Kite Aerial Photography Equipment

James S. and Susan W. Aber

Table of Contents
Kites Kite line & gloves
KAP trailer KAP rigs and cameras
Helium blimp References

Kites

There is no single kite which is optimum for KAP under all circumstances. Various kites are utilized depending on wind conditions and weight of the KAP rig. The goal is to provide enough lift to support the KAP rig--normally ranging from 1 to 3 pounds (½ to 1½ kg). Large kites are flown for lighter wind and smaller kites for stronger wind. For lighter wind (5-10 mph), we prefer to use large rigid kites with surface areas of 30 square feet (3 m²) or more. For stronger wind conditions (10-25 mph), we normally fly soft airfoils of various sizes.

Most kites and equipment shown below
were purchased from
Into the Wind.

Soft Kites

Soft kites have no rigid structure or support to maintain their shape. The kite inflates with wind pressure and forms an airfoil profile, like the wing of an airplane, which provides substantial lift. Soft kites have several advantages for kite aerial photography. They have a very low weight-to-surface ratio, they are exceptionally easy to prepare and launch, and they are a breeze to put away--just stuff the kite into a small bag. For light-weight travel or backpacking, soft kites are the type of choice. Soft kites do have a tendency to collapse when the wind diminishes, so a watchful eye is necessary while in flight.

The Sutton Flowform was invented by Steve Sutton as a byproduct of his experiments to create a better parachute during the 1970s (Sutton 1999). He tested various parachute designs as kites, which proved quite successful. The flowform is a soft airfoil that employs venting to reduce drag and control air pressure within the kite body. Sutton was granted a U.S. patent for the flowform design in 1974. Flowform kites are known as smooth and stable flyers under moderate to strong wind; they are ideally suited for KAP.

The Sutton Flowform 16 is a wind-inflated airfoil that flies well in moderate to strong winds (15-25 mph). This side view shows the kite with two 15-foot streamer tails, which greatly improve kite stability. The kite has about 16 square feet (1½ m²) of surface area and weighs about 11 ounces (310 g). Because it has no rigid parts, the kite can be packed into a small stuff-sack about 10 inches (25 cm) long. This kite is the authors' favorite for moderate to strong wind.
The Sutton Flowform 30 is next larger size in the Sutton series. It has 30 ft² (2.8 m²) of lifting surface area and weighs about 23 ounces (650 g). The kite is flying here with two 15-foot streamer tails. This kite develops substantial lift in a moderate wind; for KAP it is utilized for relatively light wind (10-15 mph).

Many other types of soft airfoils are utilized for power lifting of meteorological instruments, advertising banners, cameras, radio antennas, and anything else people want to put into the air at modest cost. Various types of parafoils, vented or unvented, range in size up to more than 100 square feet (>9 m²). The authors' largest airfoil is illustrated below. This huge kite requires 500-pound (220 kg) line, and should be attempted only by experienced kiteflyers under light wind conditions. The kite is flown from a fixed base and can lift several kilograms of equipment easily in a gentle breeze (8-12 mph). It should not be flown in stronger wind.

The SkyFoil measures 10 feet wide by 8½ feet long giving it 85 square feet (7.9 m²) surface area. It is shown here flying without tails; rising moon is visible to left. This kite displays the school colors--black and gold--of the authors' home base, Emporia State University. Kite purchased from Gomberg Kite Productions.

Rigid Kites

As the name implies, rigid kites employ some type of hard framework to give the kite form and shape. Traditional supports of wood and bamboo are replaced in most modern kites by graphite rods and fiberglass poles, although wood and bamboo continue to serve a role in kite construction. Their weight-to-surface ratio is intrinsically greater than soft kites, but rigid kites do have some advantages for KAP. The primary advantage is the ability to fly well in light (4-7 mph) and gentle (8-12 mph) breezes without the danger of deflating and crashing. The frame maintains the kite's proper aerodynamic shape regardless of wind pressure. Although frame members may be disassembled, rigid kites can be troublesome for packing and traveling. The authors use a rifle case for long kites, but this usually arouses suspicion when checking in at airport security or claiming luggage.

This Grand Delta has a wing span of nearly 11 feet, a surface area of approximately 30 ft², and weighs about 19 ounces (540 g). Rigid rods support the wings and maintain proper aerodynamic shape of the kite. The kite is flying here with three tails--15-foot streamer in center and 6-foot streamers on wing tips. The large delta is a very stable flyer under gentle to moderate wind (10-20 mph). This kite folds into a 36-inch case.
The delta-conyne is a combination delta and triangular box kite. D-C kites are very stable fliers in light wind. This Sun Oak Seminole 13-foot D-C is flying with two 15-foot streamer tails. At 48 ounces (1.4 kg), it is sturdy and reliable, but heavy, which reduces its KAP lifting capacity. It folds into a 48-inch case. The large D-C is utilized for light to moderate wind, and will lift a KAP rig with only 8-10 mph wind aloft. See Sun Oak Kites.
Giant delta has a wingspan of 19 feet and a total surface area of 88 square feet (8.2 m²). It flies beautifully on 300-pound line in gentle breeze and has excellent lifting power. Seen here with a 20-foot tube tail, it folds into a 4-foot case and weighs only 5 pounds (2¼ kg).
Daruma rokkaku. This kite, based on a traditional Japanese design, is a good flyer in a light breeze, 5-10 mph (8-15 km/h). It launches on a barely perceptible ground wind and is stable when aloft. Because of its very low weight of 19 ounces (540 g), it is the kite of choice for light wind KAP. This kite measures about 6 feet long by 5 feet wide, and is shown here with a 15-foot streamer tail. It folds to 60 inches.
Giant rokkaku. At 7½ by 6 feet, this big rokkaku has about 36 ft² (3.3 m²) of lifting surface. It develops great pull in very light wind and should not be used in wind more than 10 mph (15 km/h). This kite weighs only 27 ounces (760 g) and folds to a compact 42 inches (107 cm) length. It has become the authors' favorite kite for lifting KAP rigs in light wind (less than 10 mph), and it often succeeds when no other kite will fly.
Kite train. In light wind, multiple kites can greatly increase lifting power and stability for a KAP rig. In this example, two giant rokkakus are lifting a camera rig in a light breeze. The right kite is attached to the main line. The left kite flies on a secondary line, 500 feet (150 m) long, that is connected to the main line via a ring and lark's head knot. The KAP rig is suspended from the main line, well below the attachment point for the secondary kite.

Kite Line and Gloves

Kite line is 250-pound (110-kg) braided dacron for most applications. A simple plastic spool is used to store up to 500 feet (150 m) of line. I wear a safety strap through the spool and around my waist while handling the spool and line. This allows for walking around with the kite to locate the KAP rig over a desired ground location. We also utilize a large Strato-spool reel that holds 1000 feet (300 m) of line. This reel has a brake for letting line out slowly and a long-lever crank for reeling in the line. It is best used when anchored to a fixed point of operation. This arrangement leaves the hands free. As much as possible, the line and reel should not be held only with the hands--a strong gust of wind could quickly overcome tired hand/arm muscles, especially with the larger kites.

The 9-inch plastic spool holds about 500 feet of braided dacron line, which has a test strength of 250 pounds. The kite handle has proven indispensible for securing the line. The handle is a wooden rod with an anchor chain at one end and a tie-down cleat at the other. The handle should always be secured to a firm anchor point.
Kite handle and anchor strap attached to hatch lock of rental car in Norway. The open hatch door provides a small wind break for assembling KAP equipment. This protection is useful in cold weather conditions--note snow on hills in background.
Large Strato-spool reel for kite line (left). The reel is shown with its "lock" (blue strap) holding the kite line in fixed position. The reel is secured by the brown strap to a ground anchor. Large Strato-spool reel disassembled to show parts (right).

Leather gloves are especially important, as fast running kite line can quickly burn or cut exposed skin. The authors have used various types of gloves, including special "kite gloves" in which the finger tips are exposed. While such gloves are quite handy, they often do not have sufficient padding on the palms to protect against cutting by heavy kite line under tension. We have ruined many pairs of gloves flying large kites. Thus, we have come to rely on roper gloves, which are designed for roping cattle. Such gloves are available from farm-and-ranch supply stores.

Horsehide roper gloves for KAP. Note the tight-fitting fingers and extra patch of leather across the palm of the hand.

The authors have developed a technique for mobile KAP that involves a hip harness for attaching the reel and line. Small radios are utilized to communicate between the kite flyer and camera spotter, who operates radio controls and takes pictures. The flyer and spotter are often separated by several hundred yards (meters) and are frequently out of visual contact with each other. In this manner the spotter can instruct the kite flyer to manoeuvre the kite/camera into a particular position. The kite flyer can move about in a hands-free mode while talking on the radio or adjusting the kite line.

J.S. Aber demonstrates the mobile harness for KAP. The hip harness is adapted from a climbing safety belt, and a small radio is strapped to the left arm.

KAP knots and hitches.

KAP trailer

Over the years, we have used a variety of small trailers to haul our KAP equipment. In 2012, we discovered the perfect solution to this logistical issue—the Wells Cargo model
MPT461, low-profile, multi-purpose trailer. The bed is about 4 x 6 feet with 30 inches of interior height. The top pops up and the rear door opens to provide excellent access to equipment, tools, and a spare tire. We modified the interior to mount the spare tire and a large tool box, and hold various cargo boxes, kite cases, and other accessories. In addition, we added eye-bolts on the exterior corners for kite anchors. The trailer pulls and backs easily even over rough terrain.

Wells Cargo small trailer for kite aerial photography. Left: view from above at Cheyenne Bottoms, Kansas. Right: cap open for quick access to equipment. The rear door also opens for loading cargo boxes and other heavy items easily.
Close-up detail of eye-bolt added to back corner of trailer to provide an anchor for the kite line/reel.

Helium blimp

Some days the wind just does not blow--even in the Great Plains. For such conditions, the authors have a 13-foot helium blimp acquired from
Southern Balloon Works. The aerodynamic blimp shape has proven most efficient and economical in calm to light wind (<10 mph or 15 km/h). The blimp is constructed of a single layer of urethane, a plastic material that retains helium well and is durable under field condtions. It holds approximately 240-250 cubic feet (~7 m³) of helium, which provides a payload lift of about 3 kg (7 lbs). Four rigid tail fins stablize the blimp while in flight, and multiple attachment points along the bottom allow for fastening the tether line and camera rig. Camera rigs are the same as used for kite aerial photography, and the blimp easily lifts camera systems weighing up to 1 kg (2.2 lbs).

SWA inflates the blimp from a helium tank in the back of the small pickup truck.
Near-vertical self-portrait of the authors with blimp shadow. The blue tarp to left is laid out for inflating and deflating the blimp.

The good stability of a blimp allows for operation in tight quarters, for example in urban settings with many people, vehicles, and structures nearby, where flying a kite would be risky. The operating wind range for the blimp overlaps that of kites, so a combination of the blimp and kites spans wind conditions from calm to 25 mph (Aber 2004).

Note: as of 2012, a global helium shortage has driven up
cost and sharply limited availability of helium for our blimp.

References

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The authors' late kitten, Oreo, is seen here at 6 months age (2/99). He is content to sit and watch the kites "dance" in the air above.
Kumiko, kitten of the authors' son, is helping to pack the camera equipment case. Seen here at age four months (6/03).


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All text and images © by the authors; last update July 2012.