Aerial Photography Using Light Sport Aircraft

William S. Lowe, ES 555, Summer, 2008

Abstract:
   
A revolution in light aviation technology has been occurring in North America and Europe over the past two decades.  Having its inception in hang gliding and ultralight aircraft, usually built by owners from kits, the light sportplane has become the successor to the Cessnas, Pipers, Taylorcraft, and other marques which popularised general aviation in the decades following World War II.  In combination with increasingly affordable digital camera and image processing technology, the light sportplane has become a platform for recreational, commercial, and scientific imagery acquisition previously reserved for the well-capitalized specialty aerial photography industry.

Light Sport Aircraft:

A light sport aircraft (LSA) is defined by the United States Federal Aviation Agency as an aircraft meeting the following criteria:  

The primary impetus for the development and popularization of the LSA has been cost of ownership and operation, as well as innovations in airframe, engine, navigation, and communications components which make the choice of an LSA attractive comapred to similary priced used legacy light aircraft from the more traditional manufacturers.  These manufacturers have also largely abandoned the personal aircraft segment of the market, owing to product liability concerns as well as the demands of the more lucrative business aircraft market.

The airplane used in acquiring the images in this report is the Challenger II, a product of Quad City Challenger, Inc., of Moline, IL.  One of the oldest manufacturers of ultralight aircraft and LSA's, Quad City produces two basic models, the Challenger I, a single-seat, FAA part 103 ultralight; and the Challenger II, a two-seat (tandem) LSA and utralight trainer.  Both are available in a long-wing version, maximizing glide ratio, and a clipped-wing version, maximizing speed.  Both are pusher configurations, and both can be fitted with floats, allowing amphibious operation.



The image of  The Challenger II  seen here, is "raw", i.e, not enhanced in brightness or sharpness.

 The image of  The Challenger II  seen here, is enhanced in brightness or sharpness using GIMP 2.  The pods beneath  the wings are for storage.


Deland, Florida and the Ocala National Forest:

Situated on the eastern periphery of Ocala National Forest, Deland, Florida has long been known as a quaint "Old Florida" town, home of Stetson University and winter refuge for northern gentility, as well as having a southern gentility of its own. A thriving arts community is present, attracted by the architecture and ambience, and insulated from the tourist centers of Orlando and Daytona Beach.  It has been called "the Athens of Florida", presumably referring to the cradle of democracy rather than the home of the "Dawgs". (3)

The Ocala National Forest lies between the St. Johns and Oklawaha rivers in Central Florida, comprising parts of Marion, Putnam, and Lake Counties, and containing 383,573 acres within its boundaries.  Lake George, one of Florida's largest, is to the immediate east.  Forestation includes long-leaf pines, sand pines, and several species of short-leaf pines and hardwoods.  Bisecting the forest from north to south is the Florida Trail, a 60.8 mile hiking trail suited for observing the flora and fauna, which include deer, bear, raccoons, bobcats, alligators, snakes, and many bird species.  Camping and canoeing can be found at the Alexander Springs and Juniper Springs recreation areas.  The following images were taken from an approximate altitude of 1100 ft. (4)


A near vertical high-oblique scene of a residential area NW of Deland, Fl.  Note deciduous trees.

An agricultural area near Lake George.  The black rectangular structures are screen houses for growing ornamental ferns.

A lower-oblique image of the agricultural area, with Lake George seen in the upper right corner.

A lake NW of Deland.  The shadow of the airplane appears in the upper left, and part of a wing strut is seen in the lower right. 

DeLeon Springs State Park:

Deleon Springs, named for the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce Deleon, is located about 4 miles NW of Deland Municipal Airport.   It is a favorite  recreation area for the  locals, affording  swimming at 72 degrees, kayaking , canoeing, and paddle-boating, and observation of wildlife along the 4 mile Wild Persimmon Trail, and in the Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge. 

Aerial view of Deleon Springs swimming area, taken from about
1100 ft. 

Another view, after turning and descending for a better look.



The Flight:

On the morning of June 21, 2008, at about 8:30 AM, the author and a certified flight instructor from U-Fly-It Aviation, Inc. of Deland Florida, embarked from Deland Municipal Airport with the dual purpose of obtaining a variety of interesting images and for the author, the first flying lesson in about 16 years.  Our bearing was NW, in order to fly away from the sun and to obtain some good imagery of the forest, lakes, small towns, agricultural areas, and springs in the area.  We flew over Deleon Springs, the small towns of Pierson and Astor, to within sight of Lake George, then back to the airport along US highway 17.  Along the way, the author photographed whatever targets of opportunity presented themselves.  Some of these images are displayed below, reduced to 12.5 percent in each axis.


Taking off: The Deland Municipal Airport and industrial park.

A glider airpark  near  Pierson,  Fla.

Approaching the runway on the downwind leg.  We will turn base leg, then land on the grass next to the runway.

About to rain. Skydivers can be seen in the lower center of image.


Image Acquisition and Enhancement:

The camera used in the acquisition of these images is a Canon A590 IS, having an 8-megapixel capacity, with a 4x zoom lens and optical image stabilization, and a 2.5 in. color LCD monitor.  This model has received consistently high reviews and is quite affordable at under 200 dollars.

Image processing was performed with GIMP 2, a freeware equivalent of Adobe Photoshop.  Images were first brightened using the color level parameters 40-1-240, then sharpened with the unsharp feature using a radius of 3.0, an amount of 30 percent, and a threshhold of zero.

Conclusions:

Photography from light sport aircraft has distinct advantages over kite or balloon photography in the aspect of control.  The images can be selected for content as they are acquired, the geographic area of coverage is much greater, and the investigator is not at the mercy of the wind.  Considering its affordability, use of the LSA, together with an inexpensive digital camera, brings aerial photography to most of those interested enough to try it.  It's also fun.


References:

1. United States Ultralight Association summary of FAA criteria (http://www.usua.org/SportPilot/SportPilotFAQ.html#Q2-1).

2. "The Florida Atlas and Gazetteer", DeLorme Map Company, 1989.

3. "The Deland Fall Festival of the Arts" (http://www.delandfallfestival.com/).

4. "Ocala National Forest" (http://www.stateparks.com/ocala.html).