Rocket Aerial Video

Published August 7th, 2011. Filed in: Articles & Information

For the past few weeks I have been experimenting with some miniature cameras and a few dozen rockets in a farmer’s field. By experimenting I do of course mean “blowing things up” including the camera gear!

This project was intended to lead up to the filming of a consumer fireworks display from an actual rocket – a bird’s eye view if you like. The good news is I have discovered a brilliant way of filming action from a tiny camera and the techniques learned here can be applied to model rocketry, remote control vehicles and maybe you more adventurous readers can try and film fireworks as I have. The bad news is that consumer rockets as used here have an unforeseen flight characteristic that has rendered the video almost unwatchable. Still, I have managed to rescue some nice still images and the technique itself is sound, so I am pleased to share it and hope I inspire you all to have a go.


The camera equipment

Capturing video from a rocket which travels at several hundred miles and hour and reaches over 300ft is a bit of a challenge. There are essentially only two ways this can be done. You can use a camera that transmits the footage wirelessly to a receiver on the ground, or you can use a fully self contained camera that records on tape or card.

I have already tried using wireless cameras as attendees to one of the St George competitions will remember. At that event I attached a camera to an assault rifle (don’t ask!). The results weren’t very good. These tiny cameras are OK for still footage but don’t like being moved around. You can see the results in the St George Fireworks Extras page – scroll down to “Assault Rifle Cam”.

So for this project I wanted to use a fully self contained camera. Bulky and heavy camcorders are out of the question here because the rockets are consumer fireworks not Trident missiles and probably can’t lift much weight. When I first considered doing this a while back there wasn’t anything on the market suitable for this. In recent years however there has been a revolution in miniature cameras mostly designed for the “spy” and covert market but widely adopted by model rocketeers and remote control plane enthusiasts. It wasn’t long before my fellow pyromaniacs around the world were attaching these to rockets with spectacular results so it was time to have a go.

The cameras I used for this were bought from Ebay and are listed as key fob spy cameras. Incredibly, the entire camera including lens, battery and memory card is the size of a car’s key fob:

Key Fob Spy Cameras

The cameras used for this project with an SD sized card adapter for scale

These cameras only weigh 16 grams and as you can see from the photo above are tiny. Very easy then to attach to rockets!

At this stage I should issue the mandatory “Don’t mess with fireworks warning”: As you can probably gather from this website I do have an awful lot of experience with fireworks and attaching things to them is something that I should caution is inherently risky. These experiments were conducted in a very remote rural area by trained professionals. If you are going to try this yourself please be aware it is entirely at your own risk and you are strongly advised to take guidance from a professional. It is definitely a bad idea to try this in your back garden!


The rockets

Because of the fireworks angle to this project I particularly wanted to use consumer fireworks rockets rather than model rockets. There is quite a difference between the two types. Model rockets as used by rocketeers have a very stable flight and come back to earth on a parachute. They are designed to be used during the day and the idea is to progress through bigger and bigger rockets to get the best possible height, even using multiple stages. They are also reusable.

Fireworks on the other hand blow up and come back to earth with a thump. They are designed to be used at night and to put a pyrotechnic effect into the air at which point the rocket is mostly destroyed in the process. So as you can imagine this really isn’t the easiest way to get aerial footage!


First attempts

During my first attempt to film a few weeks ago I started with small packet rockets. These lifted the camera no problem but there was a major issue with the footage. Unlike model rockets which are stable in flight, these fireworks spun incredibly quickly as they took off due to the rocket motors being slightly out of line with the stick and flight direction. I salvaged a few stills from the video but the moving footage itself was an unwatchable blur.

I also managed to prang the camera by mounting it looking up at the rocket motor. Sparks flew into the lens and ruined it. There was nothing for it but to order some more cameras and progress to even bigger rockets in the hope they would be stable in flight…

Two weeks later and a jiffy bag arrived from Hong Kong with the replacement cameras in. A quick visit to see Firework Emporium in Ipswich furnished me with four very large Ultra rockets. Then I popped out to a remote corner of Suffolk to see a friendly farmer I knew from when I lived out in the country to get permission to use his land. We have lift off!


Rocket 1

For the first rocket I mounted the camera to the plastic motor shaft looking down towards the ground. This would avoid any sparks going into the lens. The camera was attached with just black electrical tape – not very high tech.

One tip first of all: Do fire a test rocket first to check the wind direction and how far they will travel. I’m glad I did this because the conditions were fairly windy and it allowed me to adjust the launch position to ensure the subsequent rockets remained well within the farmer’s land.

Alas, despite the big size of the rocket and the moulded plastic head, a huge amount of spin was still encountered on launch. This made the moving video quite disappointing so before I come to that (later in this article) I will instead run through still images which I took from the video:

The view down from the camera looking at the scaffold launch tube and my steel toe capped welly.


We have lift off – this is the motor just starting to fire.


Here we go. First of all you will notice the distortion in the image. This is because the rocket was already spinning so fast it was unable to capture a still image for each frame. Note on the right you can see two people. In the red coat is the UKFR rocket assistant and just down from her, yours truly. The cross in the middle is the launch tower.


Already the rocket is moving to a great height as you can see we are starting to look quite small in the field!


Still mere seconds into the flight and we're still climbing. You can just make us out in the field below, to the right of the smoke trail.


We look tiny now from several hundred feet (top of frame) and the rocket is so high the old farm buildings (where we parked) can be seen on the bottom right.


The rocket is now running out of thrust and is starting to slow down. It is possible the sparks are from the payload exploding. That's my car down there to the right of the old barn!


Sparks are flying everywhere from the main effect going off. The rocket was not spinning as much here so the ground is much less distorted. You can see my car a lot clearer.


The rocket motor is completely spent leaving behind just a burnt stick!


The rocket is now starting to slow right down, ready to tip over and return to earth.


The best part of the flight coming up, a chance to see the countryside!


This is the very best still image from all of the video clips. A brief moment where the rocket was not spinning at all so there is no distortion. This view shows a village called Bucklesham and on the right is BT Martlesham.


Next page (click the “2″ link below): Rocket 2!

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