From the book Net Traveller by Tom Worthington

Hot Air Balloon Over Canberra

The 14th World Computer Congress (IFIP96) was held in Canberra in 1996, during my term as President of the Australian Computer Society (host for IFIP96). I invited one of the speakers, Senator Kate Lundy, to transmit photos live from a hot air balloon over Canberra. Lift off was at 7:30am AEST, Friday 16 August 1996 (Worthington 1996).

Tom Worthington & Senator Kate LundyWith Senator Kate Lundy on way to launch: (transmitted just after lift off). This photograph subsequently appeared in the Australian newspaper Tuesday 20 August 1996 (page 33).

Other balloons
Other balloons below us

Parliment House
Parliament House and view south over Canberra

Canberra's commercial city centre

Parliament House
Parliament House

How it was done

Equipment: Digital camera, laptop computer, GSM digital mobile telephone and PC card data adaptor.

  1. Getting the photos: Kate Lundy used the camera to snap photos in the usual way. Instead of film the digital camera stores the images in a non-volatile ``Flash RAM'' PC card. I then loaded the photos as data into the laptop computer, by removing the PC card from the camera and inserting it in the computer. The photos were then edited and compressed to make them suitable for transmitting, using software on the PC.
  2. Transmitting the photos: My GSM digital mobile telephone was connected to the PC with a cable. The computer's software then commanded the telephone to call the number of my Internet Service Provider (ISP) in Canberra. The ISP's Canberra computer connected via the Internet, to my Web server at another ISP in Brisbane. The photos were transmitted to Brisbane and stored for anyone to view via the Web.
  3. Announcing the photos: I sent an electronic mail message is using the same PC, software and link to the head office of the International Federation for Information Processing (IFIP) in Europe. Software on IFIP's system relayed the message to the Presidents of the 65 member societies of IFIP around the world. Also a message was sent to some of the ACS's 16,000 members and other interested viewers in Australia and elsewhere.

Post flight report

This was believed to be the world's first transmission of digital photographs from a hot air balloon to the Internet and the first by an elected member of a national parliament over their constituency.

The first three photos were all we had time to snap and send in the air. I did manage to send out the e-mail announcement to the IFIP Presidents from the air. The other photos were taken in the air on the same flight, but up-loaded after we were back on the ground.

Digital images sent by mobile telephone have some serious uses and implications. The equipment used costs a few thousand dollars (Camera: AU$1500, computer: AU$4500, telephone: AU$1,000). This, for example, could be fitted into a radio controlled model aircraft to make a low-cost surveillance platform for use over a city by emergency services.

Consumer digital cameras are now down to as little as AU$500. However the problem is the limited digital storage in the camera for images (about eight to sixteen images) and the difficulty in getting the photos out of the camera and into a computer. An alternative would be a camera attachment for a mobile telephone. The camera would only need to store one or two pictures and then transmit them to a storage site on the Internet. You could then look at your photos when you got home.

This technology also has some worrying implications. For around $AU1,000 it is possible to build a pocket size video and audio surveillance device, from the imaging unit of a digital camera and the transmitter of a mobile telephone. This would have legitimate applications to protect premises. The unit could be attached to a movement sensor, switch on and transmit a photo of anything in a room. However if misused this has worrying implications for personal privacy.

How difficult was it?

Using a computer with an interface to a GSM telephone to connect to the Internet is remarkably easy. You just plug one end of the adaptor into the bottom of the telephone and the other end (a PC Card) into the laptop computer. No additional software or configuration is required as the adaptor emulates a standard modem and works with the usual data communications and fax software.

The major limitations are the speed of the transmission, which is 9600 bps and the cost of telephone calls on the mobile telephone system. In addition, you have to worry about battery power in the laptop and telephone, as you tend to use both for longer.

In operating the system from a balloon there are additional problems with the limited space and lack of a table top. I had the mobile telephone clipped to my belt as usual (the carrying case for my telephone has a hole in the bottom to allow the data adaptor to be attached). I had a shoulder bag in which to keep the computer and accessories.

To operate the laptop computer I had to hold it in one hand and type or operate the mouse with the other hand. This is a difficult operation in a balloon basket. Besides the Senator and myself, in our side of the basket was a photographer from the Canberra Times newspaper. He was taking photographs of the set- up, with a conventional 35 mm camera (a photograph appeared in the Canberra Times newspaper on 19 August 1996). In the excitement of looking at the view and two people taking photos, my laptop came precariously close to the edge of the basket. This is one of the applications that a touch screen or pen operated computer on a neck strap might be useful (a PADD would be perfect).

I had a major problem with the flash RAM PC card from the digital camera: it went in the PC to transfer the photos okay, but would not come out. It was next to impossible to remove the flash RAM card from the PC. My PC has two PC Card slots. However, I found only the top one has an eject button. The GSM interface was in the top slot as usual, so I had to put the RAM card in the bottom one. I had never used this slot before and found I had to remove the GSM card (disconnecting the data link) to prise out the other card. I would like to get the designer of this PC up in a balloon some time and see if they could do better.

Before sending each photo I had to convert it from the proprietary format of the digital camera to JPEG, using the software supplied with the camera. Then I opened this file in another graphics package to create a small GIF version for in-line in the web page. This takes about a minute per photo and takes longer than actually sending the photos. It would help to have a programmable package that did the necessary conversions automatically. In addition, a system which up-loaded photos as they were available would be useful.

The web report also has digitised sound of the burner on the balloon.

Discussion Questions

  1. Compare the design of the web version of this document and the original. Which changes are due to development of web standards and which to increased experience of the web designer?
  2. What can you find out from open source (that is on-line) information about the places and people mentioned in this travelogue?
  3. What laws govern the use of the Internet from a hot air balloon?
  4. Which Australian federal agency was involved in flying a pilot-less aircraft across the Atlantic?
  5. Are any of the documents cited still on-line?


  1. Worthington, T. (1996) Hot Air Balloon Over Canberra, URL

Further Information

Copyright © Tom Worthington 1999.