Autonomous Spaceplane Travels to 10 km, Lands Safely 200 km Away

Space balloons, where one sends instrument packages to the edge of space on a weather balloon, are a low-cost way to scratch the space itch. But once you’ve logged the pressure and temperature and tracked your balloon, what’s the next challenge? How about releasing an autonomous glider and having it return itself to Earth safely?

That’s what [IzzyBrand] and his cohorts did, and we have to say we’re mightily impressed. The glider itself looks like nothing to write home about: in true Flite Test fashion, it’s just a flying wing made with foam core and Coroplast reinforced with duct tape. A pair of servo-controlled elevons lies on the trailing edge of the wings, while inside the fuselage are a Raspberry Pi and a Pixhawk flight controller along with a GPS receiver. Cameras point fore and aft, a pair of 5200 mAh batteries provide the juice, and handwarmers stuffed into the avionics bay prevent freezing.

After a long series of test releases from a quadcopter, flight day finally came. Winds aloft prevented a full 30-kilometer release, so the glider was set free at 10 kilometers. The glider then proceeded to a pre-programmed landing zone over 80 kilometers from the release point. At one point the winds were literally pushing the glider backward, but the little plane prevailed and eventually spiraled down to a perfect landing.

We’ve been covering space balloons for a while, but take a moment to consider the accomplishment presented here. On a shoestring budget, a team of amateurs hit a target the size of two soccer fields with an autonomous aircraft from a range of almost 200 kilometers. That’s why we’re impressed, and we can’t wait to see what they can do after a release from the edge of space.

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Raspberry Pi is Up Up and Away

BACAR — Balloon Carrying Amateur Radio — is just what it sounds like. A high-altitude balloon carries experiments and communicates via amateur radio. [ZR6AIC] decided to fly a payload in a local BACAR experiment. The module would send its GPS position via the APRS network and also send a Morse code beacon every seven minutes. It also sends other data such as temperature, and has an optional camera fitted.

The hardware used was the ubiquitous Raspberry Pi along with an associated daughterboard for transmitting on the 2 meter ham band. An RTL dongle took care of the receive portion and another dongle provided GPS. A DS18B20 temperature sensor provides the temperature data.

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Balloons and Bubbles Make for Kid-Friendly Robot Deathmatch

Because nothing says “fun for kids” like barbed wire and hypodermic needles, here’s an interactive real-world game that everyone can enjoy. Think of it as a kinder, gentler version of Robot Wars, where the object of the game is to pop the balloon on the other player’s robot before yours get popped. Sounds simple, but the simple games are often the most engaging, and that sure seems to be the case here.

The current incarnation of “Bubble Blast” stems from a project [Niklas Roy] undertook for a festival in Tunisia in 2017. That first version used heavily hacked toy RC cars controlled with arcade joysticks. It was a big hit with the crowd, so [Niklas] built a second version for another festival, and incorporated lessons learned from version 1.0. The new robots are built from scratch from 3D-printed parts. Two motors drive each bot, with remote control provided by a 433-MHz transceiver module. The UI was greatly improved with big trackballs, also scratch built. The game field was expanded and extra obstacles were added, including a barbed wire border as a hazard to the festooned bots. And just for fun, [Niklas] added a bubble machine, also built from scratch.

The game looks like a ton of fun, and seems like one of those things you’ve got to shoo the adults away from so the kids can enjoy it too. But if you need more gore from your robot deathmatch than a limp balloon, here’s a tabletop robot war that’s sure to please.

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Plastic Model Emulates the First Untethered Spacewalk

Here’s something really wonderful. [Dave Akerman] wrote up the results of his attempt to use a high-altitude balloon to try to re-create a famous image of NASA’s Bruce McCandless floating freely in space with the Earth in the background. [Dave] did this in celebration of the 34th anniversary of the first untethered spacewalk, even going so far as to launch on the same day as the original event in 1984. He had excellent results, with plenty of video and images recorded by his payload.

80’s “Astronaut with MMU” model kit.

Adhering to the actual day of the spacewalk wasn’t the only hurdle [Dave] jumped to make this happen. He tracked down an old and rare “Astronaut with MMU” (Mobile Maneuvering Unit) plastic model kit made by Revell USA and proceeded to build it and arrange for it to remain in view of the cameras. Raspberry Pi Zero Ws with cameras, LoRA hardware, action cameras, and a UBlox GPS unit all make an appearance in the balloon’s payload.

Sadly, [Bruce McCandless] passed away in late 2017, but this project is a wonderful reminder of that first untethered spacewalk. Details on the build and the payload, as well as the tracking system, are covered here on [Dave]’s blog. Videos of the launch and the inevitable balloon burst are embedded below, but more is available in the summary write-up.

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Remotely Controlling a Not-So-Miniature Hot Air Balloon

Calling [Matt Barr]’s remote controlled hot air balloon a miniature is a bit misleading. Sure, it’s small compared with the balloons that ply cold morning skies with paying passengers and a bottle of champagne for the landing. Having been in on a few of those landings, we can attest to the size of the real thing. They’re impressively big when you’re up close to them.

While [Matt]’s balloon is certainly smaller, it’s not something you’d just whip together in an afternoon. Most of [Matt]’s build log concentrates mainly on the gondola and its goodies — the twin one-pound camp stove-style propane tanks, their associated plumbing, and the burner, a re-tasked propane weed torch from Harbor Freight. Remote control is minimal; just as in a full-size balloon, all the pilot can really do is turn the burner on or off. [Matt]’s approach is a high-torque RC servo to control the burner valve, which is driven by an Arduino talking to the ground over a 2.4-GHz RF link. The balloon is big enough to lift 30 pounds and appears to be at least 12 feet tall; we’d think such a craft would run afoul of some civil aviation rules, so perhaps it’s best that the test flight below was a tethered one.

Sadly, no instructions are included for making the envelope, which would be a great excuse for anyone to learn a little about sewing. And knowing how to roll your own hot air balloon might come in handy someday.

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Toy Car Pumps the Wheels with Balloon Power

We’ve had our eye on [Greg Zumwalt]. He’s been working on some very clever 3D-printed mechanisms and his latest prototype is an air engine for a toy car. You can supply the air for the single cylinder with a compressor, or by blowing into it, but attaching an inflated balloon makes the system self-contained.

Last week we saw the prototype of the engine by itself, and wondered if this had enough power to drive a little train engine. We were almost right as here it is powering the front wheels of a little car.

This isn’t [Greg’s] first rodeo. He’s been working on self-contained locomotion for a while now. Shown here is his spring-driven car which you pull backwards to load the spring. It’s a common feature in toys, and very neat to see with the included 3D-printed spring hidden inside of the widest gear.

That print looks spectacular, but the balloon-powered prototype tickles our fancy quite a bit more. Make sure you have your sound on when you watch the video after the break. It’s the chuga-chuga that puts this one over the top. [Greg] hasn’t yet posted files so you can print your own (it’s still a prototype) but browse the rest of his designs as you wait — they’re numerous and will bring an even bigger smile to your face. Remember that domino-laying LEGO bot [Matthias Wandel] built a few years back? [Greg] has a printable model for it!

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Living High-Altitude Balloon

High-altitude balloons are used to perform experiments in “near space” at 60,000-120,000 ft. (18000-36000m). However, conditions at such altitude are not particularly friendly and balloons have to compete with ultraviolet radiation, bad weather and the troubles of long distance communication. The trick is to send up a live entity to make repairs as needed. A group of students from Stanford University and Brown University repurposed nature in their solution. Enter Bioballoon: a living high-altitude research balloon.

Instead of using inorganic materials, the Stanford-Brown International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) team designed microbes that grow the components required to build various tools and structures with the hope of making sustained space research feasible. Being made of living material, Bioballoon can be grown and re-grown with the same bacteria, lowering the cost of manufacturing and improving repeatability.

Bioballoon is engineered to be modular, with different strains of bacteria satisfying different requirements. One strain of bacteria has been modified to produce hydrogen in order to inflate the balloon while the balloon itself is made of a natural Kevlar-latex mix created by other cells. Additionally, the team is using Melanin, the molecule responsible for skin color and our personal UV protection to introduce native UV resistance into the balloon’s structure. And, while the team won’t be deploying a glider, they’ve designed biological thermometers and small molecule sensors that can be grown on the balloon’s surface. They don’t have any logging functionality yet, but these cellular hacks could amalgamate as a novel scientific instrument: cheap, light and durable.

Living things too organic for your taste? Don’t worry, we’ve got some balloons that won’t grow on you.

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