Uplink System For High-Altitude Balloons

Most uses of high-altitude balloons are fairly simple: send balloon up, have it beam down measurements and images. While this is indeed straightforward, it is also very limiting. This is why [Dave Akerman] has been working on adding to the HAB balloons he regularly flies. This builds on the work [Dave] did back in 2015 with adding LoRa transceiver RF communication.

Since LoRa transceivers are by definition capable of bidirectional communication, this was very useful for adding simple but essential features such as retransmission of data in case e.g. part of some image or telemetry data is missing. Other interesting things one can do with bidirectional transmission include controlling individual balloons, and having them transmit or relay information between balloons.

A tricky thing which [Dave] describes in the blog post is making sure that both ends of the connection are actually listening using timing settings. The use of encryption is also strongly recommended, unless you want to risk someone hijacking your balloons. This has now all been implemented in the HAB Explora app for Android, as well as the application for Windows.

Header image: Antonino Vara, CC BY 4.0.

Archery Release Becomes Reusable Balloon Cutdown Mechanism

A cutdown in high-altitude balloon (HAB) parlance refers to detaching a payload, and can refer to the act of severing a line or to the mechanism itself. How is this done? The most common way is the “hot wire” method: a segment of wire is heated rapidly with a high current, causing it to melt through something like a nylon line.

But there’s more than one way to solve a problem, and while documenting different cutdown methods, [KI4MCW] found that a caliper-style archery release plus hobby servo could be used as a high strength cutdown mechanism. An archery release (or bow release) is a tool to assist in holding the string of a bow in the drawn position, and cleanly release it at the touch of a lever or button. It occurred to [KI4MCW] that these features might be made to serve as a payload release as well, and you can see here the crude but successful prototype for a reusable cutdown.

The archery release [KI4MCW] obtained opens its jaws when a trigger-style lever on the side is pulled. The force required to trigger this is remarkably low, and a low-torque economical hobby servo easily does the job. In fact, the force needed to trip the release is so low that [KI4MCW] added a short rubber band to provide some opposing tension on the lever, just to be sure no spontaneous triggers occurred. The device hasn’t flown yet, but the prototype looks promising. Maybe a mechanism like this would be appropriate for a payload like dropping a high-altitude RC glider from a balloon.

Raspberry Pi Zero Beams Back Video From 100,000 Feet

The Project Horus team routinely launches high-altitude balloons in Australia. However, despite their desire for it, they haven’t beamed back live video. Until now. Horus 55 beamed video back to the ground from over 100,000 feet using a Raspberry Pi and some software-defined radio gear. Be sure and check out their video, below.

You might think this is easy, but there are many technical hurdles. First, the transmitter needs some power, but the thin atmosphere creates problems with cooling. In addition a really good receiving station is required, and the project wanted to stream that video to the Internet, which they were able to do.

The balloon carried a Raspberry Pi Zero W to capture and compress video. A LimeSDR Mini provided the DVB-S transmission on 70cm along with a power amplifier to get to about 800mW. Power dissipation in the payload was about 6 watts and required a special heat sink system to operate. The payload was powered by eight lithium AA primary cells, which perform well at low temperatures.

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High-Altitude Balloon Tracker Does Landing Prediction With Pi Pico

[Dave Akerman]’s ongoing high altitude balloon (HAB) work is outstanding, and we’re all enriched by the fact that he documents his work like he does. Recently, [Dave] wrote about his balloon tracker based on the Raspberry Pi Pico, whose capabilities brought a couple interesting features to the table.

In a way, HAB trackers have a fairly simple job: read sensors such as GPS and constantly relay that data to someone on the ground so that the balloon’s location can be tracked, and the hardware recovered when it ultimately returns to Earth. There are a lot of different ways to do this tracking, and one thing [Dave] enjoys is getting his hands on a new board and making a HAB tracker out of it. That’s exactly what he has done with the Raspberry Pi Pico.

Nothing builds familiarity like actually using a part, and the Pico had some useful things to contribute to a HAB tracker application. For one thing, the Pico has an onboard buck-boost converter that allows it to be powered from a relatively wide voltage range (~1.8 V to 5.5 V), so running it directly from batteries is both possible and desirable from a tracker perspective. But a really useful feature was possible thanks to the large amount of memory on the Pico: dynamic landing prediction.

[Dave] does landing prediction prior to launch based on environmental conditions, but it’s always better if the HAB tracker can also calculate its own prediction based on actual observed events and conditions. A typical microcontroller board like an Arduino doesn’t have enough memory to store the required data upon which to do such calculations, but the Pico does so easily. [Dave]’s new board transmits an updated landing site prediction along with all the rest of the telemetry, making the retrieval process much more reliable.

Want to see a completely different approach to HAB recovery? Check out a payload guided by steerable parachutes.

GPS Guided Parachutes For High Altitude Balloons

Most amateur high altitude balloon payloads descend back to earth with a simple non-steerable parachute and can land hundreds of kilometers from the launch site in inaccessible areas. [Yohan Hadji] experienced this first-hand during a balloon launch conducted by his high school, which inspired him to R2Home, a GPS-guided parachute recovery system.

A Teensy runs the show, and controls a pair of sail winch servos pulling the brake lines

[Yohan]’s first challenge was to create a steerable parachute that can deploy reliably, so he started doing tests with a borrowed scale model paragliding wing. He quickly learned that a canopy aspect ratio of below two was needed for reliable deployment, so he started sewing his own canopies. Steering a parachute involves pulling on a pair of brake lines, one for each side of the parachute. A control stroke of about 20 cm was required, and [Yohan] found that RC sailboat winch servos work perfectly for this application. The entire system is designed to fit in a 7×40 cm tube, and the parachute is deployed with the help of a small drogue chute and a servo-operated release mechanism.

[Yohan] is working on a custom flight controller, built around a Teensy 4.1, GPS receiver, and digital compass. A possible alternative is Ardupilot, which we’ve seen used on several autonomous drones, gliders, and rovers. While this system might not be possible to return to the launch point, it could certainly close the gap, and land safely in a designated area.

So far [Yohan] has done a series of test drops from a drone at low altitude to test deployment and steering, using an RC controller. The project is open source, and the mechanical design files and control code is up on GitHub. As with most 16-year-olds, [Yohan]’s resources are limited, so feel free to drop him some financial help on the R2Home GoFundMe page. See the videos after the break for a development montage and project presentation. Continue reading “GPS Guided Parachutes For High Altitude Balloons”

Hello From The NearSpace

A key challenge for any system headed up into the upper-atmosphere region sometimes called near space is communicating back down to the ground. The sensors and cameras onboard many high altitude balloons and satellites aren’t useful if the data they collect can’t be retrieved. Often times, custom antennas or beacons are added to help. Looking at the cost and difficulty of the problem, [arko] and [upaut] teamed up to try and make a turn-key solution for any near-space enthusiast by building CUBEX, a wonderful little module with sensors and clever radio that can be easily reused and repurposed.

CUBEX is meant as a payload for a high-altitude balloon with a camera, GPS, small battery, solar cell, and the accompanying power management circuits. The clever bit comes in the radio back down. By using the 434.460 Mhz band, it can broadcast around a hundred miles at 10mW. The only hardware to receive is a radio listener (a cheap RTL USB stick works nicely). Pictures and GPS coordinates stream down at 300 baud.

Their launch was quite successful and while they didn’t catch a solar eclipse, their balloon reached an impressive 33698m (110,560ft) while taking pictures. Even though it did eventually splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, they were able to enjoy a plethora of gorgeous photos thanks to their easy and cost-effective data link.

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Custom Firmware Makes A LoRA-Enabled HAB Tracker Watch

High Altitude Balloons (HAB) are a great way to get all kinds of data and shoot great photos and video, but what goes up must come down. Once the equipment has landed, one must track it down. GPS and LoRA, with its long wireless range and ease of use, are invaluable tools in tracking payloads that have returned to Earth. [Dave Akerman] has made handheld receivers to guide him to payloads, but wanted something even smaller; ideally something that could be worn on the wrist.

One day he came across the affordable LilyGo T-Watch which includes GPS and LoRA functionality, and he started getting ideas. The watch has the features, but the stock firmware didn’t measure up. Not to be deterred, [Dave] wrote new firmware to turn the device into a wrist-worn GPS and LoRA chase watch.

Not only is the new firmware functional, but it’s got a wonderful user interface. GitHub repository for the new firmware is here, and you can see the UI in action in the brief video embedded below.

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