Public Lab Research note

Make or buy a balloon mapping kit

by liz | March 01, 2017 19:31 01 Mar 19:31 | #13978 | #13978

Activity based on, and it covers the entire balloon kit except for the camera.

Do you want to make maps? Do you need satellite images but can't afford them? Do you want to see your home from above? Follow these instructions and you can, for as little as $100!

The Public Lab Balloon Mapping Kit

Purchasing The Balloon Mapping Kit assembled by Public Lab is one quick way for you to take aerial photographs.

Public Lab's kit contains:

--5.5 foot (170cm) reusable* balloon made of a latex/chloroprene (neoprene) mix

--1000 feet (305m) of 110lb test (55 kilo) Dacron line, pre-wound on an 8" hoop winder

--protective canvas gloves for handling the line. Thin line can cause burns to unprotected hands.

--three high-strength (270lb) swivel clips. For attaching the balloon and camera twenty rubber bands. for making a camera cradle

--reusable ties. for closing the balloon (3 hook/loop or 10 plastic)

--one 1" rubber ring. for attaching the balloon to the line

--one steel carabiner. for anchoring the balloon on the ground

--two aluminum mini carabiners. for attaching cameras to the line

--printed instruction booklet

--rigid cardboard "suitcase" with graphics and sturdy plastic handle to carry everything easily


Where we purchase the components of our balloon mapping kits:

-- Our mapping balloons are purchased wholesale from MSR Balloons. We purchase 5.5 foot chloroprene balloons. If you wanted to buy one without buying wholesale you may not want to buy from the same manufacturer as they are a wholesaler. If you have an interest in buying wholesale balloons, visit their website here:

-- The 1000' reel is purchased from the Shanti Kite company. Similar to the mapping balloons, we buy them wholesale and in this case the item is somewhat custom. This is not the case with all of our kits. Please contact if you would like more information on ordering the 1000' reels

-- Canvas gloves are purchased from McMaster Carr. This is a direct link to the item

-- The swivels are purchased from Tackle Direct. This is a direct link to the item:

-- O-rings are also purchased from McMaster Carr. The item number is 9452K404, there is no direct link to that specific item but you can find that item on this page:

-- The carabiner is also from McMaster Carr. Again, the page does not link to the item directly, but the item number is 3933T22 on this page

-- The mini carabiners are found here:

-- The reusable velcro ties are found also on McMaster Carr. The item number is 6605K11 and the item cane be found on this page:

Other sets of materials that will work


Beginner/low-cost materials list

  • one balloon - $34 for a 5.5-foot balloon
    • To save even more money, two or three $1.50 mylar emergency sleeping bags cut costs, and retain helium better if inflated for more than a few hours. See discussion, but they must be carefully taped shut and sealed very well to work, which takes some practice.
  • helium to fill the balloon to about a 5-foot diameter
  • 1 two-liter plastic soda bottle (rounded, not conic neck works best, see the Soda Bottle Rig page)
  • at least 1000 feet braided nylon string, like kite string (which you can buy a la cart from the Public Lab Store), mason line, anything strong and very light. You can tie two 500' spools together into a 1000' line. The mason line, a medium weight nylon #18, rated to ~150 lbs, is your simplest choice, easy to get at a hardware store. It's often sold in 500 foot rolls for a few dollars. Buy 2 or 3, wind them onto a reel one at a time tying them end-to-end, to get to at least 1000-1500 feet minimum.
  • something to wind the string on (the reel in the Public Lab Store is cheap and good at $28 with 1000' of string already on it)
  • duct tape & clear packing tape
  • Use leather gloves to protect your hands.

Advanced/high performance materials list

  • $13.95 10" Yo-Yo style reel, which is less likely to damage your line, but takes longer to reel in.
  • ~$3 metallized mylar sleeping bags -- you'll need 2 or 3 per flight; get the ones that already have yellow taped seams, and you just have to tape up the opening. If you properly fold over and tape this last seam, and check the other corners for leaks, it should stay inflated for several days.
  • 1" wide Gaffer tape is lovely -- it sticks and resticks many times, and is very strong.
  • a Picavet suspension may stabilize your camera, some people still prefer the Soda Bottle Rig
  • If you're going to be doing a lot of this, consider buying an aluminum helium tank, which you can keep as long as you like, and which is much easier to carry: 280 dollars for 125 cu feet (~2 flights) or 180 dollars for 55 cu feet (~1 flight).
  • $20 3000 foot 50 pound Dacron kite line (update: site down). there's sometimes a deal for $10 pink reels, but dark colors probably show up less in photos. For much higher flights, ~4000+ feet, you want lighter and stronger string. Monofilament fishing line (the clear kind) is risky because it can suddenly snap. Braided spectra gets worn and will also snap unexpectedly. This may be because fishing line (esp. high strength) is designed to be used in the open ocean without obstacles to get caught on or tangled in. But if you're careful it has very low drag and we've used it for some great flights on days with almost no wind.

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