Helium Blimp for SFAP
ES 555 Small Format
Aerial Photography
James S. Aber

Table of Contents
Helium Helium blimp
Advantages Related sites


Several lighter-than-air gases could be employed for balloons and blimps to lift aerial camera equipment--hydrogen (H2), helium (He), or methane (CH4). Hydrogen was widely available and utilized in early balloons and zeppelins (see bottom). However, hydrogen and methane are both explosive and highly flammable; they will not be considered further for obvious safety reasons, which leaves helium as the gas of choice for all modern balloon and blimp applications.

Helium is created as a byproduct of radioactive decay within the solid Earth. Continental crust, which is enriched in uranium and other radioactive elements, is a constant source for helium. Because it is inert, helium does not combine with minerals in the crust, but it does readily dissolve into fluids such as ground water and natural gas, which typically contains 0.2 to 1.5% He by volume. Eventually the helium reaches the surface, for example in hot spring water (Persoz et al. 1972), and is released into the atmosphere. Earth's gravity is too weak to retain the helium molecule (single He atom), so it ultimately escapes into space.

Helium was little known prior to the 20th century. This changed with discovery that helium is a significant component of natural gas in some situations. An exploration well drilled in 1903 near Dexter, Kansas produced a nonflammable gas. Analysis demonstrated that helium comprised ~1% of the natural gas by volume (Nat. Acad. Sciences 2000). Military applications for a lifting gas stimulated a need for helium during World War I. When the United States entered the war, helium production was tasked to the Bureau of Mines (BOM), and three experimental helium extraction plants were built in Texas.

Following the war, the U.S. Navy pursued lighter-than-air flight, and BOM constructed additional helium productions plants in Texas. Helium in the ground was owned by the federal government, but some commercial production also took place during the 1920-30s in Kansas and Colorado. World War II led to a huge increase in helium production, primarily for lifting Naval reconnaissance aircraft, as well as for development of nuclear energy. Existing helium extraction plants were expanded, and new plants were built in Kansas, New Mexico and Texas in connection with natural gas fields.

During the Cold War of the 1950-60s, helium was viewed as a strategic resource, and a helium production and storage program was enacted by Congress in 1960 to create a Federal Helium Reserve (Nat. Acad. Sciences 2000). This act also allowed private (commercial) production of helium, which the federal government would guarantee purchase for storage. However, following the successful Apollo Mission to the Moon, demand for helium declined substantially during the 1970s. The federal government canceled its purchase contracts, and many helium production plants closed. The Exell Plant, near Amarillo, Texas, became the primary BOM helium extraction plant.

In 1997, Congress eliminated the Bureau of Mines and transferred the Federal Helium Reserve to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). At roughly the same time, the Helium Privatization Act of 1996 required closing of federal helium production facilities, which were mothballed in 1998. Thus all helium production in the United States today is done by private companies, although the Federal Helium Reserve still exists in Bush Dome reservoir in the Cliffside gas field near Amarillo, Texas. Main producing states are Texas and Kansas, primarily from the vast Hugoton-Panhandle gas field, with additional helium from Oklahoma, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. Much of the crude helium from Texas and Oklahoma is shipped via a federal helium pipeline to Kansas for further purification and liquefaction at Otis and Bushton.

Taken from National Academy of Sciences (2000).

Sign outside helium plant at Otis, Kansas.

Nowadays helium extracted from natural gas is the only commercial source, and the United States is the major supplier. Helium is also produced in Algeria, Poland, Qatar, and Russia. As an industrial commodity, compressed helium is widely available in the United States in steel tanks that can be purchased or rented from gas distributors. A special balloon-filler valve/nozzle is useful for inflating balloons or small blimps from a compressed helium cylinder.

Helium cylinder mounted on a hand truck for easy transport (left). This large tank weighs about 55 kg (~120 lbs) and contains about 250 cubic feet (~7 m³) of helium. It is shown here with the safety cap in place, which is required whenever the tank is transported or stored. Close-up view of valve and nozzle for inflating balloons or blimps (right).

Beginning in 2012, a worldwide helium shortage began to drive cost upward, and availability became problematic. In the United States, the cost of balloon-grade helium increased more than tenfold! The U.S. Congress took action in 2013 to keep open the national helium reserve for auction sales to private industry and the public—see
helium shortage. Since then, the helium shortage has eased somewhat, but cost remains high.

Helium blimps

Many kinds of balloons and blimps are available commercially for applications in small-format aerial photography. Size, material, and cost vary greatly from simple latex balloons to multi-layer construction and specially designed shapes for high-altitude or high-wind use. The aerodynamic blimp shape has proven most efficient and economical for SFAP in calm to light wind (<10 mph or 15 km/h). The SFAP blimp system described below is operated for this course and for research purposes in the geospatial analysis program at Emporia State University.

The SFAP blimp is constructed of a single layer of urethane, a plastic material that retains helium well and is durable under field condtions. It holds approximately 240-250 cubic feet of helium (one large tank), which provides a maximum payload lift of about 2 kg (5 lbs) at low elevation. Four rigid tail fins stablize the blimp while in flight, and multiple attachment points along the keel allow for fastening the tether line and camera rig. Camera rigs are the same as used for kite aerial photography, and the blimp easily lifts camera systems weighing up to 1½ kg (~3 lbs).

Maiden flight of the helium blimp, Cheyenne Bottoms, Kansas (2003)
Laying out the blimp envelope on ground tarp (left). Body of the blimp is gold and tail fins are black to provide high visibility in the sky. Inflating the blimp from large helium tank in the trailer (right).
Blimp is fully inflated with ~250 cubic feet of helium (left). Attaching a camera rig and testing the balance of the blimp (right). Position of the tether line and camera rig were adjusted to trim the blimp position.
Blimp in stable flight position with camera rig ready for action (left). Blimp in flight with camera rig for aerial photography (right). The blimp measures 13 feet (4 m) long and easily lifted all our single-camera rigs in light wind (<10 mph).

As in all forms of aerial photography, clear sunny sky is essential. Large tethered blimps are subject to the same flying restrictions as are large kites or other tethered platforms—500 feet (150 m) maximum height is permitted without submitting a flight plan with the nearest airport. This height limit is well within the typical range employed for small-format aerial photography. A laser rangefinder is utilized to determine flying height of the blimp. Blimp aerial photography is normally conducted at two heights, ~100 m and ~150 m above the ground.

Advantages and disadvantages of the helium blimp for SFAP
Advantages Disadvantages
  • Ease of operation for SFAP.
  • Stability and lack of vibration.
  • Low-tech components.
  • Relatively low-cost equipment.
  • Danger of power lines, trees, towers, etc.
  • Transporting, refilling heavy helium tank.
  • Wind – More than 10 mph unsuitable.
  • High cost of He, non-renewable resource.
  • Related sites


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    ES 555 © J.S. Aber (2016).