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Last week I pulled up to one of the engineering buildings on the UCSD campus to see a blimp with a red tail-wheel tied down in the bed of a utility truck. The wind was whipping it into a frenzy despite the nylon tethers, transforming it into a rodeo bull stuck in the bucking chute. Brian, an undergrad in the engineering department, met me outside and assured me the balloon was secure. I followed him upstairs to Dr. Albert Lin’s material sciences lab, which is part of the Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology.
Albert Lin was named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer in 2010 and voted by reader’s choice as Adventurer of the Year for his “Valley of the Khans Project” in which he has been searching for Ghengis Khan’s tomb using non-invasive and crowd-sourcing technologies developed in his lab. Albert is a busy man. He also began a program at UCSD called the “Engineers for Exploration” in partnership with National Geographic, which funds student participation in the Khans project as well as their own self-directed endeavors. We’d met for the first time in Washington D.C., and then again in early October when a Young Explorers Grant Workshop was held at UCSD, which he hosted and helped organized and at which I spoke and met with students interested in applying for a grant.
Two months later, Albert contacted me to see if I would like to collaborate with one of the students in his lab, who has created a gigapan blimp gimbal apparatus to take information-dense images of San Diego’s Coastline. Yes, this sounded good to me, although I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant. So I showed up that day to meet the mastermind behind this crazy invention, Thomas Goehrin, and find out.
“See the camera attaches here to this plate, then I send the balloon up into the air and control it remotely from my computer. The swinging gimbal means that no matter which direction the balloon blows the camera will keep an even horizon,” Thomas explained.
“We have the camera take three to four hundred images of the same area and then stitch them together into one huge image back at the lab. This means you can zoom into tiny details or zoom out for a very broad, comprehensive picture,” he continued.
“Wow,” I said, as my ego was being beaten up by this genius undergrad at least five years my junior, “That’s impressive.”
My job was to connect Thomas with researchers working at the local non-profits who would find his images useful for their work on water quality and to help refine his application for a Young Explorers Grant. He hopes to use the money from the grant to launch his balloon up and down the entire coastline of San Diego and collect his high-quality imagery.
The next step was seeing it in action, so Albert drove the massive utility truck with the bucking bronco in tow down to the Scripps Pier. Thomas, Brian and Conrad, another student in Albert’s lab, wrangled the beast off the truck and walked it like Zero, the floating dog from Nightmare Before Christmas, down towards the end of the pier. It took about fifteen minutes to get everything in place. Then Conrad began letting out the blimp’s leash, until it shrank to a little drop, as Thomas and Brian manned the computer.
“Can you see if the camera is moving when I tell it to?” Thomas asked Brian as he handed him a pair of binoculars.
“I can see it. It’s not moving.”
“Dangit. I’m testing a new signal receiver on the gimbal, there’s still some bugs,” Thomas turned towards me and explained.
So they reeled in what I now saw as a floating fish, and fiddled around with it. About ten minutes later they sent it up again. No luck. They reeled it back in and made a few adjustments. This time it worked, but the newly placed receiver was now obstructing the motion of the camera. They reeled it in again and fiddled some more. At this point I had to run to a meeting.
“Good luck guys. I’m sure you’ll get it eventually,” I said, very glad it wasn’t me that had to figure out how to make it work. As I walked down the pier towards my car, I saw the balloon climbing into the sky again and smiled, just in case it caught me in one of its photos.