A Beacon Suitable for Tracking Santa’s sleigh?

High-altitude ballooning is becoming a popular activity for many universities, schools and hacker spaces. The balloons, which can climb up to 40 km in the stratosphere, usually have recovery parachutes to help get the payload, with its precious data, back to solid ground safely. But when you live in areas where the balloon is likely to be flying over the sea most of the time, recovery of the payload becomes tricky business. [Paul Clark] and his team from Durham University’s Centre for Advanced Instrumentation are working on building a small, autonomous glider – essentially a flying hard drive – to navigate from 30 km up in the stratosphere to a drop zone somewhere near a major road. An important element of such a system is the locator beacon to help find it. They have now shared their design for an “Iridium 9603 Beacon” — a small Arduino-compatible unit which can transmit its location and other data from anywhere via the Iridium satellite network.

The beacon uses the Short Burst Data service which sends email to a designated mail box with its date, time, location, altitude, speed, heading, temperature, pressure and battery voltage. To do all of this, it incorporates a SAMD21G18 M0 processor; FGPMMOPA6H GPS module; MPL3115A2 altitude sensor; Iridium 9603 Short Burst Data module + antenna and an LTC3225 supercapacitor charger. Including the batteries and antenna, the whole thing weighs in at 72.6 g, making it perfectly suited for high altitude ballooning. The whole package is powered by three ‘AAA’ Energizer Ultimate Lithium batteries which ought to be able to withstand the -56° C encountered during the flight. The supercapacitors are required to provide the high current needed when the beacon transmits data.

The team have tested individual components up to 35 km on a balloon flight from NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility and the first production unit will be flown on a much smaller balloon, launched from the UK around Christmas. The GitHub repository contains detailed information about the project along with the EagleCAD hardware files and the Arduino code. Now, if only Santa carried this on his Sleigh, it would be easy for NORAD to track his progress in real time.

Hackaday Prize Entry: MyComm Handheld Satellite Messenger

We live in a connected world, but that world ends not far beyond the outermost cell phone tower. [John Grant] wants to be connected everywhere, even in regions where no mobile network is available, so he is building a solar powered, handheld satellite messenger: The MyComm – his entry for the Hackaday Prize.

The MyComm is a handheld touch-screen device, much like a smartphone, that connects to the Iridium satellite network to send and receive text messages. At the heart of his build, [John] uses a RockBLOCK Mk2 Iridium SatComm Module hooked up to a Teensy 3.1. The firmware is built upon a FreeRTOS port for proper task management. Project contributor [Jack] crafted an intuitive GUI that includes an on-screen keyboard to write, send and receive messages. A micro SD card stores all messages and contact list entries. Eventually, the system will be equipped with a solar cell, charging regulator and LiPo battery for worldwide, unconditional connectivity.

2016 will be an interesting year for the Iridium network since the first satellites for the improved (and backward-compatible) “Iridium NEXT” network are expected to launch soon. At times the 66 Iridium satellites currently covering the entire globe were considered a $5B heap of space junk due to deficiencies in reliability and security. Yet, it’s still there, with maker-friendly modems being available at $250 and pay-per-use rates of about 7 ct/kB (free downstream for SDR-Hackers). Enjoy the video of [Jack] explaining the MyComm user interface:

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Unmanned ocean crossing

This is the Pinta, an autonomous sailboat built to attempt an ocean crossing from Ireland to Martinique (in the Caribbean). A group of researchers at Aberystwyth University built her as part of the Microtransat Challenge.

To keep tabs on the vessel her creators included an Iridium short burst data modem with a backup system made from a SPOT satellite tracker using a PIC microcontroller to trigger a transmission every six hours. The sailing systems are a conglomeration of a Gumstix board, GPS, a windshield wiper motor to control the sail, and a tiller pilot for steering. A set of solar panels helps to top off the lead-acid batteries that power the system.

Unfortunately the old gal has encountered problems. You can see from the tracking data that, although it sailed 500 km in the last twelve days, she is still just off the coast of Ireland. The primary tracking system has failed, which could signal a system-wide computer failure. We hope the team will eventually recover the vessel as we’re interested in finding out what caused this unfortunate turn of events.