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Their business is looking down

Aerial photography can capture a richer perspective on a landscape. Buildings appear in the context of their neighborhoods. A golf course fairway gains depth.

But chartering a helicopter or light airplane can get expensive for many businesses.

An Illinois company has put together a system based on a blimp that offers a relatively economical method for getting pictures from high places. Two services in the Tampa Bay area have purchased the system and are delivering shots they say can be superior to those from traditional means.

"We can do more for less money," says Karen Wise, general manager of Florida SkyCam Inc. in St. Petersburg.

"It gets into places where a helicopter is restricted," says Scott Street, whose Up-Shots business is based from his New Port Richey home.

Florida SkyCam charges $179 for a 16 by 20 inch picture of a house, boat or farm. Chartering a helicopter can cost $200 an hour or more, not including the cost of a photographer.

The blimp system was first envisioned more than 30 years ago by a Canadian inventor. But the system has only gained widespread use since last year when Hi-Shots Aerial Photography Ltd. of Salem, Ill. began marketing it.

The blimp is 18 feet long and can be transported from job to job in a trailer or light truck.

Here's how it works: A tethered blimp is raised to a top altitude of 200 feet. An operator on the ground frames the shot using a control panel and a small TV screen that is hooked to a separate video camera on the blimp. When the image is right, the operator makes an exposure.

The blimp can be launched virtually anywhere and can hover for long periods of time. Vibrations and movement that could hamper picture quality are limited. Because the

blimp is quiet, it shouldn't raise the ire of neighbors.

To be sure, the blimps won't put helicopter and plane charters out of business. Real estate executives, for example, still find value in showing off properties from the air. And sometimes, there's nothing like a rapid response.

The blimp system is available from Hi-Shots for $19,500 and up. The company has licensed 75 operators so far, most of whom heard about the system at business opportunity shows.

Hi-Shots is limiting distribution to one business for each designated area with a population of 500,000 people. However, Up-Shots and Florida SkyCam still can compete for some of the same customers.

"We recommend our operators market the service to developers, real-estate people, city planners" and others, says Brent Morlan, vice president of Hi-Shots.

But Up-Shots and Florida SkyCam both have found a healthy market so far taking pictures of properties simply for pride of ownership.

"Many businesses like the pictures in their lobby," Wise says. "Or we could just get a picture for the owner of a home or boat."