At any vaguely-related conferences, groups of hackers sometimes come together to create an impact, and sometimes that impact is swinging something into an airspace of a neighboring country. [deadprogram] tells us that such a thing happened at FOSDEM, where a small group of hackers came together (Nitter) to assemble, program and launch a pico balloon they named TinyGlobo 1, which then flew all the way to France!
This balloon is built around a RP2040, and the firmware is written in TinyGo, a version of Go language for microcontroller use. As is fitting for a hacker group, both the hardware and software are open source. Don’t expect custom PCBs though, as it’s a thoroughly protoboarded build. But a few off-the-shelf modules will get you the same hardware that just flew a 400km route! For build experiences, there’s also a few tweets from the people involved, and a launch video, also embedded below.
It’s probably safe to say that most of us have had enough of the Great Balloon Follies to last the rest of 2023 and well beyond. It’s been a week or two since anything untoward was spotted over the US and subsequently blasted into shrapnel, at least that we know of, so we can probably put this whole thing behind us.
But as a parting gift, we present what has to be the best selfie of the year — a photo by the pilot of a U-2 spy plane of the balloon that started it all. Assuming no manipulation or trickery, the photo is remarkable; not only does it capture the U-2 pilot doing a high-altitude flyby of the balloon, but it shows the shadow cast by the spy plane on the surface of the balloon.
The photo also illustrates the enormity of this thing; someone with better math skills than us could probably figure out the exact size of the balloon from the apparent size of the U-2 shadow, in fact.
When the US Air Force shot down some suspected Chinese spy balloons a couple of weeks ago, it was widely reported that one of the targets might have been a much more harmless amateur radio craft. The so-called pico balloon K9YO was a helium-inflated Mylar balloon carrying a tiny solar-powered WSPR beacon, and it abruptly disappeared in the same place and time in which the USAF claimed one of their targets. When we covered the story it garnered a huge number of comments both for and against the balloonists, so perhaps it’s worth returning with the views of a high-altitude-ballooning expert.
[Dave Akerman] has been sending things aloft for a long time now, we think he may have been one of the first to put a Raspberry Pi aloft back in 2012. In his blog post he attempts to answer the frequently asked questions about pico balloons, their legality, whether they should carry a beacon, and what the difference is between these balloons and the latex “weather balloon” type we’re familiar with. It’s worth a read, because not all of us are part of the high-altitude balloon community and thus it’s good to educate oneself.
Every week the Hackaday editors gather online to discuss the tech stories of the moment, and among the topics this week was the balloons shot down over North America that are thought to be Chinese spying devices. Among the banter came the amusing thought that enterprising trolls on the Pacific rim could launch balloons to keep the fearless defenders of American skies firing off missiles into the beyond.
The balloon thought to have been shot down was launched by the Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade, a group of radio amateurs who launch small helium-filled Mylar balloons carrying the barest minimum for a solar-powered WSPR beacon. Its callsign was K9YO, and having circumnavigated the globe seven times since its launch on the 10th of October it was last seen off Alaska on February 11th. Its projected course and timing tallies with the craft reported shot down by the US Air Force, so it seems the military used hundreds of thousands of dollars-worth of high-tech weaponry to shoot down a few tens of dollars worth of hobby electronics they could have readily tracked online. We love the smell of napalm in the morning!
Their website has a host of technical information on the balloons and the beacons, providing a fascinating insight into this facet of amateur radio that is well worth a read in itself. The full technical details of the USAF missile system used to shoot them down, sadly remains classified.
So, maybe right now isn’t the best time to get into the high-altitude ballooning hobby? At least in the US, which with the downing of another — whatever? — over Alaska, seems to have taken a “Sidewinders first, threat identification later” approach to anything that floats by. The latest incident involved an aircraft of unknown type, described as “the size of a small car” — there’s that units problem again — that was operating over Prudhoe Bay off the northern coast of Alaska. The reason that was given for this one earning a Sidewinder was that it was operating much lower than the balloon from last week, only about 40,000 feet, which is well within the ceiling of commercial aviation. It was also over sea ice at the time of the shootdown, making the chance of bothering anyone besides a polar bear unlikely. We’re not taking any political position on this whole thing, but there certainly are engineering and technical aspects of these shootdowns that are pretty interesting, as well as the aforementioned potential for liability if your HAB goes astray. Nobody ever really benefits from having an international incident on their resume, after all.
We’ve seen all kinds of interfaces come and go over the years, from keyboards and mice to lightpens and touchscreens. Now, a group of researchers at the University of Tokyo have built a device that enables haptic interaction with a balloon.
It takes quite a rig to achieve this feat. A vaguely-spherical frame is used, which mounts eleven airborne ultrasound phased arrays, or AUPA. Each phased array is made up of many ultrasonic transducers, with the machine having 2739 individual transducers in total. The phased arrays are controlled in such a way to create a sound field that moves the balloon around and holds it in various desired positions. Closed loop control is achieved with the use of stereo cameras, which track the balloon’s position at high speed.
The system allows the balloon to be moved around quickly in three dimensions. Plus, a user can touch and interact with the balloon directly as it floats in mid-air. They can even drag and redirect the balloon, which can be tracked by the stereo camera system.
The research team don’t highlight any particular applications for this technology at this stage. We’re not expecting the Touch Balloon on next year’s Surface Pro or the next MacBook, that’s for sure. However, it’s great fun to look at and likely has some creative applications that we can’t think of off the top of our heads. Share yours in the comments.
What do you do with floral wire and balloons from Dollar Tree? If you are [Ham Radio Crash Course], you make a ham radio antenna. Floral wire is conductive, and using one piece as a literal sky hook and the other as a ground wire, it should do something. He did use, as you might expect, a tuner to match the random wire length.
The first attempt had too few balloons and too much wind. He eventually switched to a non-dollar store helium tank. That balloon inflates to about 36 inches and appears to have plenty of lift. It looks like by the end he was using two of them.