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Aerial Photography Technology, Old And New


By: Mitch Bloomquist | Tilt-Up Concrete Association

Drones are a very hot topic these days. From the news of a tourist crashing a drone into Yellowstone National Park’s largest hot spring, to hijacked drones on the new season of the hit TV show 24, to Amazon announcing plans to use drones to execute same day deliveries, the technology is making its way into more and more hands. In the construction industry, some contractors are beginning to experiment with drones and aerial photography. This fascination with the bird’s eye view is nothing new though. People have been going to the extreme to capture these images for over one hundred years.

According to the Professional Aerial Photographers Association (PAPA), French photographer and balloonist, Gaspar Felix Tournachon, who had patented the idea of using aerial photographs in mapmaking and surveying in 1855, took the first known aerial photograph in 1858. The photo was a view of the French village of Petit-Becetre taken from a tethered hot-air balloon, 80 meters above the ground. Technology at the time required a complete darkroom to be carried in the basket of the balloon.

As it often does, technology changed quickly. In addition to hot air balloons, early pioneers employed rockets, kites and even pigeons to carry their equipment up into the air. English meteorologist E. D. Archibald was among the first to take successful photographs from kites in 1882, but George. R. Lawrence took perhaps the most famous photograph in 1906. Using a heavy, large-format camera attached to a string of seventeen kites 2,000 feet above the city of San Francisco, Lawrence documented the devastation after the 1906 earthquake and fire that destroyed over eighty percent of the city.

Wilbur Wright captured the first image taken from an airplane in 1909 and aerial photography soon replaced sketching and drawing by aerial observers during World War I. Following the war, the aerial camera was turned to non-military purposes and quickly proved to be a successful commercial venture.

Still today, airplanes are used regularly for aerial photography and often employed by contractors to capture progress shots of projects throughout the construction process. According to Randy Simmons, with R.R. Simmons, a Design/Build and Construction Management solution provider in Tampa, Florida, there is a new option gaining quickly in popularity.

Simmons recently purchased a DJI Phantom 2 drone and has been using it regularly to shoot progress photos. Simmons professed the drone is incredibly easy to fly, convenient, and relatively inexpensive ($679-$1,299). The drone is packed with high-tech features like GPS positioning, onscreen real-time flight parameters, and a function that returns the aircraft to it’s home position if it gets out of range or runs out of power. The integral 14-megapixel camera shoots full HD video at 1080p/30fps and 720p/60fps. The operator can tilt the camera as they fly to capture a variety of views.


According to Simmons, the discovery of new applications is unending. They are using the drone for inspections of hard-to-access areas of buildings like roofs and to review site conditions on new properties. Flying over sites prior to bidding a job allows them document and study existing conditions. They are also taking advantage of the drone’s altimeter to depict with great accuracy, for example, the view from a 4th story office window that does not yet exist.

While law governing the operation of these remote-controlled pilotless aircraft will surely become more defined, there are countless conditions and spaces where flying a drone is more practical than a full-sized helicopter or airplane.


Still, some prefer to do it the old fashioned way. Craig Wilson, from Madison, Wisconsin, specializes in kite aerial photography. His work has been published in a book titled, Hanging by a Thread: A Kite’s View of Wisconsin (2006). Published by Itchy Cat Press, the Blue Mounds imprint of Flying Fish Graphics, the book includes 140 color plates on 132 pages. The majority of the images focus on Madison, bringing new perspectives to familiar settings. A newer book titled A little More Line: A Kite’s View of Wisconsin and Beyond (2012) is also available.

party-timeDavid Medaris at Isthmus, Madison, Wisconsin’s alternative news media, wrote, “Where satellite images are static, remote and gridlike in composition, Wilson’s kite cam affords a more human-scale acuity, full of color and life and artistic intent that is beyond the ability of even low-flying surveillance craft.”

Wilson’s camera is mounted to a kind of homemade armature that hangs a good distance below the kite itself, which flies smoothly high up in the air. Surprisingly, very little wind is needed to get the kite and equipment up into the air, according to Wilson.

Some of Wilson’s most impressive images are his aerial close ups. Ron McCrea wrote in the Capitol Times, “It’s unusual because images from a kite often get oddly close to crowds and buildings at a medium altitude, using normal lenses that capture detail and lifelike effects that a long-lens photo taken from a helicopter simply can’t replicate without distortion.”

A kite is not subject to the restrictions imposed on planes, helicopters or even drones. Wilson can fly his camera directly over a crowded stadium, within feet of the tops of buildings, or just above the heads of people enjoying lunch at a café. He celebrates the fact that time is not so much of an issue with kite photography. There are no expensive rental fees and battery life is not a concern. An airplane cannot practically hang around all afternoon to wait for the perfect light or site condition.

Nevertheless, whether you prefer the high-tech drone or the nostalgia of a kite, one thing is certain – the versatility and flexibility afforded by these options is of great value.


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TILT-UP TODAY, a publication of the Tilt-Up Concrete Association, is THE source for Tilt-Up industry news, market intelligence, business strategies, technical solutions, product information, and other resources for professionals in the Tilt-Up industry. A subscription to TILT-UP TODAY is included in a TCA membership. Subscriptions for potential TCA members are also available. If you would like to receive a complimentary subscription to the publication, please contact the TCA.