Open Science and Open Hardware with Public Lab Balloon Mapping Kits

Alasdair Allan
3 min readJul 18, 2017

When people think of citizen science projects they often think of Safecast, which was formed in response to the devastating earthquake and tsunami which struck eastern Japan in 2011 and caused the meltdown of the Fukushima Nuclear Plant. The organisation—whose initial goal was to obtain trustworthy radiation measurements during the disaster—now maintains the largest open dataset of background radiation measurements ever collected, and is now building out a network of sensors to monitor atmospheric pollution.

However alongside it are others, and chief amongst them is Public Lab which was also formed in response to another disaster, the BP Deep Water Horizon oil spill, which happened almost a year before Fukushima.

Public Lab balloon mapping kit. (📷: Public Lab)

During the 2010 spill—amidst the information blackout for residents of the coastal region—Public Lab lofted “community satellites,” balloons and kites carrying light weight digital cameras, over the spill to collect real time data about its impact. The project was initially funded on Kickstarter.

An example of the early balloon mapping work done by Public Lab over Chandeleur Islands, Louisiana, in the wake of the BP Deep Water Horizon disaster. This map is of an area where a cut has formed in the barrier island landform. The rainbow color is visible oil sheen on the surface of the water, with heavy oil pollution within the sand spit, and in the wave action along the sandy beach. (📷: Public Lab)

Public Lab has been a regular on Kickstarter ever since, funding various projects, including a reboot of the balloon mapping kits they used during the spill. Since then they’ve been involved in environmental monitoring and advocacy projects, and now they’re back as part of Kickstarter Gold.

The new balloon kits are a decedent of the original kits from their balloon mapping campaign five years ago.

“This campaign will help us continue to evolve our aerial mapping tools to make them even more affordable, accessible, and adaptable so that individuals and communities can respond quickly to the issues they see in their environment. It will also help continue to grow a community of researchers, investigators and advocates by providing tools, resources and training to people and organizations facing environmental challenges.”

Multispectral images made with a two-camera visible/infrared kite photography rig. The false color infrared image (NRG) displays the data from an infrared camera as red, and data from a normal camera in the green and blue channels. The normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) image displays a computed index which uses infrared data from one camera and blue light data from the other. (📷: Public Lab)

With cameras getting smaller, lighter, and more affordable, the new campaign includes smaller balloons and kites to lift the tiny cameras that are now readily available—a GoPro alternative weighing less than 60g is included as part of the campaign—compared to the more substantial payload capacity (>300g) of the classic kits from the original campaign.

The Public Lab Kickstarter Gold campaign is now fully funded, but still has just over two days to go, so there’s still time to pledge for a balloon or kite mapping kit.

Pledges start at $50 for a mini-balloon or kite kit, rising to $145 for a ‘classic’ kit.