel. They look around for obstacles – power lines, trees, anything that would snag the line and send their mission to a sure failure. The team reels in the line, cautiously, and the anticipation is tangible in the warm sunlight. They are anxious to see what birds see, and to use that information to create accurate, realistic maps.

For the casual observer, this seems like a scene from a sci-fi fantasy: a team of scientists goes into the field and sends observation equipment up into the sky. For Adam Griffith MS ’08, a research scientist for the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at WCU, this is more. Griffith, who uses aerial images to map locations around the United States, sees this as a chance to contribute to an immense body of knowledge.

Griffith started using balloons in Louisiana as part of a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration-funded study to monitor the impacts of the British Petroleum-Deepwater Horizon oil spill in spring 2010, the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history. Massachusetts Institute of Technology student Jeffrey Warren approached Griffith with the idea of using balloons to snap the photographs, said Griffith, who agreed to the project. Though neither Warren nor Griffith had ever used balloons to create maps, the idea seemed relatively simple, and moreover it was extremely cost effective – much more so than hiring a plane to snap aerial photos. “Balloon and kite-mapped images are much cheaper than any other methods – usually around $100 to $200 (for the kit),” said Griffith. “Satellite imagery is extremely expensive and unavailable for small areas.”

Griffith brought the low-tech process back to WCU and began working with undergraduates to map the WCU campus. The technique also is being used on a range of WCU-related projects and to map the impacts of rising sea level in Beaufort County, S.C., as part of a large NOAA grant made to the PSDS. In addition, Griffith, Warren and five others from around the nation founded Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science, which received a half-million-dollar grant from the James S. and John L. Knight Foundation. PLOTS’ mission is to develop and apply open-source tools to environmental exploration and investigation. Today, much of the work that students completed with Griffith has been published on the PLOTS site, and the maps that they have created using balloon-mapping technology are now part of Google Maps.