A Low-Cost Modular High Altitude Balloon Tracker with Mesh Networked Sensors

[Ethan] just tipped us about a project he and a few colleagues worked on last year for their senior design project. It’s a low-cost open hardware/software high altitude balloon tracker with sensors that form a mesh network with a master node. The latter (shown above) includes an ATmega644, an onboard GPS module (NEO-6M), a micro SD card slot, a 300mW APRS (144.39MHz) transmitter and finally headers to plug an XBee radio. This platform is therefore in charge of getting wireless data from the slave platforms, storing it in the uSD card while transmitting the balloon position via APRS along with other data. It’s interesting to note that to keep the design low-cost, they chose a relatively cheap analog radio module ($~40) and hacked together AFSK modulation of their output signal with hardware PWM outputs and a sine-wave lookup table.

The slave nodes are composed of ‘slave motherboards’ on which can be plugged several daughter-boards: geiger counters, atmospheric sensors, camera control/accelerometer boards. If you want to build your own system, be sure to check out this page which includes all the necessary instructions and resources.

Long-distance High Frequency APRS Tracking Using The FreeTrak63


If you dabble in the ham radio hobby we’re sure you’ve heard of GPS position monitoring or tracking using APRS packet data commonly transmitting over the VHF ham band and FM modulated. One of the issues you’ll face using this common method is range limitations of VHF. [Mike Berg] a.k.a [N0QBH ] tipped us off to his latest project to greatly increase the range of a standalone APRS system utilizing the HF bands on single-sideband (SSB).

There are some unique challenges transmitting packet data using SSB over HF bands.  High Frequency APRS has been around for decades utilizing FSK AX.25 packet transmissions at 300 baud, but it was quite susceptible to noise and propagation aberrations. More recently PSK-31 at the slower 31 baud speed helped alleviate many of these issues. [Mike] utilized the somewhat updated APRS with PSK-63 and the “APRS Messenger” program to overcome these challenges. [Mike’s] hardware solution consists of a PIC 16F690 micro which is coded to receive data from a GPS receiver, convert it into PSK-63 and then transmit on 30 meters over an attached HF radio. A second receiving station or stations at great distances can pick up and decode the transmission using the “APRS Messenger” program connected to the receiving radio over the computer’s soundcard. The program can then forward the tracking information, if good, to tracking websites like FindU.com and APRS.FI.

You can build your own FreeTrak63 by downloading [Mike’s] parts list, assembly code, HEX file, manual and schematic. The PCB is available on OSH Park if you don’t want to make your own or wire point-to-point. Let’s not forget to mention how hackable this hardware is, being really just an eight bit DAC, micro, serial in and radio out. One could reprogram this hardware to do other modulation schemes like AX.25 packet or MFSK16, the sky’s the limit. If short-distance on VHF with existing Internet linked receiver networks using an Arduino compatible platform is more to your taste, then checkout the Trackuino open source APRS Tracker.

APRS iGate built using a Raspberry Pi

The hardware seen above is used to bridge a local RF radio network to the APRS-IS network. The APRS-IS is an Internet Service that uses a web connection to communicate between APRS networks in different parts of the world. The Raspberry Pi is perfect for this application because of its ability to connect to a network, and its native use of Linux.

On the software side the majority of the work is done by a Python script. It is responsible for setting up and monitoring a connection with an APRS-IS server. To connect to the handheld radio unit a USB sound card was used. The Multimon package is used to send and receive audio packets through this hardware.

[Sunny] has a few upgrades planned for the system. The device needs to report its location to the APRS-IS server and the plan is to add functionality that will look of the WiFi AP’s location automatically. It may also be possible to get rid of the radio all together and use a DVB dongle as a software defined radio.

One wire reads the keypad from the APRS radio mic

[Shane Burrell] decided to spend some time learning how the keypad on the his Kenwood TM-710A APRS radio mic works. It uses a different technique than you might think. Normally a grid of buttons is scanned as a matrix to detect keypresses, but this hardware actually counts pulses on a serial wire to take each reading.

The stock radio sends a steady digital pulse to the handset and with each pulse the mic pulls the line low. It then uses a 4017 decade counter to see what comes back. If the edge count matches it means nothing is pressed, but a change in the number of pulses returning to the base unit can be used to extrapolate which button has been pressed.

[Shane] went on to implement this control technique using an AVR chip in place of the  radio base unit. He used the data gained from measuring the pulse behavior using an oscilloscope to write the firmware for the project. He filmed a bit of a demo after the break which shows his findings.

We’re not quite sure how this would translate into your own home-brew projects, but the thought of scanning a keypad with two pins of a uC is quite desirable. Sure there is the 555-timer frequency technique, but we’re always down with new ideas.

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Turning a router into an APRS gateway

[Chris Kantarjiev] is an amateur radio enthusiast (call sign K6DBG) and does a lot with the APRS. We think his build, turning a WRT54gl router into an APRS gateway will be very useful for the APRS tracker builds we’ve been covering.

Setting up an Internet Gateway, or igate, on APRS usually requires a ‘real’ computer. [Chris] didn’t like that idea, so he took aprs4r, igate software for embedded devices, and pruned it down to fit on the 4MB of flash and 16MB of RAM in the WRT.

The actual APRS hardware is connected though headers soldered onto the WRT54gl’s board which go to a small PIC-Based TNC. [Chris] argues that the APRS ‘backbone’ is great, but there aren’t enough nodes on the network for full coverage. We thing this would be a great way to put cheap hardware out in the wild to cover those gaps in the APRS network.

Check out the video for a rundown of the modded WRT54g after the break. If you’re interested amateur radio, Field Day is coming up in just 2 weeks. Find a local club and check out what’s possible with amateur radio.

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Radio packets…from spaaaace!


[Bill Meara] was watching the International Space Station and the Shuttle Discovery pass overhead a few weeks ago, which rekindled an interest he gave up long ago – sending and receiving radio packets from space.

Years ago, he used to send APRS packets into space with a small rig powered by a 286 computer and HandiTalkie. These packets would drift off into space most of the time, but occasionally they would bounce back to Earth whenever the space station or PC Sat would fly by. The packets were often captured by other ham operators across the globe, who happened to be tuned to 145.825 MHz.

His interest renewed, he dug out his old HandieTalkie and Kantronics Terminal Node, aiming them towards the sky via an antenna situated in his back yard. When he returned 10 hours later, he found that he had collected all sorts of “space packets” from across the globe.

While not exactly a hack, it is definitely a neat exercise in ham radio operation. We can imagine slinging data packets off the space station would be an exciting experience for any budding operator (and OMs as well!)

Trackuino – an Open Source Arduino APRS Tracker

trackuino board

Trackuino is a new open source (GPLv2 license) Arduino APRS tracker designed by [Javier Martin]. If you are unfamiliar: APRS (Automatic Packet Reporting System) is an amateur radio method used to relay small packets of position-tracking data to an online database for easy access and mapping. In this case, GPS telemetry data is used to track latitude, longitude, altitude, course, speed, and time measurements in near real-time via aprs.fi.

Although this reminds us of the WhereAVR that we covered previously, the Trackuino includes an onboard radio so no external handheld unit is necessary. Since the Trackuino was designed primarily for high-altitude balloon tracking, a number of useful related features are also included: dual temperature sensors, support for a humidity sensor, and a remote “cut-down” trigger really make this a complete package.

Initially there was some concern that the 300mW radio used would not be powerful enough to reach the ground-based receivers from peak altitudes. This was clearly not an issue however, as the signal was heard from nearly 600Km away during the maiden voyage. If this still doesn’t sound like enough power, a 500mW radio is also supported.

Make sure to check out [Javier]’s blog for some amazing high-altitude photos and everything needed to get your own Trackuino up and running in no time!

Thanks [Brad]!