Mankind has devised diverse kinds of flying machines that reach into the atmosphere and low-space environment. Since the Chinese invention of kites centuries ago, an irresistible urge has led people to fly higher and faster above the surface of the Earth. Ranging in size and complexity from small paper kites to the International Space Station, virtually all these flying platforms may be adapted for small-format aerial photography (SFAP). The emphasis here is on relatively low-flying platforms using unconventional aircraft, both manned and unmanned.

Platforms fall into several primary categories—manned or unmanned, powered or unpowered, and tethered to the ground or free flying. The number of possible combinations is quite large. For example, balloons may be manned or unmanned and tethered or free flying; helicopters vary from large manned vehicles to small unmanned aircraft. The term drone is generally applied to unmanned, powered, free-flying platforms. Other terms referring to small, remotely controlled aircraft include UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle), MAV (micro air vehicle) and RPV (remotely piloted vehicle).

The most basic distinction is whether the platform is manned or unmanned. The former is necessarily large enough to lift a person safely along with photographic equipment. The latter may be relatively small. Manned lifting platforms, such as airplanes, helicopters, hot-air balloons, and ultralights, are fairly expensive to operate and normally require a trained pilot, ground-support crew, and some kind of launching and landing facilities. Unmanned platforms are much more variable in their technical specifications. The requirements for lifting capability and platform safety are much less stringent with unmanned platforms; the cost and technical expertise needed to operate such systems also vary greatly. Unmanned platforms may operate in an automated fashion once airborne, or they may be controlled remotely by a person on the ground.

A further distinction can be made between powered and unpowered platforms. The former become airborne through some kind of artificial thrust provided by a motor or engine. Airplanes, autogyros, helicopters, and rockets utilize a variety of wings, blades, rotors, and fins to create lift and/ or stabilize the vehicle in flight. These aircraft move with moderate to high velocity; even the helicopter that appears to hover is in fact rotating its blades rapidly against the air. All powered platforms vibrate and move relative to the ground.

Unpowered platforms achieve their lift either through neutral buoyancy (balloons and blimps) or via resistance to the wind—kites and sailplanes. Regardless of the kind of platform, any vibration or movement of the camera relative to the ground creates the potential for blurred imagery. Balloons, blimps, and gliders that drift with the wind move slowly relative to the ground and have minimal mechanical vibration. Tethered platforms—balloons, blimps, and kites—tend to vibrate and swing with the wind. The following sections, which present selected examples of SFAP platforms, also include discussions on their characteristics affecting image acquisition, quality and other properties, and exemplary uses taken from the literature.

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