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.

38 thoughts on “Tiny Radio Tracks Your Balloons

    1. THIS! Talk about making a fool of your organization/team/country.

      Any watchers of NCIS would agree nothing would be more satisfying then seeing Gibbs slapping the back of the heads of everyone involved INCLUDING the general.

      How can we be so dumb as to not track our OWN balloon/heliosat/blimp. Epic shame or Epic Stupidity.

      This is almost as bad as the Bradley tank/transport/hybrid-snafu highlighted in “Pentagon Wars” movie.

  1. Awesome! I’ve been trying to do this for ages – sub 50g means in Australia that it counts as a “free balloon”, and doesn’t need any notification. Now just to get a sub 5g parachute and camera…

          1. A joule thief is just a rather esoteric boost converter, and the modules already use boost converters. Joule thieves aren’t suitable for constant loads anyway – they rely on the LED’s forward voltage drop to collapse the inductor current and initiate the next cycle, and so they work in a ‘pulsed’ fashion.

    1. Typical flight is around 3 hours, but always nice to have some overhead in case you need extra time to track it to a remote location.
      Due to losses in the boost converter it doesn’t quite work out that nicely, it’d be closer to 3 and some change on 1 AA.

  2. Not a bad integration of parts people were using beforehand and for most launches better than a RPi due to lower power consumption etc, however it’s just an advert to someone’s Kickstarter it’s not that complex or that news worthy ..just nice

        1. Yeah exactly I’ve got I think 4 LoRa modules I’m playing with it’s a good way around the UK restrictive Licensing.
          definitely worth alook at for all sorts of projects

    1. Yes I am running a Kickstarter but the site has a lot more than that. the complete source code as well as instructions and a number of blog posts and images from past flights are also available. It is over all fairly simple but I put a lot of work into the design and testing to make something awesome and open source.

    1. Cellular devices are illegal to fly on a weather balloon (in the US) and dont work very well once get above 20k feet or so. Plus getting your ham license is so easy these days.

      1. Huh? That.. That makes no sense. ?_? [mtbales] can you please extrapolate I’m perplexed by 2 parts of your statement.

        1.) Is there a FCC/FAA reg reference?

        2.) The Cellular device thing is weirdly worded. I can understand that GSM/CDMA needs towers (above 20k feet) but why not use the cellphone only for RX GPS for the above the 20k feet? And WiFi Pringle Can to TX scream a WAP and and a bit of DNS tunneling straight downward. We do have WiFi on 30k feet commercial flights now.

        Technically you could use a iridium sat phone to auto dial home and modem the gps cords. That would count as “cellular” as it doesn’t operate on those bands right?

        1. 1. FCC Regulation regarding weather balloons: http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?SID=3a6f5c68673c71cf564f7db91144bafe&mc=true&node=pt47.2.22&rgn=div5#se47.2.22_1925

          2. You can certainly go with a phone RXing GPS and transmitting it over wifi, but hooking up a cantenna to a phone is no small feat, and keeping wifi antennas aimed at each other can also be very difficult. Plus you’ll need a ground station somewhere with line of site to the balloon. Also the power used in such a setup would be much higher requiring more batteries and adding a lot of weight. Much easier to use APRS and its existing network of ground stations, and low power transmitting.

          Yes you could use an iridium device, i use a SPOT3 tracker as a backup on all my flights, however they will not operate above 60k feet.

  3. APRS is very cool to play with and this is a cool integrated solution. I was disappointed when they they were using the standard tranceiver module everybody uses, not because it is a bad idea to use a predefined radio, but I really want to see a good example of a PLL controlled transmitter project. The headline implied this project was creating a radio whereas this is more of a TNC + GPS module + Radio module project. The form factor is cool. Interestingly enough, my wife was in charge of tracking a high altitude balloon project about a decade ago, and she just used a TH-D7A with a Garmin GPS to do the APRS transmitting. Since then there have been a bunch of people building trackers especially for high altitude balloons. The folks at Byonics http://www.byonics.com/mt-1000 use the same or similar radio module in their TinyTrak series.

  4. It’s too bad they didn’t implement SmartBeaconing, an algorithm which reduces the amount of transmissions required to get a good GPS track. Other APRS users on 144.390 MHz would appreciate this, because the channel gets crowded with timed GPS transmissions blasting out from a 95,000′ balloon.

    SmartBeaconing is free to use for noncommercial projects. I am the author. Contact me for further questions.
    All the major amateur radios that have APRS also implement SmartBeaconing.

  5. How about utilizing the 23cm ham band (1200mhz) for the uplink frequency to APRS satellites and ballon digipeaters? The satellites / ballon downlink frequency could remain on 145.825MHz. This would allow for really compact and portable directional or hemispherical antennas for transmitting up to APRS satellites.



    Jim – KH2SR

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