Rocket Aerial Camera

Model rocketry is a very popular activity as both a family hobby and an academic pursuit. While simply launching rockets is enjoyable it can be fun and challenging to add various payloads and see the results. One of the most common is aerial photography. Currently on the market there are several hobbyist rockets sold by Estes which allow for low quality photographs to be taken. In the past these rockets used 110mm film to take aerial photographs, whereas now they have transitioned to digital imaging sensors.

There is however no high quality consumer rocket cameras available on the market. Whether the goal is visually appealing photographs or high quality images which can be analyzed, a simple point and shoot camera can be modified to produce the desired results. It is a fairly involved task but the resulting images are well worth the effort.

Since the modifications will most likely render the camera unable for any other applications a dedicated camera is necessary for this project. It does not have to be a new camera; in fact an older camera collecting dust is a better choice. This is due to the violent conditions and chance of catastrophic failure associated with model rocketry. The tasks listed below are the general requirements; however since every camera model is different each will have unique challenges.

Project Requirements

Camera Modifications
- Achieving a frame rate able to take an acceptable number of photographs during the flight.

Electronics Design
- Accelerometer to trigger the start of the camera on take off.
- Microcontroller to trigger the camera at an appropriate interval.
- Power the additional electronics off the camera power supply.

Rocket Design
- Equipping a motor powerful enough to reach desired altitude.
- Designing the nose cone and body so that the camera optical path is not obstructed.

Camera Disassembly

Since this project centers on a camera system built into a rocket, the camera itself is the best starting point. The first thing that is required is that the camera is carefully deconstructed and the electronics removed from the housing. This is done for a number of reasons, primarily to make the circuitry accessible but it also cuts down on size requirements and weight.

Before beginning the deconstruction it is important to realize that the camera can be rendered unusable during this process. By taking tools to your camera, you are taking full responsibility for your actions and realize that it is possible to destroy the camera even if preventative measures are taken.

Prior to deconstructing the camera remove the batteries and memory cards, doing so will reduce the chance of electrical damage. Another safety precaution which should be considered is a grounding device to reduce the chance of damage to the circuitry due to static electricity.

It is also good to have a bowl where you are working to keep the hardware removed together in one place. On the same lines using another camera to document the deconstruction can aid in reassembling or answering questions which may arise later. An example of where using a photograph for troubleshooting was useful, was trying to determine the positive and negative battery wires going to the camera. It is unknown what could occur by applying a reverse polarity to the camera. In any case, document early and often just in case a similar situation arises.

Typically the camera is held together using very small screws requiring a jewelers Phillips head or something similar. Take your time and locate all of the screws, there should be no need to apply force when removing the casing. If it doesn’t come apart with a firm pull there was probably a screw overlooked. Screws can be placed anywhere, such as inside the battery compartment or under a grip, making them difficult to find. It is possible after removing all the visible screws and after careful inspection the camera will still not come apart. In this case using a flat head screw driver, place the blade into the split between the two pieces and twist. Do not put too much force into it, if there is glue it should pop apart.

After removing the casing to reveal the internal electronics survey the components which still remain to determine which are necessary and which can be removed. Any plastic portions such as the battery holder and viewfinder can be taken out. Be careful with any ribbon cables, they can be very fragile and if they are damaged there is almost nothing that can be done to fix them. If the ribbon cables must be unplugged and plugged in during the deconstruction process, do so with the utmost care.

The only thing left should just be the circuit boards with several wires coming out of them. The protruding wires should be the only things needed to add the additional hardware to the camera system. Three wire pairs are important for this project, the on/off button wires, the trigger button wires, and the battery power wires. Using either a photograph, diagram, or masking tape label the wires accordingly, so later when connecting to the additional electronics there is no question of what each wire connects to.

Nose Cone Design

The nose cone is the ideal location for the camera assembly; this position allows for a reduction in the weight and size of the completed rocket. Additionally, since it is possible to increase the diameter of the nose cone in relation to the body diameter the optical path can be shifted away from the rocket body. This is the best way to produce photographs with a limited portion taken up by the body and fins of the rocket while minimizing the skew introduced into the images.

In this situation the nose cone has two purposes, protecting the camera and securing it firmly in place. Unfortunately the design requirements can not be achieved with mass produced rocketry components since placement of a payload in the nose cone is not common. This will make the nose cone portion of the rocket construction time intensive and require a fair amount of custom fabrication. The result however is a stand alone assembly which can be fitted to any body tube of the same diameter and reused.

Typical rocket cameras take pictures on the accent until the apex is reached and the ejection charge fires. Then the camera dangles as it parachutes back to the ground taking photographs of the parachute and the sky, most of the time these results are unappealing. With a little ingenuity however the camera system and rocket can be designed so that photographs can be achieved on ascent and decent. For this to function the nose cone camera assembly would have its own parachute, attached to the center of the nose cone. This would require a small channel for the parachute cord to fit into and a plug to cover the parachute attachment point to minimize drag. In this design when the ejection charge fires the body tube and the nose cone assembly separate entirely. The parachute would then open and the nose cone assembly would once again be in the vertical position, just like when it was on the rocket, still taking photographs as it descends.

Body Design

For this project the initial target altitude will be 1000ft, which should provide ample time for multiple photographs and sufficient height for informative images. Due to the excess weight of the camera payload a high velocity motor will most likely be required. This is a decision which must be made early and depends upon the projected weight of the camera system equipped to the completed rocket. Since high power engines have a larger diameter than standard engines it is a prudent decision to design around that motor requirement. Then it would be possible to interchange between the two motor types using an adapter instead of having to construct another rocket body assembly.

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