Let’s Take A Closer Look At This Robotic Airship

It’s not a balloon, however shiny its exterior may seem. This miniature indoor robotic airship created by the University of Auckland mechanical engineering research group [New Dexterity] is an asymmetric system experimenting with the possibilities of an open-source helium-based airship.

Why a helium airship, as opposed to a fixed wing aircraft? The group wanted to experiment with the advantages of lighter-than-air (LTA) travel, namely the higher mobility and looser path planning constraints. Furthermore, LTA airships have a less obstructed field of vision and fewer locomotion issues. While unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) may be capable of hovering in one place, their lift is generated by rotor thrust, which drains their batteries quickly in the order of minutes. LTA airships can hover for longer periods of time.

The design was created for educational and research purposes, focusing on the financial feasibility of manufacturing the platform, the environmental impact of the materials, and the helium loss through the balloon-like envelope. By measuring these parameters, the researchers are able to study the effects of circumstances such as the cost of indoor commercial balloons and the mechanical properties of balloon materials.

The airship gondola was designed and 3D printed in a modular fashion, then attached to the envelope with Velcro. The placement with respect to the horizontal symmetry of the gondola was done for flight stability, with several configurations tested for the side rotor angle.

The group open-sourced their CAD files and ROS interface for controlling the airship. They primarily use off-the-shelf components such as Raspberry Pi boards, propellers, a DC single brushed motor driver carrier, and LiPo batteries for a total cost of $90 for the platform, with an addition $20 for the balloon and initial helium filling. The price is comparable to the cost of indoor blimps like the Blimpduino 2.0.

You can check out the completed airship below, where the team demonstrates its path following capabilities based on a carrot chasing path finding algorithm. And if you’re interested in learning more about the gotchas of building lighter-than-air vehicles, check out [Sophi Kravitz’s] blimp talk from Hackaday Belgrade.

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Developing Guidelines For Sustainable Spaceflight

In the early days of spaceflight, when only the governments of the United States and the Soviet Union had the ability to put an object into orbit, even the most fanciful of futurists would have had a hard time believing that commercial entities would one day be launching sixty satellites at a time. What once seemed like an infinite expanse above our heads is now starting to look quite a bit smaller, and it’s only going to get more crowded as time goes on. SpaceX is gearing up to launch nearly 12,000 individual satellites for their Starlink network by the mid-2020s, and that’s just one of the “mega constellations” currently in the works.

Just some of the objects in orbit around the Earth

It might seem like overcrowding of Earth orbit is a concern for the distant future, but one needs only look at recent events to see the first hints of trouble. On September 2nd, the European Space Agency announced that one of its research spacecraft had to perform an evasive maneuver due to a higher than acceptable risk of colliding with one of the first-generation Starlink satellites. Just two weeks later, Bigelow Aerospace were informed by the United States Air Force that there was a 1 in 20 chance that a defunct Russian Cosmos 1300 satellite would strike their Genesis II space station prototype.

A collision between two satellites in orbit is almost certain to be catastrophic, ending with both spacecraft either completely destroyed or severely damaged. But in the worst case, the relative velocity between the vehicles can be so great that the impact generates thousands of individual fragments. The resulting cloud of shrapnel can circle the Earth for years or even decades, threatening to tear apart any spacecraft unlucky enough to pass by.

Fortunately avoiding these collisions shouldn’t be difficult, assuming everyone can get on the same page before it’s too late. The recently formed Space Safety Coalition (SSC) is made up of more than twenty aerospace companies that realize the importance of taking proactive steps to ensure humanity retains the unfettered access to outer space by establishing some common “Rules of the Road” for future spacecraft.

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Hey NASA, Do You Want Your Stuff Back?

What would you do if you found hidden away artifacts of aerospace technology from the Apollo era?

You call NASA.

Two hulking computers — likely necessitating the use of a crane to move them — and hundreds of tape reels were discovered in the basement of a former IBM engineer by their heir and a scrap dealer cleaning out the deceased’s home. Labels are scarce, and those that are marked are mostly from the late 1960s through the mid 1970s, including data from the Pioneer 8 to 11 missions, as well as the Helios missions.

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Maybe Your Next Robot Should Be A Cyclocrane

At my university, we were all forced to take a class called Engineering 101. Weirdly, we could take it at any point in our careers at the school. So I put it off for more interesting classes until I was forced to take it in one of my final years. It was a mess of a class and never quite seemed to build up to a theme or a message. However, every third class or so they’d dredge up a veritable fossil from their ranks of graduates. These greybeards would sit at the front of the class and tell us about incredible things. It was worth the other two days of nondescript rambling by whichever engineering professor drew the short straw for one of their TAs.

The patent drawing.
The patent drawing.

One greybeard in particular had a long career in America’s unending string of, “Build cool stuff to help us make bad guys more deader,” projects. He worked on stealth boats, airplanes with wings that flex, and all sorts of incredibly cool stuff. I forgot about the details of those, but the one that stuck with me was the Cyclocrane. It had a ton of issues, and as the final verdict from a DARPA higher-up with a military rank was that it, “looked dumb as shit” (or so the greybeard informed us).

A Cyclo-What?

The Cyclocrane was a hybrid airship. Part aerodynamic and part aerostatic, or more simply put, a big balloon with an airplane glued on.  Airships are great because they have a constant static lift, in nearly all cases this is buoyancy from a gas that is lighter than air. The ship doesn’t “weigh” anything, so the only energy that needs to be expended is the energy needed to move it through the air to wherever it needs to go. Airplanes are also great, but need to spend fuel to lift themselves off the ground as well as point in the right direction. Helicopters are cool because they make so much noise that the earth can’t stand to be near them, providing lift. Now, there’s a huge list of pros and cons for each and there’s certainly a reason we use airplanes and not dirigibles for most tasks. The Cyclocrane was designed to fit an interesting use case somewhere in the middle.

In the logging industry they often use helicopters to lift machinery in and out of remote areas. However, lifting two tons with a helicopter is not the most efficient way to go about it. Airplanes are way more efficient but there’s an obvious problem with that. They only reach their peak efficiency at the speed and direction for which their various aerodynamic surfaces have been tuned. Also worth noting that they’re fairly bad at hovering. It’s really hard to lift a basket of chainsaws out of the woods safely when the vehicle doing it is moving at 120mph.

The cyclocrane wanted all the efficiency of a dirigible with the maneuverability of a helicopter. It wanted to be able to use the effective lifting design of an airplane wing too. It wanted to have and eat three cakes. It nearly did.

A Spinning Balloon with Wings

Four wings stick out of a rotating balloon. The balloon provides half of the aerostatic lift needed to hold the plane and the cargo up in the air. The weight is tied to the static ends of the balloon and hang via cables below the construction. The clever part is the four equidistant wings sticking out at right angles from the center of the ship. At the tip of each wing is a construction made up of a propellor and a second wing. Using this array of aerofoils and engines it was possible for the cyclocrane to spin its core at 13 revolutions per minute. This produced an airspeed of 60 mph for the wings. Which resulted in a ton of lift when the wings were angled back and forth in a cyclical pattern. All the while, the ship remaining perfectly stationary.

There’s a really great description of its operation in the article this photo came from.


It really didn't like strong winds.
It really didn’t like strong winds.

Now the ship had lots of problems. It was too heavy. It needed bigger engines. It was slow. It looked goofy. It didn’t like strong winds. The biggest problem was a lack of funding. It’s possible that the cyclocrane could have changed a few industries if its designers had been able to keep testing it. In the end it had a mere seven hours of flying time logged with its only commercial contract before the money was gone.

However! There may be some opportunity for hackers here. If you want to make the quadcopter nerds feel a slight sting of jealousy, a cyclocrane is the project for you. A heavy lift robot that’s potentially more efficient than a balloon with fans on it is pretty neat. T2here’s a bit of reverse engineering to be done before a true performance statement can be made. If nothing else. It’s just a cool piece of aerospace history that reminds us of the comforting fact that we haven’t even come close to inventing it all yet.

If you’d like to learn more there’s a ton of information and pictures on one of the engineer’s website. Naturally wikipedia has a bit to say. There’s also decent documentary on youtube, viewable below.

Photo Credits: Rob Crimmins and Hal Denison

Hacking When It Counts: Much Space Station Hacking Saved Skylab

Thanks to the seminal work of Howard and Hanks et al, the world is intimately familiar with the story behind perhaps the most epic hack of all time, the saving of the crippled Apollo 13 mission. But Apollo 13 is far from the only story of heroic space hacks. From the repairs to fix the blinded Hubble Space Telescope to the dodgy cooling system and other fixes on the International Space Station, both manned and unmanned spaceflight can be looked at as a series of hacks and repairs.

Long before the ISS, though, America’s first manned space station, Skylab, very nearly never came to fruition. Damaged during launch and crippled both electrically and thermally, the entire program was almost scrapped before the first crew ever arrived. This is the story of how Skylab came to be, how a team came together to fix a series of problems, and how Skylab went on to success despite having the deck stacked against her from the start.

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Ask Hackaday: Quadcopter In Near Space?

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to send a quadcopter to near space and return it safely to the Earth. Getting it there is not that difficult. In fact, you can get pretty much anything you want to near space with a high altitude weather balloon. Getting it back on the ground in one piece is a whole other ballgame.

Why does someone need to do this? Well, it appears the ESA’s StarTiger team is taking a card out of NASA’s book and wants to use a Sky Crane to soft land a rover on Mars. But instead of using rockets to hold the crane steady in the Martian sky, they want to use…you guessed it, a quadcopter. They’re calling it the Dropter.

quadcopter on mars

At first glance, there seems to be a lot wrong with this approach. The atmosphere on Mars is about 100 times less dense than the Earth’s atmosphere at sea level. How do props operate in these conditions? Testing would need to be done of course, and the Earth’s upper atmosphere is the perfect place to carry out such testing. At 100,000 feet, the density of the stratosphere is about the same as that of the Martian surface atmosphere. AND 100,000 feet is prime high altitude balloon territory.  Not to mention the gravity on Mars is about 38% of Earth’s gravity, meaning a 5.5 pound model on Earth could accurately represent a 15 pound model on Mars.

With all of these facts taken into consideration, one can conclude that realistic testing of a scale model Martian quadcopter is within the grasp of the hacker community. We’ve seen some work on high altitude drones before, but never a quadcopter.

Now it’s your turn to do something no one has ever done before. Think you got what it takes to pull such a project off? Let us know what your approach to the challenge would be in the comments.

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Ask Hackaday: Floating To Space

floating into space book cover

On a cool September morning just west of Sturbridge, Massachusetts, a group of MIT students launched a low-budget high altitude project that would go on to gain global attention. They revealed to the world that with a small weather balloon, a hacked camera, cheap GPS phone and a little luck, you could get pictures that rival those from the Space Shuttle. Their project set forth a torrent of hackers, students, kids and parents the world over trying to copy their success. Many succeeded. Others did not.

At 100,000 feet or about 20 miles up, it’s a brisk 60 degrees below zero. The atmosphere at this height is but a fraction of its density at sea level. Solar radiation rains down like a summer squall, and the view is just short of breathtaking. It seems so agonizingly close to space that you could just reach out and touch it. That one could almost float right on up into orbit.

Sound impossible? Think again. A little known volunteer based company operating out of California is trying to do just this.

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