The EOS D40
The EOS D40

Are there any high-def cameras that can zoom into a six-foot square—from 60,000 feet?

I was wondering if you knew of any high-def cameras that can zoom in to a six-foot-by-six-foot square on earth's surface from 60,000 feet and attached to a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle)? Paul Long Beach, CA

The EOS D40

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Oh, Paul. I do not have a good answer. But I so love the question that I have to bring it up in the hope that someone can chime in and help. I actually know a little bit about this. Last year I wrote a piece for Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine about commercial uses of UAVs. For instance, a UAV called a CropCam—a $7,000 UAV used by farmers to evaluate field conditions—uses a simple Pentex Optio A40 ($300), a point-and-shoot with 12-megapixel resolution. And it can resolve things down to six inches from 2,000 feet up. Thirty times as high, that means even a humble Optio can come close to your six-feet-by-six-feet target=.

The EOS D40 The EOS D40

Get a digital SLR with a good lens, and you could see if that quarter on the ground is heads or tails. With a Canon EOS D40 ($1,200 for body) you get a pro-grade camera that’s designed for harsh conditions, such as the freezing encountered at 60,000 feet. I’d add a short zoom, such as Sigma’s 24-60mm f/2.8 EX DG IF Aspherical Wide Angle Zoom Lens ($560). Very sharp, good versatility. And the combination shouldn’t tax a smallish UAV, weight-wise. Mainly, you’d want a good pilot so you don’t smash the thing up and lose the expensive camera.

In short, any good-quality digital camera should give you the resolution you need. I have some concerns around whether it will be so cold (-70 degrees) that high up that any camera will just freeze up, or the battery will cease to function. Perhaps adding some sort of heater to the camera may be a necessary step.

Good luck! And if any readers have any ideas, please let me know!