Grassroots Aerial Mapping

Caitlin Dempsey


Aerial imagery has evolved into a more complex and sophisticated enterprise with most aerial imagery today being captured by aircraft and Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS).

Justin Lee and Oliver Yeh, two MIT students made the news in 2009 when, for $150, they launched a balloon into near-space to take pictures of the earth.  Named Project Icarus, the project was created to prove that inexpensive materials could be used to reach the upper levels of the atmosphere.  The experiment used a cheap digital camera, a GPS enabled cell phone, a polystyrene coolbox to house the camera and phone, and a weather ballon.  The phone was programmed to capure an image every five seconds and the phone was used to capture the coordinates.  The peak altitude was estimated to have reached 93,000 feet above the earth’s surface, taking four hours to ascend (the GPS signal on the phone was lost at a little of 19,000 feet).  The experiment was documented on Lee and Yeh’s site and includes photograph from the flight.

Citibank’s commercial for one of its credit cards released late last year echoed the exploits of Lee and Yeh’s near-space photography with a depiction showing a group of three friends using the bank’s rewards program to buy the materials needed to launch a GPS-tracked, balloon mounted aerial video project. A nineteen year-old from England, Adam Cudworth, recently reenacted Lee and Yeh’s experiment which was profiled on the British news site,  Mail Online (via AllPointsBlog).

The first grassroot effort to promote aerial mapping was profiled by Good Magazine in March of 2011 the article Grassroots Mapping: How You Can Create Aerial Cartography for Under $100, and Use It to Do Good (also check out Good’s Grassroot Mapping Slideshow).  Grassroots Mapping was created by Jeffrey Warren of MIT’s Media Lab as a way to provide local communities with low-cost ways to obtain their own aerial imagery.  The technique has been used in a land-rights dispute in Lima, Peru and was used to map the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.

Using balloons and kites, images are captured with digital cameras.  The individual shots are then stitched together and orthorectified using  MapKnitter, a free online tool.  A list of the basic materials needed to launch your own balloon aerial mapping is available on the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science site.  An illustrated guide (PDF) is also available in English, Georgian, and Hebrew.

DIY Aerial Mapping Kit from Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science.

In April of 2012, Google’s Lat Long Blog announced the availability of balloon and kite imagery in Google Earth.

Aerial Image of Lake Merritt, Oakland, CA in Google Earth Source: Public Laboratory, July 2011

The Sunlight Foundation, which previously was involved in drafting petitions to prevent the shuttering of government sites such as, recently awarded Liz Barry and her team from The Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science one of its OpenGov Champions award for grassroots aerial mapping of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Photo of author
About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.

Free weekly newsletter

Fill out your e-mail address to receive our newsletter!

1 thought on “Grassroots Aerial Mapping”

Comments are closed.