Notes on Kite Aerial Photography: Photo Gallery

Laser / Radial US National Championship
Richmond Yacht Club, July 1996

go to location mapFor some time now I've been talking to Eric Arens about the feasibility of documenting sailboat races from a kite-lofted camera. Eric chairs the race committee for the 1997 International 14 Championships to be held in Richmond, California next summer. In sailboat races the fleet maneuvers toward a starting line marked by flags on two boats. A boat crossing the line before the start of the race faces penalties or disqualification. One challenge for race officials is determining whether the starting line has been breached by an eager competitor. This can be more difficult than you would think particularly in races involving large numbers of boats (Eric expects over 100 for next year's race.) As the race starts one can photograph down the starting line from one of the starting line boats. However, a boat jumping the starting line could be screened by a flanking boat. As Eric and I talked we wondered if kite photographs could supplement the water-level views of the start and perhaps later at the windward mark. This page presents our first trial - photographs taken during the seventh race of the Laser / Radial US National Championships held in July 1996.

The Nicki-J, our camera platform, as seen from the kite (right). The stern was allocated to the kite aerial photography team - myself and son Charlie Benton (July 1996, 37K jpg right and 46K jpg left)

Our platform for these photo trials was the Nicki-J, one of Kersey Clausen's many boats. During the race this 1918 fishing boat served as headquarters for the race committee which was chaired by Clausen. Also aboard was Liz Johnson, Commodore of the Richmond Yacht Club, as helmsperson and sometime KAP assistant plus Bill from Southern California as video cameraman. Charlie Benton and I managed the KAP equipment from the stern of the Nicki-J. We flew the Sutton Flowform 16 with a frilly tail in steady winds of 12 to 15 mph. On occasion the Nicki-J would move upwind at 5 to 6 mph thus adding to the apparent wind speed.

The Sutton Flowform 16 was a joy to fly in these conditions - holding a steady position in the sky while providing ample lift for the camera rig. In three hours of camera flying over water the kite's behavior caused no concerns whatsoever. It launched easily from the cramped stern of the Nicki-J. It packs into a tiny volume in my gear bag. I've grown very fond of it.

The start of race seven of the Laser / Radial US National Championships as photographed from a kite (July 1996, 68K jpg).

This composite image shows the southern end of the starting line in five-second intervals during the start of the race. It appears that one boat has crossed the line in the start frame and indeed this boat was disqualified. This first attempt at aerial documentation of a race start turned out reasonably well. I think the technique could work with some adjustments. For one thing, it was difficult to predict the camera's field of view when flying over the open bay. I believe we need a real-time video downlink to reliably frame the starting line. A camera databack with minutes and seconds would be useful. I'm also concerned about kite performance in higher winds - the previous day had race winds near 30 knots. None of my kites are stable in that much wind.

An Appeal:

If anyone out there has experience documenting the start of sailboat races with aerial photographs I would love to hear from you. Some questions related to this project are:

1. What is a good choice for a stable high wind kite? If we are serious about the project we must be prepared for winds up to 30 mph. The good news would be that the winds should be fairly stable.

2. What is my best option for a video transmitter? I have the Super Circuits catalog and have talked to them briefly. It sounds like I would need a transmitter at 1.2 GHz or a higher frequency to cope with the Bay Area's urban context. I might also need a range of up to 1500 feet. If you've had experience with kite-lofted transmitters I'd love to hear about it.

3. What is a good option for the ground-side video monitor? The device would have to work in the high ambient light of outdoors.

4. Could I expect to capture useful images directly from the video downlink?

If you can offer advice send a note to:

A Laser bears off at the finish line (July 1996, 60K jpg).

The race documentation shots were not very satisfying as images. It was overcast and the Lasers were small and grainy. I did take some lower level shots at the finish and these are more handsome (though somewhat redundant.)

Overhead shots of Lasers during (above) and before (below) the race (July 1996, 65K jpg left, 67K jpg right, and 20K jpg below).

Oh look what's here - a larger sailboat (July 1996, 35K jpg).

After the race start the Nicki-J was anchored to serve as one end of the finish line. While waiting for the Lasers to arrive I noticed a larger sailboat approaching on a course directly toward us. It sailed right behind our stern through a zone occupied by the kiteline. There was no place for me to go to get out of the way. So, I waited until the boat was near and then worked on getting the kite to a steep angle by inhauling kiteline. Happily the angle of the kite was sufficient to clear the passing boat's mast - thank you steady wind. I snapped this quick shot as my slight panic subsided.

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All rights reserved. Revised: Thursday, July 18, 1996