Jan 29, 2016 | By Benedict

It’s hard to deny that drones are making a big buzz right now. Used for a variety of purposes, both practical and recreational, remote control aircraft are popping up everywhere. But despite the impressive versatility of these propellor-equipped flying devices, some tasks require an altogether different approach to capturing images. ALTA Tactical, a division of ALTA Systems based in Coral Gables, Florida, has taken up the task of creating a substitute for the noisy, energy-guzzling drone. Its alternative? The SmartBalloon, a balloon-driven, low-altitude imaging device, manufactured with the help of 3D printing.

With the help of a Stratasys 3D printer supplied by Advanced RP, ALTA chief John Ciampa has completely reinvented the wheel (or perhaps “wing”?) of low-altitude aerial imaging. Ciampa, the original patent holder of Pictometry Imagery, has designed a zeppelin-like device that does not require a commercial pilot’s license to operate and which can be used in a number of situations. Unlike their drone cousins, SmartBalloons allow for a long flight time, free of noise and sidestepping potential FAA restrictions.

Although the idea of aerial surveillance may conjure up images of secrecy and espionage, low-altitude imaging devices like ALTA’s Tactical SmartBalloons are actually used in a wide range of fields, such as event monitoring, tactical and disaster response and traffic analysis. Sports fans might even have spotted the innovative devices whizzing around the FSU vs. Miami college football game back in October, where ALTA were tasked with shooting aerial images of the match.

Outside of the sporting arena, SmartBalloons have been used on a tactical training exercise in Miami, which involved responding to a hazardous material spill. This unusual drill involved parties such as the local Coast Guard, testing different responses to the dangerous situation. A very different potential use of the zeppelins involves a plan to monitor sea turtle nests from above, whilst farmers are also showing interest in the technology for its ability to monitor water drainage and crop yield.

According to one key player in the ALTA team, the secret to SmartBalloons’ success lies in the 3D printing techniques used to rapidly produce prototype parts. Since SmartBalloon technology is new, unique and constantly being revamped, having a 3D printer to hand allows ALTA to speedily produce new prototype parts. With new designs tested daily, no other production method would allow the company to maintain such a rapid turnover of new models and components.

“The uPrint has been invaluable for us in prototyping and pilot-run level production,” said Candido Hernandez, an engineer at ALTA. “The ability to make 3 or 4 iterations of a part in a few hours has sped up our development by months compared to getting prototypes machined or outsourcing our printing, where we would have to wait days for our parts, make a few changes, then start the whole process over again. Now I can just print a part, go to lunch, and by the time everybody is back we can play around with it, make changes, and throw another part into the printer.

“It’s also been extremely useful for very short production runs of parts, where traditional production methods might be too expensive to justify themselves but we still need parts for a pilot or demo. Our printer fills the gap really nicely with the ability to make 10 or 20 parts in a day or two. I’ve tried this with consumer-level printers and been burned a few times, wasting hours or days on part runs that failed mid-print. Being able to set up a full build plate and forget about it has been a breath of fresh air.”

With such a wide range of uses for ALTA’s SmartBalloons, it seems that sky’s the limit for Ciampa and co. Next time you spot a balloon flying above a traffic jam, football game or turtle nest, remember that 3D printing helped get it off the ground.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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