Hackaday Prize Entry: A CPU For Balloons

Launching a high altitude balloon requires a wide breadth of knowledge. To do it right, you obviously need to know electronics and programming to get temperature, pressure, and GPS data. You’ll have to research which cameras will take good pictures and are easily programmable. It’s cold up there, and that means you need some insulation to keep the batteries warm. If you ever want to find your payload, you’ll also need an amateur radio license.

There’s a lot of work that goes into launching high altitude balloons, and for his Hackaday Prize entry, [Jeremy] designed a simple embedded data recorder capable of flying over 100,000 feet.

This flight data recorder for balloons is based on the ever popular ATMega328, and includes humidity, temperature, pressure, accelerometer, gyroscope, and magnetometer sensors. All of this data is recorded to an SD card. The Real Engineers™ who are wont to criticize design decisions they disagree with might laugh at the use of a 7805 voltage regulator, but in this case it makes a lot of sense. The power wasted by a linear regulator isn’t. It’s turned into heat which keeps the batteries alive a little bit longer.

This balloon data recorder has already flown, and [Jeremy] got some great pictures out of it. It’s a great piece of the puzzle for an exceptionally multidisciplinary project, and a great entry for the Hackaday Prize.

Ham Antenna Rises to the Occasion

There was a time when you could do what you wanted in your yard and hams could build giant antenna farms. These days, there are usually laws or deed restrictions that stop that from happening. Even if you can build an antenna, you might want to quickly put up something temporary in an emergency.

[Eric’s] solution? Suspend a wire from a weather balloon filled with helium from the local WalMart. The 8 foot balloon took two containers (18 cubic feet) of gas before it would rise sufficiently. Once you have a floating balloon, the rest of the concept is simple: connect a wire (100 feet of 26 gauge), use a tuner to match the load to the transmitter, and you have instant antenna.

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Tiny Radio Tracks Your Balloons

The name of the game in rocketry or ballooning is weight. The amount of mass that can be removed from one of these high-altitude devices directly impacts how high and how far it can go. Even NASA, which estimates about $10,000 per pound for low-earth orbit, has huge incentives to make lightweight components. And, while the Santa Barbara Hackerspace won’t be getting quite that much altitude, their APRS-enabled balloon/rocket tracker certainly helps cut down on weight.

Tracksoar is a 2″ x .75″ x .5″ board which weighs in at 45 grams with a pair of AA batteries and boasts an ATmega 328P microcontroller with plenty of processing power for its array of on-board sensors. Not to mention everything else you would need like digital I/O, a GPS module, and, of course, the APRS radio which allows it to send data over amateur radio frequencies. The key to all of this is that the APRS module is integrated with the board itself, which saves weight over the conventional method of having a separate APRS module in addition to the microcontroller and sensors.

As far as we can see, this is one of the smallest APRS modules we’ve ever seen. It could certainly be useful for anyone trying to save weight in any high-altitude project. There are a few other APRS projects out there as well but remember: an amateur radio license will almost certainly be required to use any of these.

Could You Repeat That?

Ever been out in a big field and need to tell something to Joe at the other end? If you’re lucky Sally is in between and you can shout to Sally to tell Joe your message. Maybe Joe shouts back to Sally in reply.

That’s how amateur radio repeaters work.

Friend of Hackaday [Kenneth Finnegan] got tired of explaining the details of repeaters so he put together a pair of repeater tutorial videos, the first of which is found after the break.

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Image source KV5R

The higher radio frequencies, say 50 MHz and above, typically only propagate within line of sight. Add in limited power and antennas from a hand-held, typically under 5 watts and the ubiquitous ‘rubber ducky’ antenna, and you cannot talk very far. Mobile rigs in vehicles with 50 watts and larger antennas do better but in reality they don’t help all that much.

What really makes an improvement is height to improve range. Height provides a longer line of sight with fewer obstructions. Hams created repeaters and put them on towers, buildings or hill tops to expand the radio horizon. The ultimate repeaters are space satellites. Can’t get much higher than that. A close second are balloons going to near space altitudes with repeaters which will provide multi-state coverage.

Besides providing height, a repeater will also have higher output power and much better antennas, especially important for receiving weak signals from distant handhelds. A signal comes in and is repeated back out on a slightly different frequency. All modern ham gear on these frequencies is setup to handle this offset frequency operation.

Whether hams came up with the idea is arguable, but they were certainly there during the early days.

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Party Balloon Crosses Atlantic, Tours Europe & Phones Home

For the past few months, [David VE3KCL] has been launching balloons from his Canadian home fitted with radio transmitters. Nothing unusual there: quite a few people do this, including schools, hackerspaces, and individuals. What is remarkable is how far he has gotten. His S-4 flight in August of this year crossed the Atlantic, reached France and took a tour of Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Norway before finally landing in the Norwegian Sea. That’s over 10,000 kilometers (6200 miles): not bad for a couple of party balloons strung together.

The flight payload of one of the balloon flights.
The flight payload of one of the balloon flights.

Although the distance these balloons have travelled is quite remarkable, the interesting part is how [David] is tracking the balloons. Cell phones obviously won’t work over the Atlantic, and satellite transmitters are expensive, so he used a low-cost transmitter that was programmed to broadcast using a variety of Ham radio signals. The most effective seems to be WSPRnet (the Weak Signal Propagation Network), a system used by Hams to see how far low strength signals will go. This system relies on Hams leaving their receivers on and running software that uploads the received signals to a central server.

By cleverly encoding information such as height and position into this signal, he was able to turn this worldwide network into a tracking network that would report the balloon’s position pretty much anywhere on the globe. [David] is continuing to launch balloons: his latest went up on the 24th of September and travelled over 4300km (2600 miles) before the signal was lost over the Atlantic.

Solar Tetroon Spooks Albuquerque

An interesting take on Hackerspace outreach is spooking the local community into calling the FAA and even the Air Force. It wasn’t exactly the plan at Quelab, but after an experimental solar tetroon got away from [Gonner Menning], one of the space’s members, that’s exactly what happened.

This is the first we remember hearing of solar tetroons. A tetroon is actually a fairly common weather balloon design using four triangle-shaped pieces. The solar part is pretty neat, it’s a balloon that uses the sun to heat air inside of a balloon. Instead of filling the bladder with a lighter-than-air gas it is filled with regular air and the sun’s rays heat it to become lighter than the surrounding ambient air.

For this particular flight the balloon was never supposed to be off the tether. Previous iterations had turned out to be rather poor fliers. Of course it figures that when [Gonner] finally tuned the design with an optimal weight to lift ratio it slipped its leash and got away. The GPS package tracked it for quite a while but ended up dying and the craft was nary to be found.

We weren’t going to embed the local news coverage video, but at the end the talking heads end up rolling around the word “Hackerspace” in their mouths like it’s foreign food. Good for a giggle after the break.

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High Altitude Balloon Keeps Going

Here’s a post from the AMSAT-UK high altitude balloon blog. It’s a great story about a balloon cruising at about 12km above the Earth completing its sixth circumnavigation of the planet. That post is from October 4th, and two weeks later the balloon is still going strong. Right now it’s over the Baltic heading into Russia with no sign of stopping or popping any time soon.

globeThe balloon was launched July 12, 2014 from Silverstone, UK. In the 100 days since then, this balloon has covered 144168 kilometers and has crossed its launching longitude six times. Even if this balloon weren’t trapped at high latitudes (including coming within 9 km of the pole), this balloon has still travelled more than three times the equatorial circumference of the Earth.

The balloon was built by [Leo Bodnar] a.k.a. [M0XER] with a self-made plastic foil envelope. The solar-powered payload weighs only 11 grams. It’s an exceptional accomplishment and one that has smashed all the amateur high altitude balloon distance records we can find.