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The History of Aerial Photography.

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Just a couple of weeks ago, Randall Munroe of xkcd posted aerial photographs of Boston he took with his Kite Cam.

It made me wonder about how old aerial photography is, and whether the earliest photographs still exist. I was surprised to find the oldest existing aerial photo was also of Boston!


Although DaVinci wrote about the physics behind photography, the chemicals were not properly developed til a few hundred years later. The first real photograph was taken around 1826. The first aerial photograph was taken in 1858 by Felix Tournachon, known as Nadar, from a tethered balloon over the Bievre Valley in France. Those photographs no longer exist. The oldest surviving aerial photograph is this one of Boston, taken by James Wallace Black in 1860, using a tethered balloon.

More historical aerial photos, after the jump.

Arthur Batut was the first to successfully attach a timer to a camera (consisting of a lit fuse), and attach the camera to a kite. Here is a picture he took from the air over Labruguiere, France in 1889.

In 1903, Julius Neubronner attached small cameras to homing pigeons, with timers set to take a picture every 30 seconds. The resulting Bavarian Pigeon Corps were reliable soldiers, but were occasionally shot and eaten by hungry troops during wartime. See more photos here. Note the wingtips visible in the upper photo.

George Lawrence took this photograph of San Francisco six weeks after the devastating earthquake in 1906. The enormous 49-pound camera was sent to an altitude of 2,000 feet on a train of nine kites, and tripped by electric wire. The camera took many shots to form panoramic images on negatives that were 48 inches wide! See more photos here.

Kite Aerial Photography (KAP) is still popular, and you don't have to have a pilot's liscence to do it. Charles Benton of Berkeley has been involved with KAP since 1994, and runs a website with lots of information and photographs. There's also a KAP blog and regional websites.

The first photograph from an airplane was taken in 1908 by L. P. Bonvillain, in a plane piloted by Wilbur Wright in France. A year later, Wilbur Wright also piloted the plane for the first aerial movie, over Italy. Afterwards, aviation photography was put to use for science, mapping, and military reconnaissance. This photo shows before-and-after aerial images of the 1917 Battle of Passchendaele in Belgium.

Captain Albert Stevens took the first photo that showed the curvature of the earth in 1935. The balloon, the Explorer II, set an altitude record of 72,395 feet! Unfortunately, that image does not seem to exist on the internet. The first image from space was taken in 1946, from a V-2 rocket (launched from White Sands, New Mexico) at an altitude of 65 miles.

The CIA's Corona Project (1959-1972) laid the groundwork for satellite imagery by taking reconnaissance photographs of China and the Soviet Union, among other areas. This Corona photo shows the Pentagon.

The Mercury and Apollo space missions took aerial photography to a new level. This image of "Earthrise" over the moon was taken from Apollo Ten in May, 1969.


The many other photographs of earth taken from space, and the current photography of other planets, is an extensive subject to leave for another day. For more details, see the History of Aerial Photographic Interpretation. For a short course in early photography in general, see this post at Neatorama.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]