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LensVid Exclusive: Sparrowscope – Smart Kite Photography


A new Kickstarter project is looking to bring a simple, controllable way to shoot images from a kite mounted camera. Shooting images from a kite isn’t new but until now creating a rig that can allow you to capture images in an efficient way was pretty hard and quite expensive – Sparrowscope is looking to change that.

Sparrowscope is a lightweight rig controlled from a smartphone (android/iOS based) which is attached securely to the  rig and is also used to take pictures (although there might be other options for taking images with the rig – if you are an advanced user and willing to do some DIY work to attach a light mirrorless camera for example). In order to control the rig from the ground you will have to use another smart device with the Sparrowscope free app.

The Sparrowscope with an iPhone

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The Sparrowscope goes for around $250 (CAD) for a Sparrowscope + DELTA kite (other kite kits are available as well) – you can get one on the project Kickstarter page.

Here at LensVid we are proud to bring to you a special interview with the developer of the Sparrowscope  – mechanical engineer Ori Barbut, explaining how and why he came up with the project and a bit about how it works.

Q: How did you get the idea to create the Sparrowscope (and what’s with the name?)?
A: I was at the beach with some friends having a picnic, and we had a kite tied off flying on its own. A stranger came up to us and asked if we’d send up his camera, set to take pictures automatically. We had some fun with that, trying to tie the kite line around the camera in a way to take pictures of us… but we couldn’t tell if we were in the picture, and at the end of the day none of the pictures turned out. Apparently just tied to the line, a cheap camera doesn’t take a good picture—not a huge surprise. I was already aware of kite aerial photography, but this was the first time I tried it and it was kind of fun. A few weeks later, I got to thinking that it would be possible to augment the technology in your phone to do this in a much smarter way.
The Sparrowscope is a little play on words. I was thinking of “bird’s eye views,” plus it sounds like ‘periscope,’ the device that sticks out of a submarine for viewing over water (like in the logo).
Illustration of the kite, rig and the unit controlling it from the ground
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Q: How much time did it take to come up with the final design?
A: It took about 16 months from the first prototype to the final design. The first prototype sent an iPod Touch up within two days of thinking up this smartphone kite photography idea. I explored many different avenues for stabilizing the rig and simplifying it, as well as making sure that the rig could easily be packed into a small volume—the first prototypes were anything but compact, and the space it took for carrying them was an obvious flaw to me.
Q: What is the Sparrowscope made of and how light is it?
A: The Sparrowscope is primarily made of a lightweight aluminum alloy, that with a typical phone weighs under 350 grams.
Q: Despite how much they advanced in recent years, mobile phone cameras are still very limited (especially when it comes to their lenses which aren’t the best fit for aerial photography) – did you consider other options – (Sony, Panasonic and Olympus all have small light cameras with WIFI capabilities).
A: Even the last generation of mobile phones (models that my little brother would call ‘old’) have already been taking 8MP images with amazingly low noise and very fast exposure times. Manufacturers are targeting the common cell phone camera use case: poorly-lit, indoor photography. The well-lit outdoor shots you’ll take with a Sparrowscope are easy in comparison. A smartphone is not a DSLR, but you can definitely blow up the photographs you take with a Sparrowscope and hang them on your wall with great results.
There are lots of compact cameras today with WiFi connectivity built in. The issue there is, these devices don’t have any way to send output signals for pan and tilt control. If I were to manage a ‘hack’ for such a device to output control data, it would be very specific to a single model and manufacturer. The Sparrowscope uses the headphone jack of your device as an output for control signals, telling the motors how fast to turn and in which direction. That 3.5mm audio jack is really the only standard connector across all phones, and these phones are all intended to run apps. That’s why for me, smartphones were the obvious choice for the Sparrowscope.
Q: How can you control the kite and the camera together (don’t you need two hands to hold a kite?).
A: I envision the typical use case of one person flying a kite and someone else controlling it. There are two other options though, suitable for you to take pictures with the Sparrowscope on your own. The first is Solo mode, where the Sparrowscope can automatically take photos and rotate between shots.
Sparrowscope app
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The second is common within the kite aerial photography world, which is to use a spool of line that can be ‘locked’ and attached to your body in some way. That gives you a hands-free kite flying experience (see here). I’ve never tried one of those, I’d rather have a friend take pictures while I fly the kite or vice versa, but a hands-free kite spool is a possibility.
Different parts of the Sparrowscope
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Q: What sort of uses do you see for the Sparrowscope? (just fun or anything more serious?)
A: There are currently strict regulations about drone flying in many locations, but imagine: what if a farmer could get a quick view of his or her crops from the sky, without paying a pilot to fly a plane overhead? You also see some high-end real estate photography that includes a somewhat aerial view of a home. Some of those real estate shots are taken from kites, some from quadcopters. I think the Sparrowscope could see uses in those two areas, and others that I haven’t imagined—time will tell what the Sparrowscope’s backers do with it. I’ve heard from one backer who is interested in photographing frisbee games and a half-marathon he organizes. I’m excited to see what uses people will dream up!
Q: Can you take a video with an Android device?
A: For the time being, I’m focusing on still photos only.
A nice thing about the Sparrowscope is that functionality can be added in the future simply by updating the app. Also, if you get a new smartphone, your Sparrowscope camera improves! It’s a pleasant change of pace from the planned obsolescence you find with many tech products today.
Q: Can you use the Sparrowscope with a balloon instead of a kite?
A: You could, it’s a very lightweight device and people who do kite aerial photography (KAP) sometimes also do balloon aerial photography (BAP) as well with the same kinds of rigs being lifted.
Q: If the project will be funded – what will be next for Sparrowscope?
A: I have some features in mind to expand the current capabilities of the Sparrowscope. As I said earlier, the Sparrowscope can improve and gain functionality through app updates: it’s not a device with a frozen feature set. It’s too soon to say which of my ideas will make it and which will not, but I’ll be tinkering away and trying new things. I’m sure that the people who have supported the project will have some neat ideas as well, and I imagine the community driving some of these innovations for everyone.
You can check out Sparrowscope on its kickstarter page as well as lots more Kickstarter photography projects on our dedicated page here on LensVid.
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