The same group ( which organized a citizen mapping of the BP oil spill is offering their DIY balloon-mapping kit as a reward in their Kickstarter campaign, which ends on January 30th. Having formed an DIY, open-source environmental science movement called Public Laboratory, they're now making open source hardware & software, and have grown to a movement of hundreds of people. $85 gets you a balloon kit, and their open source web-based map stitching software helps you convert your aerial images into an online map. There's even an infrared hack to take aerial infrared photos:



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Comment by Ellison Chan on January 19, 2012 at 3:08pm

Um, this looks like a good idea, but what about the FCC approvals needed to fly these pretty large balloons?  Won't they potentially drift into the path of airplanes?

Comment by David on January 19, 2012 at 4:28pm

The regulations from the FAA are here: FAR 101, particularly subsections 11, 13, 15, 17, and 19.  I don't see any mention of a rapid deflation device, as required by subsec. 19, and the inclusion of 1000 feet of line certainly makes it possible to operate beyond the regs, but it's a question of personal responsibility.

Comment by Ellison Chan on January 19, 2012 at 5:29pm

Yes, I meant FAA, of course. ;-)

Seems there are lots of regulations regarding balloons.  Specifically notifications requirements:

101.37 Notice requirements.         (a) Prelaunch notice : Except as provided in paragraph (b) of this      section, no person may operate an unmanned free balloon unless,      within 6 to 24 hours before beginning the operation, he gives the      following information to the FAA ATC facility that is nearest to      the place of intended operation:            
(1) The balloon identification.            
(2) The estimated date and time of launching, amended as necessary      to remain within plus or minus 30 minutes.           
 (3) The location of the launching site.            
(4) The cruising altitude.            
(5) The forecast trajectory and estimated time to cruising altitude      or 60,000 feet standard pressure altitude, whichever is lower.            
(6) The length and diameter of the balloon, length of the      suspension device, weight of the payload, and length of the      trailing antenna.            
(7) The duration of flight.            
(8) The forecast time and location of impact with the surface of      the earth.
Comment by David on January 19, 2012 at 6:04pm

Agreed, there are many regulations.  However, there are some caveats as I read the regs (none of this can be taken as legal advice).  The biggest one is section 101.1: General Applicability, which, after several reads, seems to indicate that if you operate within the limitations imposed by 101.1 and 101.7, the operation of your equipment is considered exempt from the rest of the regulations.

Also, as I re-read the applicability section, I note that the exemption limit for moored balloons is 6 feet diameter, and the balloon on the kickstarter project is listed as 5.5 feet.  I retract my initial concern about rapid-deflation devices... it looks like you'd only have to worry about 101.7, the "do no harm" catch-all section.

Comment by Ellison Chan on January 19, 2012 at 6:12pm

No, I still think that you have to follow the notification rules, whenever you are flying a free balloon.  You are only exempt if the balloon is moored, and less than 6ft in diameter.  As for 101.7, it means that the regulations don't apply to hazardous payloads, in which case probably more stringent regulations apply.

Comment by healthyfatboy on January 19, 2012 at 8:05pm

We did a tethered sphere calibration of a radar for work and found that there are quite a few regulations that make it very difficult to do, granted we were within 5 miles of a small university airport. Some of the requirements were regarding the tether itself. During the day, there had to be bright markers every X feet so that aircraft could see it from Y nautical miles away. If you did it at night, then you had to physically light the balloon as well as the entire tether so it was visible to all aircraft. Then there are all the NOTAMs that have to be issued for those flying in the area and this was for something that we only lofted to about 100 m.

If you just release a balloon for those near-space high altitude balloon launches, the restrictions aren't so bad and they don't seem to care as much.

For tethered balloons, the biggest concern the FAA had for our experiment wasn't necessarily airplanes flying into the balloon or tether in the middle of the night when we did our experiment but it was more concern for medi-flight helicopters that would have to unexpectedly fly through the area on some off chance.

Comment by Jeffrey Warren on January 20, 2012 at 6:43am

Sorry if its unclear but since theyree tethered they're not "free balloons". More info on regs are here:

Definitely a good idea to be cautious.

Comment by Jeffrey Warren on January 20, 2012 at 6:44am

theyree = they're


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