Balloon Photography Rig


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This page documents the line, reel, gondola, and Picavet suspension system that I use for balloon aerial photography. Most of my design is totally stolen from Paul Illsley's Kite and Balloon Aerial Imaging page.

Kite Line Reel

To tether the balloon, I chose a fairly lightweight kite line: 1,000 feet of 50 lb. Ashaway Braided Dacron Kite Line ($20 + $8 shipping from Into The Wind Kites). The kite line ships on a tiny cardboard/plastic reel. Being able to wind and unwind quickly is useful, so I bought a Bayco K-100 150-foot cord reel ($12) for that purpose.

The cord reel comes with a hook for securing an extension cord, which would just snag the kite line, but a little hacksaw and sanding film work took care of it.

Extension cord reel.
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The cord reel includes a hook, which needs to be removed to avoid snagging the kite line.
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Hook removed via liberal use of hacksaw and sanding film.
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Vampire holes drilled into the cord reel barrel, for anchoring the kite line.
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Extension cord reel. The cord reel includes a hook, which needs to be removed to avoid snagging the kite line. Hook removed via liberal use of hacksaw and sanding film. Vampire holes drilled into the cord reel barrel, for anchoring the kite line.

A sophisticated loom setup (an old paper towel holder) for transferring the kite line. It took a while!
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The cord reel, loaded with 1,000 feet of kite line.
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A sophisticated loom setup (an old paper towel holder) for transferring the kite line. It took a while! The cord reel, loaded with 1,000 feet of kite line.    

Camera Gondola

Some people hang the camera directly from a harness, but I chose to build a gondola for it. I found a perfect sized box in a 9-piece chocolate selection from Christopher Elbow Chocolates, which happens to be not far away in Hayes Valley. To nestle the camera in the box and to cushion it, I bought some Pelican 1151 Pick-N-Pluck Foam ($11), designed for cushioning cameras or guns in Pelican hard cases.

A box of delicious (and expensive) chocs. (Step 1: get a box.)
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Punching holes into the side, for mounting the pulleys for the Picavet balancing system. (Step 2: put a hole in that box.)
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Foam padding for Pelican cases.
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Slicing the foam to fit.
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A box of delicious (and expensive) chocs. (Step 1: get a box.) Punching holes into the side, for mounting the pulleys for the Picavet balancing system. (Step 2: put a hole in that box.) Foam padding for Pelican cases. Slicing the foam to fit.

(Step 3: put your foam in that box.)
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Pelican case foam is prescored into little cubes ("Pick 'n Pluck"). Pulling the cubes out is hard work! I ended up just slicing it all the way through.
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Cutting a porthole into the foam and the box, for the camera lens to protrude.
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(Step 3: put your foam in that box.) Pelican case foam is prescored into little cubes ("Pick 'n Pluck"). Pulling the cubes out is hard work! I ended up just slicing it all the way through. Cutting a porthole into the foam and the box, for the camera lens to protrude.  

Note: cutting shapes into foam is really hard! Straight, large, cuts are easy—use a bread knife or other serrated blade, and cut with a gentle sawing motion. Cutting through the Pelican "Pick 'n Pluck" foam was also pretty easy with a regular non-serrated pocketknife. Cutting out the circle for the camera lens was torturous.

Picavet Leveling System

A Picavet is an ingenious pulley-and-pendulum system that creates a self-levelling platform. Aside from the excellent instructions on Paul Illsley's Kite and Balloon Aerial Imaging page, you can find more Picavet links here:

For pulleys, I bought four PeKaBe 515 single-block pulleys (at $44 + $6 shipping, the most expensive part of the entire rig!). For the middle ring, I bought a $5 stainless steel ring from a local bead shop (Global Beads in Mountain View).

PeKaBe pulleys, intended for model ship rigging.
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Threading the pulleys through the holes in the box.
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Pulleys are attached!
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The completed Picavet balancing system.
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PeKaBe pulleys, intended for model ship rigging. Threading the pulleys through the holes in the box. Pulleys are attached! The completed Picavet balancing system.

Note that unlike a traditional Picavet, I'm using a box instead of a cross (you get the same result, but it's one less component I had to build). Instead of securing each pulley independently by tying a string or zip-tie to each corner, I just made a loop. For both the pulley loop and the Picavet itself, I used a Double Fisherman's bend knot.

The entire Picavet, gondola, and camera setup weighs in at around 200g, which is ridiculously light. I could probably have gotten away with a much smaller balloon.



Andrew Ho (andrew@zeuscat.com)