Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No … it’s a blimp with a GoPro attached to it.
During the BVI Spring Regatta, Adrian Sinton’s modified helikite received a lot of attention on and off the water.
The large white balloon, which resembles a beach ball on steroids, is equipped with a GoPro camera mounted to various drone components.
“It is basically just drone/quadcopter parts without the engines,” explained Sinton, an information technician at Nanny Cay Resort and Marina. “It has a GoPro, a three-axis gimbal, radio receivers for pan-tilt control and a video downlink.”
The setup is attached by a long rope to a dinghy and dragged high above the racecourse — sometimes right alongside the sailors — capturing not only video, but ambient noise from the regatta, like sailors shouting and horns signaling a sequence.
“There is a little bit of wind noise, too,” Sinton said.
The video footage from drones is fantastic, and the balloon setup is no exception. Sinton’s uncut videos on YouTube showcase the idyllic sailing backdrop of the British Virgin Islands, while providing fodder for the hardcore sailor looking to analyze or scrutinize technique.
Flying the helikite during the regatta requires as many as three people: one controls the camera, another drives the boat and a third person keeps an eye out for oncoming traffic.
Unlike drones, the helikite can be flown in all types of weather conditions. Sinton said he feels comfortable flying the helikite in 30mph winds. However, a winch mounted on the boat is needed to reel in the balloon in windy conditions.
Sinton owns a drone as well, but he finds the helikite to be less stressful when flying over the water.
“Drones are cheaper than they used to be, but I don’t want to risk my personal electronics over the water,” Sinton said. “The balloons are a lot safer and you won’t crash it into anybody.”
The prices for a drone and helikite are very comparable. However, the cost to launch a balloon is more expensive. Sinton estimated that it costs about $200 to fill his balloon with helium, which will last about three weeks, in contrast to drones, which have a battery life of about 15 to 20 minutes.
Sinton first experimented with flying a kite with a camera, but “dumped into the water,” so he moved to the safer and more reliable balloon set up.
The helikite was developed by Sandy Allsopp, of the United Kingdom, in 1993. It has had various uses, including agricultural bird control, meteorology, military surveillance, and setting up radio communications.
“It will stay up forever and it has additional lift from the kite factor,” Sinton said.
How high can the helikite go?
“As long as the string,” Sinton said.
According to Federal Aviation Administration rules, it can be flown legally up to 400 feet, but Sinton flies his no higher than 350 feet.
Drones have become so commonplace, that Air Safety Support International has drafted rules for flying drones in various United Kingdom Overseas Territories. Also on the ASSI website is contact information for anyone with questions about operating small unmanned aircrafts in the region.
The BVI Spring Regatta was Sinton’s first time shooting a regatta with his balloon. Overall he was happy with the results, but said that he has a few adjustments to make before flying again.
“I got a lot of stares, pointing and waving,” Sinton said. “People seemed to really engage with it. Drones are becoming commonplace, but this isn’t something you see every day.”
Todd VanSickle is a journalist living and working in the Virgin Islands.