Hot Air Balloon Over Canberra

"Live" on the Internet

by Tom Worthington, 16 August 1996

Status: lift off was at 7:30am AEST, Friday 16 August

Why do it?

IFIP96 - the 14th World Computer Congress be opened by the Governor-General of Australia on 2 September in Canberra. IFIP96 will feature a conference on Mobile Communications, a workshop about the Internet, and hot air balloon rides over Canberra's magnificent scenery.

Tom Worthington Kate Lundy To give you a preview Tom Worthington, President of the Australian Computer Society (host for IFIP96) and Senator Kate Lundy (one of the speakers), will transmit photos live from a hot air balloon over Canberra.

The photos

To be added at the time (from air):

Tom Worthington & Senator Kate Lundy1 Other balloons2 Parliment House3

  1. Tom Worthington & 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).
  2. Other balloons below us
  3. Parliament House and view south over Canberra
added later

Quit Balloon taking off1 Belconnen2 Black Mountain3 Civic4 Parliament House5

  1. Quit Balloon taking off
  2. Belconnen (north western satellite "town" of Canberra)
  3. Passing Black Mountain telecommunications tower
  4. Canberra's commercial city center (site of IFIP96 is on the far right)
  5. Parliament House (location for the IFIP96 Congress Dinner
Photo of Tom Worthington & Senator  Lundy, Copyright (c) Canberra Times 1996Canberra Times photograph of Tom Worthington & Senator Lundy: This photograph appeared in the Canberra Times newspaper 19 August 1996 (page 13). It was taken by a photographer from the newspaper, using a conventional 35 mm camera and the negative then scanned. This photograph is used by permission of the newspaper. Other use will require separate permission from the Canberra Times (Fax: +61 6 2802282).

How it was done

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

  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 in the world to view via the Web at: http://www.tomw.net.au/travel/balloon.htm
  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 the message to some of the ACS's 16,000 members and other interested viewers in Australia and elsewhere.

Post flight report

To be added after the flight.

This is 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.

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

Digital images sent by mobile phone has some serious uses and implications. The equipment used costs a few thousand dollars (Camera: $AU1500, computer: $AU4500, phone: $AU1,000). 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.

Note 9 September 1996: See the Industry Issues Paper I have added to the Defence Home Page for Joint Project 129, Project Warrendi, Airborne Surveillance for Land Operations.
Consumer digital cameras are now down to as little as $AU500. However the problem is the limited digital storage in the camera for images (about eight to sixteen images) and the difficulty of getting the photos out of the camera and into a computer. An alternative would be a camera attachment for a mobile phone. 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 phone to connect to the Internet is remarkably easy. You just plug one end of the adapter into the bottom of the phone and the other end (a PC Card) into the laptop computer. No additional software or configuration is required as the adapter 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 phone calls on the mobile phone system. Also you have to worry about battery power in the laptop and phone, 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 phone clipped to my belt as usual (the carrying case for my phone has a hole in the bottom to allow the data adapter to be attached). I had a shoulder bag to keep the computer and accessories in (in fact the free give-away conference bag from the ACT Oracle User's Group 1996 Conference).

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 (with a conventional 35 mm camera), trying to take photos of the set- up. 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).

We 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 (previously PCMCIA) slots. The top one has an eject button, the bottom one doesn't. The GSM interface was in the top slot as usual, so I had to put the RAM card in the bottom one. I have 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 digital camera's proprietary format 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 which did the necessary conversions automatically. Also a system which uploaded photos as they were available would be useful.

PS: This is what the burner on the balloon sounds like.

With thanks to:

See also:
This Web Site Was Moved Here, February 1999

Web page by Tom Worthington.