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.

Upstagram: a Flying Raspberry Pi

Upstagram Pre-flight

This tiny paper house, modeled after the one in Disney’s UP, contains a Raspberry Pi, battery pack, camera, and 3G stick. The Upstagram, built by the folks at HackerLoop, took to the skies of Paris to snap and share photos on Instagram.

We’ve seen Raspberry Pis in flight before, but this build pulls it off using simple party balloons. It took around 80 balloons to get the house to a height of 300 feet. A kite string was used to tether the device and control its flight.

This hack also required some reverse engineering of Instagram. Since the photo sharing service only allows the official Android and iOS apps to upload, they had to use a reverse engineered Instagram client. This allows the unsupported Raspberry Pi to interact with the service, snapping pictures periodically and sharing them on the device’s stream.

After the break, check out a quick video overview of the project.

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Dead simple jamming gripper design


This jamming gripper design is the simplest we’ve seen so far. It uses a syringe to generate the suction necessary for the orange appendage to grip an object.

As with previous offerings this uses coffee grounds inside of a balloon. When pressed against an object the grounds flow around it. When a vacuum is applied to the balloon those grounds are locked in place, jamming themselves around the item for a firm grip. About a year ago we saw a hardware-store grade design which used a vacuum pump for suction and a shower head as the gripper body. This time around the plastic syringe serves as both.

The plastic tip was cut away and the resulting hole covered with a cloth to keep the coffee in place. After installing the coffee-filled balloon the grip can be operated by pulling the plunger to lock the grounds in place. It’s not going to be as easy to automate as a pump-based rig. But if you just want to toy with the concept this is the way to go.

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Operation StratoSphere


Panoramic photos are nice, however a full 360 degree x 180 degree, or spherical panorama would be even better. [Caleb Anderson] decided to take this concept much further, attempting to extract panoramic photos from video taken at 100,000 feet using a high-altitude balloon and six GoPro cameras.

The overview of this project can be found here, and gives some background. The first task was to start prototyping some payload containers, which for a device that you have little control over once out of your hands is quite critical. As well as some background, there’s a cool interactive panorama of the first test results on this page, so be sure to check it out.

The “real” hacking in this experiment wasn’t a matter of putting a balloon into the stratosphere or recovering it, however. Chaining these images together into pictures was a huge challenge, and involved a diverse set of skills and software knowledge that most of our readers would be proud to possess. There are several videos in the explanation, but we’ve embedded one with the cameras falling out of the sky. Be sure to at least watch until (or skip to) just after 1:05 where all the cameras impressively survive impact! Continue reading “Operation StratoSphere”

Launching a balloon and not landing in the ocean

In just a few short hours, the Yale Undergraduate Aerospace Association will launch their 4th high altitude balloon project into the rarefied air of the stratosphere and with any luck bring back pictures of the view high above Connecticut  Long Island, Rhode Island, and Martha’s Vineyard.

Inside their surprisingly strong unibody chassis is two GoPro cameras and a triple-redundant telemetry system consisting of a custom radio system capable of transmitting over 40 miles, a cell-phone based comms system and a SPOT satellite tracker.

There is one very large problem the Yale Aerospace team has had to cope with; Because they’re launching their Skyview balloon from the eastern seaboard of the US, it’s very likely their payload could end up taking a drink in the Atlantic. To solve this problem, the team developed a novel cut-down solution: a piece of nichrome heater wire is wrapped around the line tying the payload to the balloon. If the hardware receives a signal from the ground, or has a software problem, or runs out of battery power, the nichrome circuit will release the balloon from its launch vehicle to hopefully return it to solid ground.

The Yale Aerospace team has also written a custom iOS app allowing the chase cars to track the balloon in real time – a great feature if you’re trying to communicate with several cars going down the highway. You can check out the live data from the balloon on the Yale Aerospace tracking site or just head over to their twitter to read the latest news about the flight.