News Release

Help From On High: UCSD Students Use Aerial 'Balloon Cam' to Document Racehorse Exhumation

San Diego, CA, March 12, 2014 -- The world is getting one last look at the famed racehorse Native Diver courtesy of students from the University of California, San Diego and the aerial camera platform developed by the Engineers for Exploration program, which is based at the University’s Qualcomm Institute (QI). 

Engineers for Exploration aerial balooon camera platform above Native Diver's gravesite
Engineers for Exploration aerial balooon camera platform above Native Diver's gravesite at Hollywood Park

The students were invited by a team of archaeologists from the University of Southern California, led by Professors Lynn Dodd and Tom Garrison, to document the long-dead horse’s exhumation in Los Angeles’ Hollywood Park last weekend. The thoroughbred race course and poker card room in Inglewood will soon be torn down and replaced by a residential and retail complex, and Richard Shapiro, the grandson of Native Diver’s owner and breeder, plans to have the horse re-interred at the Del Mar Racetrack in San Diego, where his grave will be marked with a memorial. 

In the 1960s, Native Diver became the first horse bred in California to win more than a million dollars, He won 34 stakes races and still holds the record, with another horse, for most Hollywood Gold Cup wins. He died of colic in 1967 at the age of eight.

UCSD students Antonella Wilby (Computer Science and Engineering or CSE), Dominique Meyer (Physics), Eric Lo (Electrical and Computer Engineering) and Stephanie Conley (biochemistry and CSE) joined QI Research Scientist Albert Yu-Min Lin and Principal Design Engineer Curt Schurgers at the exhumation site, where they had to use three tethers (as opposed to the usual one) to stabilize the balloon in the windy Santa Ana conditions. 

The balloon, which is equipped with a Canon EOS REBEL T4i camera, is further able to automatically stabilize itself using a series of sensors that drive tiny motors to correct for pitch, roll, and yaw, all in an effort to keep the camera continually focused on the intended target on the ground.  

In this case, the intended target was Native Diver’s burial site, where the horse’s bones were found in almost perfect condition. The animal had fallen onto his side with his legs outstretched and appeared to still be running, even in death. 

Schurgers says the purpose of documenting the dig with the balloon cam was threefold.

“First, we wanted to train our undergraduate students how to deploy and operate the balloon,” he said. “Secondly, the archaeologists wanted to get aerial pictures they could use in their class and show a dig from above, and they knew this device had already been used at dig sites in Jordan and elsewhere around the world. Finally, Richard Shapiro appreciated the documentation as well. There’s a lot of documentation on this horse, an extensive scrapbook. It’s definitely something that was important to him.” 

The team from UCSD also hopes to use some of the shots they took while lowering the balloon to create a “structure-from-motion” 3D model of the dig site, which will be built using photos taken of the site from all different angles. The imagery will likely become part of the standard media content for the Qualcomm Institute’s many high-resolution virtual reality displays. 

Schurgers noted that the nature of the exhumation presented some unique challenges for his team. 

“There were trees in the area where the horse was buried,” he explained, “which means we had to station the balloon so we had an angle of the dig site. And because the dig site was a fairly small area, it didn’t make sense for balloon to be very high up so we kept it at a low altitude, but having it lower meant it got whipped around by the wind a lot.”

Conley, who is new to the Explorers for Engineering program this quarter, said it was good experience, and says that just getting the chance to deploy the balloon was thrilling.

“I’ve seen the other E4E students using the balloon around Warren College and I’ve always wanted the chance to deploy it myself,” she added. “I was excited to finally be able to be a part of this unique experience.”

Media Contacts

Tiffany Fox
Qualcomm Institute