VIDEO: Capturing Panoramic Photos with a Helicopter

Camille Goudeseune, a computer systems analyst at the Beckman Institute’s Illinois Simulator Laboratory (ISL), recently captured a panoramic photograph of the new Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) building at the University of Illinois using only an inexpensive toy quadcopter equipped with a video camera, his flying ability, and good weather.

Camille Goudeseune has come up with a set of techniques to turn low-quality video into high-quality, high-resolution panorama still photos. Using a simple video camera attached to a relatively inexpensive and light quadcopter—costing around $45—he can take his photography to new places.

Goudeseune started flying radio-controlled airplanes as a hobby shortly after starting his job at Beckman’s Illinois Simulator Lab.

“At first, I put cameras in the airplanes, but some subjects that I wanted to photograph were inaccessible to airplanes or just outright dangerous,” he said. “Helicopters at that time were still complicated and fragile. So when low-cost, low-maintenance quadrotor helicopters reached the market, I could finally dare to fly in such locations.”

The main advantages of flying quadcopters, as they are commonly known, is that they pose a vastly lower risk of damage or injury and are inexpensive.

“If I lose control of the helicopter and it hits something, it’s really no more dangerous than if a Frisbee hits it. It weighs less than a gerbil,” he said. “If it gets damaged, it’s cheap to replace, making it an attractive option to fly in otherwise unreachable places.”

Goudeseune has mastered a set of techniques to acquire high-quality panoramas from quadcopters: maneuvering effectively, coping with wind, extracting still frames from the video recording, automatically culling frames to avoid motion parallax and motion blur, and suppressing artifacts due to the camera’s poor quality. 

“These techniques are all simple and inexpensive, as they should be for a toy,” he writes in “Stitched Panoramas from Toy Airborne Video Cameras,” a white paper detailing the process.

If I lose control of the helicopter and it hits something, it’s really no more dangerous than if a Frisbee hits it. … If it gets damaged, it’s cheap to replace, making it an attractive option to fly in otherwise unreachable places. - Camille Goudeseune

He waits to shoot a subject until the weather is acceptable and the wind is low in order to make the flying process as smooth as possible. For the ECE shoot, he stood atop the Micro and Nanotechnology Laboratory patio (just south of the ECE building), which gave him a height advantage so he could survey the entire building.

Two short flights by the quadcopter were all it took to get the video he needed of the ECE building. When the quadcopter is in the air, Goudeseune slowly pirouettes it to gather a panoramic view. 

Because of his interest in still photography, Goudeseune creates still photos from video to allow viewers the opportunity to examine landscapes in more detail than is possible in a video.

Once he captures the video, he uses image stitching software, like AutoStitch and Image Composite Editor, to compile clips of the video into an image. The video is just a series of JPEG still images, so he creates an algorithm that extracts those individual frames and stitches them together.

Additional steps involve removing or suppressing camera artifacts. In his paper, Goudeseune lists combinations of several coding commands, some in Ruby script, and details how to interact with programs like Adobe Premiere Pro and Adobe After Effects, to deal with artifacts like rolling shutter (warped and skewed images), moiré (undesired bands of hue and brightness), and motion blur.  

“The video shoots 60 frames a second, and I generally stitch between 100 to 250 photos to make a panorama,” Goudeseune said. “Though you can use programs to limit the number of undesired artifacts, it’s helpful to be a skilled flier as well. When the helicopter is in the air, I try not to rotate it too quickly because I will get a very shaky image, or it will have color balance errors because the camera didn’t have time to catch up with the sun exposure.” 

What started as a hobby has now become a research venture. Goudeseune is working with veterinary medicine researchers at the University of Illinois to build an automated helicopter with many of the same functionalities to take photos of cattle.

“My collaboration with Vet Med is aiming to infer the health of cows in feedlots based on spatial arrangement,” Goudeseune said. “Cowboys are an endangered species, so we’re looking at using this technology to fly over pens and identify when cows look sick, so the workers know which pens they should visit first and which pens are likely to have a disease outbreak.”

This technique has applications to anyone who wants to fly where risk is a concern: over crowds, traffic, wildlife, etc.

“The quadcopters could use lightweight sensors other than cameras, like antennas, air quality sensors, chemical test strips, or even microphones,” he said. “The range of potential applications is, of course, enormous, with the right implementation.”

Goudeseune continues to use the quadcopter whenever and wherever he gets a chance, as he often carries it with him in his backpack.

“Its small size lets you grab unplanned shots. Last year, I took a panorama of Trenton, Ontario (above) because I had 10 minutes to spare waiting for the beer store to open,” he said. “As the saying goes, the best camera is the one you have with you.”

This article is part of the Fall 2014 Synergy Issue, a publication of the Communications Office of the Beckman Institute.