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KAP at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Posted by Tom Benedict on 24/06/2009

For a long time, it has been a dream of mine to do KAP at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii.  I’ve wanted to do this ever since I first suspended a camera from a kite line.  But when I first asked about the possibility of doing KAP in the park, the answer was a very definite no.  I’ve been trying to teach my kids to get permission first, and not have to ask for forgiveness later, so even though it hurt at the time, I followed my own advice and remained patient.  Apparently that approach worked, because I’ve now been invited to do KAP in the park.  Not only that, but the rangers who invited me would like me to fly over the active vent in Halemaumau Crater.


It’s one thing to have a dream, especially one that’s been filed in the pipe dream category for so long I never thought it would happen.  It’s quite another to have an invitation, and to need to set dates and times. In the hopes of getting some feedback from someone who had done similar work, I posted all this to the KAP Forums.  The responses I got were very helpful.  Aside from the obvious safety issues, there were a couple I hadn’t thought about:

  • Because of the distance from the surface of the lava lake, heat damage isn’t likely.  Even with the kite line at zero degrees off the horizon, it’s several hundred feet down to the lava lake.  Not a problem.
  • Chemical attack is an issue, but probably not a big one.  Nylon and polyester, the two materials present in my kite sails and my kite line, are prone to attack from sulfuric and hydrochloric acid, but only at concentrated levels.  One of the folks on the KAP Forums said that the UV damage from sunlight exposure would probably outweigh the chemical damage from exposure to acid gases.  Besides, the acid gases are concentrated in the plume.  Keep the kite and line out of the plume, and all’s good.
  • The aluminum parts of the rig are anodized, and shouldn’t be prone to chemical attack.  The anodizing process uses sulfuric acid to grow the oxide layer on the aluminum, so further exposure shouldn’t cause issues.  Anodized aluminum is far more prone to chemical attack from caustics.
  • The camera electronics may be damaged from even mild acidity, so I’m planning to bag the camera.  Optical coatings may also be prone to attack, so I plan to use a sacrificial UV filter over the lens.  If it looks like the coatings are being damaged, I’ll have to re-consider my approach.  But the camera should remain unharmed.

There were other safety issues raised about the actual kite flying.  This is one area that will take some direct experimentation since there’s no way to predict what any of these will mean:

  • The Halemaumau crater is down inside the Kilauea crater.  The crater walls of the Kilauea crater are about 330′ high upwind of Halemaumau, and are about 10,000′ away from the launch site.  This presents about a 30:1 distance:height obstruction up-wind.  This is at the edge of what is acceptable for placement of meteorological equipment.  There shouldn’t be a significant wind shadow at that point, but there may be turbulence that will have to be taken into account.
  • There are two ways that heat can be transported from the lava lake into the atmosphere.  The first is convective.  The second is radiative.  Both will be present.  Convective heating should be confined to the gas plume coming out of the vent.  So long as the kite isn’t in the plume, it should be ok.  Radiative heating may cause issues even with the kite well above the plume.  One KAPer who spent time flying a KAP rig over a volcano in Vanuatu said he experienced massive thermals that fell off as the kite slid sideways away from the vent.  In the end his kite inverted and flew into the ground, despite all his efforts to get it back under control.  This must be tested before a rig is hung from the line.

And finally there are the personal safety issues to be dealt with:

  • Find out what personal protective equipment should be used (hard hat, steel toed boots, respirator, etc.)  Most of these I use regularly at work, so it will be a matter of finding out which PPEs are necessary, and under what conditions they’ll be needed.  If it’s necessary to use a respirator, I’ll need to shave.
  • Do not clip my winder onto my person at any time.  This has come up on a number of flights I’ve done that involved flying out over cliffs.  So long as there’s a cliff, don’t clip on.  Period.  With a winder in-hand, it’s always possible to let go.  With the winder clipped on, a sudden gust and an over-sized kite could drag the kite flyer off the cliff.
  • Find out how long I get before we have to head back.  This last one will determine what approaches I take, and whether I can get all the testing done up front before the photography begins.

All in all, it looks like I’ll need at least one dry-run test without a load, and then with an 860g water bottle dummy weight to match the weight of my rig.  If there are strong thermal effects, or if I can’t successfully keep the kite, line, and rig above the plume, I’ll have to pull the plug on the flight.

On a better note, the pictures themselves should be quite good.  I was concerned that the lava lake would be vanishingly small in the picture frame: a spot of orange.  But at a 40 degree angle between kite flyer and camera, the spot should be just under a thousand pixels wide.  At a 10 degree angle, it should be just under two thousand pixels wide.  Aiming will be critical, but the results should be worth it.  The lava lake should dominate the frame.

Which brings up the last point:  How to actually photograph the place?  I’m planning a couple of approaches:

  • Open with ortho autoKAP using an intervalometer set to a five second interval.  I get roughly 400-600 images per chip.  This gives me between half an hour and 45 minutes to fly a camera over the crater and get orthogonal pictures.  During this flight all my attention will be on the kite and camera, without having to worry about a remote.
  • Next do a second autoKAP flight, this time using the prototype controller a friend and I have under development.  This is where we’ve been putting the bulk of our efforts for how we like to capture a place with a camera, so it’s the best approach I could take for this part of the photography.  With the frame rates we’ve been getting, this is about a 30 minute flight before the chip fills up.
  • Finally, if time allows I’d like to do remote controlled KAP.  I would only do this if time allowed, and if the flying conditions were such that I felt comfortable splitting my attention between the remote and the kite winder.  If in doubt, this part of the program would be cut.  But this is the one I’m most looking forward to.

But in a larger sense, what I’d like to do is demonstrate KAP for the folks at the park, and show that it can provide access to vantage points that aren’t otherwise available, that it can be done safely without significant risk to personal safety or to the safety of the park itself, and that it offers the park a very real, very available method for close distance remote sensing.  In a perfect world, my follow-up to this would be to build out a set of rigs for the park rangers, and to help them get started in the world of KAP.  I think it has a lot to offer.

And I can’t wait to see how the pictures turn out!


One Response to “KAP at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park”

  1. […] KAP at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park For a long time, it has been a dream of mine to do KAP at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii. I’ve wanted to do this ever since I first suspended a camera from a kite line. […]

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