We are planning to send a helium foil balloon around the world and track it using tiny electronic trackers that hang below the balloon. The balloons rise up to 10-15km altitude, hop onto the jet stream and travel around the world, whilst the trackers transmit their position to ground via radio to listening stations. We have launched 12 balloons already, which have travelled to the Netherlands, Belgium, France and to Poland.
Before the two of us met, we both had individually launched large weather balloons up to 30km altitude with cameras attached and we both found that these balloons go up, burst and come back down (with a parachute) within 2-3 hours. I came up with the idea of sending one small balloon around the world on a multi day flight and decided to put a message on the Imperial College Advanced Hackspace general slack channel to see if anyone was interested in working on the project. Richard who was a Hacker in Residence at the Hackerspace, soon responded and we formed a team which has benefitted massively from Richard’s electronics expertise.
The project is quite a challenge as we have to make the tracker light enough to fly on a small balloon and it has to have enough power to transmit for days. We also have to meet the legal radio frequency transmission requirements of the different countries around the world where the balloon would pass over.
Support from Hackspace and the wider Imperial community
We have used the Hackspace on a number of occasions both for meetings and builds. We use the electronics workshop to assemble our trackers and have a storage box where we keep some of the tracking equipment and parts. Perhaps most importantly, we have a tank of helium stored at Hackspace. The workshop is well equipped for us to assemble the trackers, in terms of soldering and creating the polystyrene enclosure. The network analyser will soon come in handy for us to test the antennas and radios.
On many occasions I have displayed the trackers in showcase events organised by the Hackspace which is a great place to share ideas in person. Virtually, we also share all our designs on our Github repository which is part of Imperial Space Society and we document all our launches on the Space Society website.
Successes and Learning
Achieving our longest flight duration of 12h 53 min was a huge success. On that day the conditions were windless and the balloon stayed over the UK the whole time. Another success was achieving our longest distance flight to Poland (1200km away). On this occasion the balloon crossed the English Channel, flew over the Netherlands and Germany and went deep into Poland the next morning. Probably the most disappointing launches was when one of our balloons got stuck on the trees at Wormwood Scrubs, 15 min walk from the launch site. It was a very windy day and failed to clear the trees.
Our advice to aspiring makers, hackers, inventors or entrepreneurs
You need to follow through a project, especially self-guided projects. There is a very high chance of a project fizzling out if motivation runs out.
The project is part of the Imperial College Space Society and we are seeking further funds to make a more capable solar powered tracker that will be able to go around the world.