Remotely Controlling a Not-So-Miniature Hot Air Balloon

Calling [Matt Barr]’s remote controlled hot air balloon a miniature is a bit misleading. Sure, it’s small compared with the balloons that ply cold morning skies with paying passengers and a bottle of champagne for the landing. Having been in on a few of those landings, we can attest to the size of the real thing. They’re impressively big when you’re up close to them.

While [Matt]’s balloon is certainly smaller, it’s not something you’d just whip together in an afternoon. Most of [Matt]’s build log concentrates mainly on the gondola and its goodies — the twin one-pound camp stove-style propane tanks, their associated plumbing, and the burner, a re-tasked propane weed torch from Harbor Freight. Remote control is minimal; just as in a full-size balloon, all the pilot can really do is turn the burner on or off. [Matt]’s approach is a high-torque RC servo to control the burner valve, which is driven by an Arduino talking to the ground over a 2.4-GHz RF link. The balloon is big enough to lift 30 pounds and appears to be at least 12 feet tall; we’d think such a craft would run afoul of some civil aviation rules, so perhaps it’s best that the test flight below was a tethered one.

Sadly, no instructions are included for making the envelope, which would be a great excuse for anyone to learn a little about sewing. And knowing how to roll your own hot air balloon might come in handy someday.

14 thoughts on “Remotely Controlling a Not-So-Miniature Hot Air Balloon

  1. There was the case of the lawnchair balloonist in California. He got a rare Darwin Award while living to tell about it. He did have to pay a $4000 fine for “driving” without a license to the FAA. As far as exiting East Germany before the wall came down, I would have chosen a device like a powered hang glider type aircraft, not a brightly lit hot air balloon.

    1. There was an entire family that made it out of the Czechoslovak Republic into West Germany in a DIY ballon…apparently it’s not as bright as one might think ;-)
      A ballon had the advantage of being nearly silent, so if there was a low cloud layer, foot guards and local folk that collaborated with the police didn’t hear anything.
      But a heavier-then-air aircraft is obviously superior, as you get to choose where you go and where you land :D

  2. I can’t even fly a kite in my area as it is controlled airspace (not that the law stops some people), but even if I travelled to a more remote location I’d still need a licence to fly that mini balloon. Obviously getting the balloon to fly itself would be idea, have an AI that tracked altitude and drift speed/direction to map out the local conditions and know how to steer by changing altitude the way a human operator would. It would have to be continuous learning code and not a pretrained neural network. Having part of the balloon contain a helium cell would let you have a very small negative buoyancy which would extend it’s range a lot.

  3. The burner isn’t the only control; on a real hot air balloon you also have a “valve” which can be pulled open at the top of the envelope, releasing hot air and guaranteeing quick descent. Without this a controlled landing is almost impossible.

  4. Simple aluminium and drain cleaner (careful, exothermic) gives you the hydrogen to go a lot higher, and stay aloft a lot longer. Cut the tether though, and you’re in a painful world of liability where I live.

    1. There’s the constant problem of it being a little too much combustable :P
      Also, I believe that HCl and zinc is considerably cheaper, albeit needing a bubbler to scrub gasseous HCl out of the resulting hydrogen…

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