DIY Black Box (Tagging photos with GPS coordinates)

black box the car

In our weekly How-To this week we showed you how we hacked an old digital camera to take a photo automatically as fast as it can until the memory card fills up or the battery dies using a $1.49 LM555 Timer Chip from RadioShack. As mentioned in our intro, once you do this to a digital camera there are lots of other things you can do, and here's one in progress, the BlackBoxing of our car by tagging photos with GPS coordinates.

Black box?

We use this term loosely, since there?s not really a term that better describes it. The experimental project we?re working on tracks where a car has been (via GPS) as well as taking many photos for each mile ?Based on our first round of testing we get about 800 photos per hour, or 10 photos per mile (city). Each photo is time stamped and the GPS unit records time as well as location, so it?s fairly easy to match up the data and images to look back at the route, speed, locations and more. There?s a Sony camera attachment that combines GPS and still photos now, so we might use one of those at some point.

Perhaps in the future when digital camera and storage are so cheap and so pervasive, we?ll have cameras recording all of our driving and occasionally use the data, logs, images and video for insurance or other purpose as described here. This of course opens a whole other discussion about privacy, but for now, we are doing all this to ourself so shame us, whatever.

The Camera
The camera we used is from our earlier How-To. It?s an old Olympus Digital camera that uses SmartMedia cards, it?s been sitting in our basement for 2 years waiting to go for car rides and fly on kites. We hacked it to automatically take photos until the card is full or the batteries die.

digi cam

The Mount + GPS

To mount, actually hang, the camera in the car we used a coat hanger and some electrical tape (this is a prototype for now). We placed the Garmin GPS Forerunner on the hanger as well.

coat hanger



The Drive

We drove around 3 miles in about 12 minutes taking over 125 photos from our starting point to RadioShack (our final destination in the University of Washington District).

The Map
Here?s the route we took from a starting point in Freemont, WA and ending at the RadioShack in the U-District.


If you want to see how we made the maps we have that How-to as well, basically we imported the data from the GPS and ran it through an application that grabs the photos from a free satellite photo server.

The Photos

The camera took over 120 photos on our trip logging the time, while the GPS logged the time and location. It would take way too long to post all 120 photos (and most are the backs of cars) so, here are some from our trip with location. If you?re hardcore and want to check out all 120 photos and the XML file drop us a line.






What?s next?

We?re still finishing up the kite photography How-To which will be up shortly, if you?re in the Seattle area and it?s nice out, drop us a line if you want to check out our experiment this weekend.

doggie well as adding a small digital camera to our organic dog, stay tuned.

Phillip Torrone can be reached via his personal site: