Up in the Air: Using Tethered Balloons to Photograph the Future City

Sometimes even the most visionary architects need a little perspective—a way to see what's just over the horizon. To show them what's coming, photographer Curt Westergard delivers a peek at the near-future using one of the oldest, most low-tech solutions on the planet: Balloons.

Westergard is founder of Virginia-based Digital Design & Imaging Service, which you might have heard simply referred to as AirPhotosLive.com. His team designs and fabricates moored polyurethane inflatables—which he calls aerostats—and rigs them with high-definition cameras arranged in a large radial array aimed at the ground. The balloons are powered by helium or hydrogen and can lift up to 1,500 feet in the air. "It's like an upside-down Google Street View," says Westergard. "But way better."

Up in the Air: Using Tethered Balloons to Photograph the Future City

How accurate can these images be? Remember that amazing panoramic shot from the tippy top of the just-finished One World Trade? Compare it to their stunning imagery from the site, nine years prior.

Trained as a landscape architect at Cornell, Westergard also studied computer graphics, and found himself fascinated with land-use and density patterns. After graduation, he began creating perspective drawings for clients, which usually meant going up in helicopters to survey a site.

But after 9/11, the airspace above the two cities he worked in the most—New York City and Washington D.C.—became extremely limited. So he developed his tethered balloon, something that has been used by many cities and is in no danger of being banished from the skies. "Historically, the regulations have always permitted tethered balloons," says Westergard.

Up in the Air: Using Tethered Balloons to Photograph the Future City

Thaddeus Lowe in his balloon, photo from Library of Congress via Civil War Trust

In fact, the technology had been employed in Westergard's backyard over 150 years ago. Thaddeus Lowe was an inventor who became famous for deploying his own (manned) tethered balloon on reconnaissance missions during the Civil War. "He would fly above the Confederate encampment and count how many fires they could see," says Westergard. Using the most basic calculations, Lowe's team would estimate, say, 12 men per fire and be able to create a fairly accurate count of how many soldiers the Union would be facing in the morning.

It's not that much different from the way Westergard counted the attendees of the Jon Stewart-Stephen Colbert "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear" on the Washington Mall in 2010 they also counted the Sarah Palin-Glenn Beck "Restoring Honor Rally"). Using an aerostat, Westergard was able to take high-resolution aerial photos of the Mall, then import them into a 3D modeling software which lays down a grid like a checkerboard to make for easy counting.

Up in the Air: Using Tethered Balloons to Photograph the Future City

Up in the Air: Using Tethered Balloons to Photograph the Future City

Up in the Air: Using Tethered Balloons to Photograph the Future City

A balloon plus digital modeling is far more accurate at counting large crowds than other estimates

It's the balloon's gentle rise that allows it to capture nuances that a helicopter shot could not: People hiding under trees will become visible at lower altitudes, while a direct overhead shot can reveal the difference between a person and a person carrying a child.

"It's all really the same thing if you look at it like making a grid and counting off square meters," he says. His counting technique has been used to measure the size and growth rate of oil spills and other environmental disasters, and has even assisted on search and rescue missions.

Up in the Air: Using Tethered Balloons to Photograph the Future City

The aerostat technology can help guide skimmer boats that clean up oil spills

In recent years, Westergard's work has also taken on a different scope, as he's been tapped by developers to help them design better skyscrapers. In fact, that's what he was doing last week in New York City when he was spotted by the New York Times.

By deploying his balloon a few hundred feet above the site, he's able to see what potential residents will see. Clients will ask about the view from 35th floor, where they plan to offer their highest-priced condos, for example. It's something that's normally impossible to know until you get up in the air. Westergard has to break the news to the builder: "The answer is you have a horrible view, there are three air conditioners and two exhaust vents," he might say. But he often also offers a solution: "If you just went up one more floor you could see the Statue of Liberty torch and Governors Island."

Up in the Air: Using Tethered Balloons to Photograph the Future City

The view of Central Park from the 90th story of One57, a supertall proposed for 57th Street in Manhattan

It doesn't stop with visuals. Westergard's rigs can also capture sound. A recording of the clackety train from the 59th Street Bridge means the rooftop garden might need to be rethought. Unbelievably, the balloons can also measure smells, which is becoming a bigger and bigger issue for crowded cities. A potential buyer might turn down that penthouse with a balcony if he can smell Whoppers frying in a street-level Burger King all day long.

Most of the time, Westergard's don't need much more than a simple image to convince them to change their plans. "We provide the aesthetic documentation, and the clever clients with a good architect immediately know how to alter their vision," says Westergard. His work improves the experience for potential residents and saves the developers money in potential renovations over the long run. In a way, I offer, they're letting these firms see the future. "Our motto is that we let our clients see beyond the horizon," he says.

Once the buildings are constructed, Westergard can also offer other cost-saving services, like producing his version of an energy audit using a thermal camera to determine a structure's inefficiencies. "It lets us see in pitch darkness the glowing gaps in the building where the heat is leaking out," he says. "We have a mission to help cities save as much heat energy and electrical energy as possible."

Up in the Air: Using Tethered Balloons to Photograph the Future City

An infrared camera can show heat "leaks" and vulnerabilities in structures

When it comes to getting a view from above, drones are currently the media darlings. But drones are still illegal in many urban airspaces and are not only perceived as malicious but can also be dangerous. There's something far more elegant about a silent, swaying bubble over the earth than the buzz of a flying lawnmower. The friendly balloon will likely always be welcome on the horizon, which is where Westergard hopes to stay. "It's a big happy marshmallowy thing," he says.

In fact, the joy of seeing a balloon never seems to wear off, even on adults. On every shoot, he manages to capture people on the ground pointing right at the aerostat. "It's just just like Clark Kent and Lois Lane," he says. "'What's that? Up in the sky?'"