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Feature Story

Two guys and a basket

Bryan Morris/Boeing

Systems engineer John Paul "Nick" Nicholson (right) and electronics and software engineer Gary Stuart prepare to fly Boeing's three-dimensional mapping system on a hot air balloon.

Modern mapping

Preparing to test Boeing’s three-dimensional mapping system on a hot air balloon, systems engineer John Paul “Nick” Nicholson secures the system to the balloon’s basket-like gondola.

Bryan Morris/Boeing

Preparing to test Boeing's 3-D mapping system on a hot air balloon, systems engineer John Paul "Nick" Nicholson secures the system to the balloon's basket-like gondola.

Albuquerque is a major magnet for hot air balloon enthusiasts and hosts the world's largest hot air balloon festival. The Southwestern city is also home to much of Boeing's cutting-edge work on sensors and lasers. Balloons and Boeing are usually separate worlds, but converged here this spring.

Boeing's Directed Energy Systems unit, based in Albuquerque, is developing systems using a three-dimensional imaging camera developed by Spectrolab, a wholly owned Boeing subsidiary. These systems are designed for military and commercial applications ranging from mapping terrain to tracking satellites. The latest configuration, an airborne mapping payload, flew on a hot air balloon on May 18. From an altitude of about 1,000 feet, the precision-sensing device took images of the local terrain, including the Rio Grande, roadways, open fields and a local high school.

hot air balloon takes off in Albuquerque, N.M.

Bryan Morris/Boeing

Soon after the hot air balloon takes off in Albuquerque, N.M., volunteer pilot Phred McAllaster lights the propane burner to create more hot air and generate lift, increasing the balloon's altitude. Boeing's 3-D mapping system is attached to the side of the gondola.

"With this mapping system, you don't see what color a building is, you see how tall it is," said Bryan Morris, who leads the project for Directed Energy Systems. "We can distinguish tall trees from short ones because we are measuring the objects in three dimensions. For the warfighter, this information can help them know what they're really going to see when they go into a hazardous situation. It helps in commercial applications for which precision surveying is needed but making numerous detailed measurements is impractical."

The system, which is roughly the size of a school backpack, weighs less than 20 pounds, or about one-fifth that of an earlier version tested in 2007 aboard a Boeing AH-6 Little Bird helicopter.

"We have made significant reductions in the size, weight and power requirements," said Rengarajan Sudharsanan, director of Sensors Products at Spectrolab.

To prepare for the May 18 test, Boeing employees enlisted the help of local balloon pilot Phred McAllaster, who worked with the Boeing team to mount the mapping system on the balloon's basket-like gondola. Propane heated the air that gave the balloon its lift. As the sun was rising, the balloon took off under overcast skies from Balloon Fiesta Park and flew for over an hour, mapping swaths of ground in Albuquerque and neighboring Rio Rancho.

Boeing’s 3-D mapping system, protruding from the top of the gondola, photographs the ground below along the Rio Grande. Boeing engineer Gary Stuart operates the system from inside the gondola.

Bryan Morris/Boeing

Boeing's 3-D mapping system, protruding from the top of the gondola, photographs the ground below along the Rio Grande. Boeing engineer Gary Stuart operates the system from inside the gondola.

To create a 3-D image, the mapping system fired a short pulse of laser light, then measured the pulse's flight time to determine how far away each part of the ground was from that area in the system's field of view. The laser beam was low power – less than a tenth that of a typical laser pointer. The camera coupled with the laser is called a laser radar, or ladar.

Morris said testing aboard a balloon is a good "stepping stone" to flying the mapping system on an airplane.

"A hot air balloon allows us to fly lower and slower than many airplanes, and we can have an operator in the basket with the system to troubleshoot if we have issues," Morris said. "On a plane, the system would typically be mounted to the bottom or on a wing, and we can't get to it during flight. We didn't have any issues on the first flight, but it was relieving to have had the opportunity to fix something without having to land and try again."

Images from hot air balloon

Travis Berka/Boeing

A hot air balloon took these images along the Rio Grande. The top, two-dimensional image is from a black-and-white camera. The bottom, 3-D image is of the same landscape but is rotated to show a side view. Red represents the highest points (trees), blue the lowest (river). Circles highlight corresponding features

Future plans call for flying the mapping system aboard the kind of small unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that U.S. troops are increasingly flying on the battlefield for surveillance and other purposes. Boeing, which is using its own funding to underwrite the development effort, believes the system's compact, lightweight nature makes it ideal for small UAVs, which have little extra room or power.

"The integrated ladar payload can be optimized for a variety of missions, including ground mapping, target tracking, target identification, foliage penetration and aimpoint determination," said Joseph Paranto, Growth lead for Boeing Directed Energy Systems. "These missions can be accomplished from a variety of air, ground or seaborne platforms."

This video shows the results of a recent flight test of Boeing's 3-D mapping system. And you don't need 3-D glasses to watch.