Friday, July 18, 2014

Flying Kites and Photographing Mines with Public Lab

Last month we flew a kite and took aerial photographs of the Hi-Crush frac sand operation in Augusta, WI, using techniques developed by Public Lab. The Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (Public Lab) is a community -- supported by a 501(c)3 non-profit -- which develops and applies open-source tools to environmental exploration and investigation. The tools allow ordinary citizens to engage in monitoring and research. Using kites or balloons, Public Lab has developed a easy-to-use system for taking aerial photographs, which has been utilized by communities in Peru to produce maps to support land tenure claims and by environmentalists and citizens in Louisiana to monitor the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

In brief, the technology entails rigging up a small digital camera to a kite or weather balloon and then flying it over the site that you wish to photograph. Online, open-source software is available from Public Lab to stitch the photographs into an aerial map. A student and I decided to explore how this technology might be applied by citizens concerned about the rapid growth of frac sand mining. We collaborated with the Concerned Citizens of Bridge Creek and the Citizens for Environmental Stewardship, both based out of the Augusta area, and we were joined by two members of Public Lab who were touring the region to learn more about frac sand mining.

We ended up spending the afternoon at a farm near the Hi-Crush operation. It was a very windy day, making it ideal for a kite (I also couldn't find helium to rent anywhere in the region, which ruled out the weather balloon... it may have been too windy for a balloon anyway). Our local contacts had already discussed our plans with several landowners in the area. Pesky wind conditions prevented us from launching the kite in a way to fly directly over the mine, so our Public Lab kite expert Matt Lippincott rigged up a camera for oblique shots. He has written about the more technical aspects of our experience on the Public Lab blog. The oblique perspective meant we couldn't use the photographs to construct an aerial map, but it still produced some impressive images.

As we flew the kite, curious Amish farmers and their children watched with great interest and chatted with us about their experiences living next to the Hi-Crush frac sand operation. The Amish community settled there over 35 years ago, drawn to the remote rural countryside. The industrial frac sand mine opened two years ago and includes a mine, conveyor belt, processing plant, and rail spur that produces over 1.5 million tons of sand per year. The mine operates all night long and generates a disturbing amount of light pollution. The conveyor belt, about fifty yards from several homes, runs nonstop and sounds like an idling semi tractor-trailer. Fugitive dust and small mounds of spilled sand accumulate below the conveyor every several feet. The blasting, which can occur weekly, sometimes rattles local homes. Hi-Crush has over a 1,000 acres of property and plans to operate for around thirty years.

Public Lab's balloon or kite photography technique is relatively inexpensive, is easy to learn, and can be deployed quickly. Among other applications, concerned citizens might utilize this technique to document the expansion of frac sand operations, to ensure compliance with land use or other regulations, or to monitor for potential hazards.

UW-Stout Applied Social Science major Stephanie Hintz connects the camera rig to the kite string with Public Lab founder Matt Lippincott. Public Lab staff member Stevie Lewis snapped this picture.

Public Lab staff member Stevie Lewis steps in to help Matt and Stephanie attach the camera rig to the kite string. This photograph was taken by UW-Eau Claire professor Jyl Kelley, who accompanied us for the day. 

The kite with camera rig attached. Photo by Stevie Lewis.

The digital camera was set to continuous shooting and snapped thousands of photographs. The three samples above show the Hi-Crush sand conveyor leading to the mine site. Photos taken by the Public Lab rainbow kite, June 18, 2014.
Later that evening, Matt quickly cut and paste some of the photos into a stunning panorama. Thanks, Matt! 

The day began with severe thunderstorms (not good for flying kites!), but by the afternoon the sun blasted through the clouds. Most of us took refuge in the shade as Stephanie and Matt, wisely sporting hats and sunglasses, expertly flew the kite. Photo by Stevie Lewis.

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