Archive for May, 2008

We set out to learn and have fun...

Posted by JonM on 14 May 2008

...and there was no shortage of either last weekend.

We're as excited as ever about our science and autonomous flight goals, and continue to work to success. Thanks again to all of our sponsors and supporters.


Posted by JonM on 12 May 2008

Woke up with a start at 6 am. Up and out of the bed, eat breakfast, pack up, and head back out to base camp.

Like a well-oiled machine, we got camp setup, although the winds were twice as bad as yesterday!

We tore apart the non-functioning repeater, moving one transceiver to the ground ops station, and putting the other in my truck. This would give us much better distance communications in the field. The Internet link was relocated to a shallow rise on the other side of the road, where Verizon could hear us. We set the APRS ground station up with a three element Yagi, and relocated the balloon fill site further into the field, to get more wind shelter from the hill.

The wind was knocking down our shade shelters, so the soldering station was setup in the back of Chicken's pickup. Cozy, but functional.

With the base camp reconfigured, we got the MOAR launch under way. Batteries were soldered to the transmitter, I assembled another cutdown device, and everything was tucked into the eggshell. With a bright, longer set of streamers, we waited for confirmation from the ground crew that our beacons were going out correctly. No dice on the first go: The GPS unit's ground wire had broken loose. After fixing that, we still couldn't get a 3D lock; without altitude information we couldn't fly. We cut it open, and realized that the GPS was upside down; with the antenna resting on the Microtrak's ground shield, it wasn't getting any signal. We flipped it over, and promptly got 3D lock.

3ric got the final go-ahead from the FAA, so we cracked the valve on the helium cylinder, and filled the balloon. Even with 8 wranglers, it was all over the place, knocking people off their feet and popping off the fill tube. We persevered, however, and got the balloon filled and tied to the payload. I set the cutdown timer, this time for 210 minutes, and we let the balloon loose.

This time the wind took it straight east, rising about 400 feet per minute. We lost tracking again after a few minutes, and I was worried the cutdown timer fired prematurely. Adam and I loaded up and headed out to the field again. A few minutes later, we got word that tracking was picking up again, and it was headed steadily east.

Headed out on the open road, we loosely followed it through open farmland, getting position reports from the ground station, until we got out of range of our simplex radio communications. Fortunately, we were back in cell coverage, and were able to get continued position information from the base camp.

Thirty miles out, the base camp stopped picking up the MOAR beacons, and it still wasn't getting picked up on the APRS digipeaters. Adam and I were about 50 miles from base camp when we decided to try finding a repeater with coverage. The AK2O repeater covers most of eastern Washington, and I had gotten permission from them last year to use it, but we couldn't hit it with our handhelds, so I didn't ask them again this year. However, with the 50 watt mobile unit we could hit it just fine, and the base camp could to. We were a little worried about offending the AK2O folks by taking up their repeater, but they seemed interested in what we were doing.

3ric's latest predictions said MOAR was going to land in Idaho, about a hundred miles from our current position. With that much ambiguity, Adam and I decided to call it a wrap and head back to camp.

No less than two minutes after we turned around, we received a beacon from MOAR. It was at 85000 feet, and almost directly above us!

We turned around again, and headed off to the last position. There were only thirty minutes until the cutdown timer went off again, so we wanted to get more position reports before it dropped out of the sky. We drove around on all sorts of entertainingly named backroads (Bachelor Flats Road S), but didn't get any more beacons. Shortly after 2pm, 10 minutes after the cutdown would have triggered, we called it a wrap and headed back towards camp.

Since it was getting late in the day, and the FAA was growing increasingly impatient with us, base camp decided not to go ahead with the REHAB launch, and packed everything up. We converged back in Coulee City, to eat at Grandpa Joe's Cafe, which is run by the wife of the farmer whose land we used for our launch site.

They were very gracious and accommodating, seating nearly 20 rowdy hackers on Mother's Day, and the food was fantastic after a long day's work.

Properly sated, we began the return caravan to Seattle, during which there were several multicast jellybean transmissions. Packet loss was high, but acceptable.


Posted by JonM on 12 May 2008

Saturday started off pretty rough. We rolled into town well past 3:30 in the morning, and woke up again at 8. Frank and company wrangled an awesome breakfast, and then we hit the road. The weather was less than stellar, and we were perhaps a bit optimistic about our chances of launching, but we arrived at the launch site, performed a quick survey, and rapidly set about setting up camp.

There were boxes to be unloaded, shade structures to be set, and masts to be guyed. Everyone knew what they were supposed to be doing, and things got setup in good order. The only real hitch was that our Internet connection wasn't operational. It appears that the AT&T tower near the launch site fell over, and wasn't passing any data or voice. Verizon was unreachable from our hilltop location, as well.

The weather started clearing up, though, so we got the machinery rolling to get MOAR, our attempt at beating the amateur high altitude record, launched.

The clouds may have let up, but the wind sure didn't, and it was quite the challenge to get the balloon filled, but fill it we did. The payload was sealed shut, tied to the balloon, I set the cut down timer to go off in 4 hours, and we released the balloon

The wind took it far and fast, and pretty quickly we were up to 8000 feet, rising at about 600 feet per minute. Then we got a packet from only 5000 feet. Followed by radio silence. The last report was only a couple of miles away, so Adam, EricV and I got in the truck and headed out to search. The last beacon was right in the middle of a 1 mile grid square, so we hiked in and looked around a bit. We couldn't see it, but we could hear it on the radio, so we got back in the truck and drove in on a 4x4 road, hoping to pick up a beacon. Success! We hiked to the coordinate, and found it nestled in the sheared wheat rows, less than 100 feet from where we walked before. MOAR was largely unscathed, despite dropping over 5000 feet and hitting the ground.

A quick inspection revealed that the line was cleanly melted through, indicating that the cutdown timer had gone off prematurely.

We took our prize back to base camp, and packed up for the day. Since it was 5pm already, there was no way we could launch REHAB that day.

Over dinner (thanks again, Frank), we looked at the cutdown timer code again, and discussed options for the next day.

The code revealed a bit of logic I had forgotten about in the year since I first wrote the code: The cutdown timer is set by pressing a button which increments the timeout value in 10 minute increments. After 240 minutes (4 hours), the next press will wrap the timer around to 10 minutes. Apparently in the jostling of the wind, I pressed the button as I was arming the timer, and it cut the payload loose shortly after launch. This was somewhat relieving; at least we know that it's functioning as designed.

After dinner, we worked out a plan for Sunday: We would awake at the crack of dawn to relaunch MOAR, and then two hours later launch REHAB. REHAB was far from complete, so we pared it down to two video cameras, an APRS tracker, and a Digi Xtend modem which would broadcast our GPS coordinates. Three hours later, we had a nearly complete REHAB, including wired components and remolded airframe. We hit the sack shortly after midnight, with our alarms set for 6 in the morning.

We're up! [delayed posting]

Posted by lindes on 12 May 2008

[Alas, this post is much delayed. I think I accidentally added it as a "page", instead of a "post". Oops. :-( Anyway, some of this is "wrong", now, but this was the information I had at the time.]

It's 9:20am, Sunday, 2008-05-11. We're at the launch site. We have Internet, though it's a little spotty. Sky's are clear and lovely.

Wind is pretty high, but we found a location for filling in the lee of a small hill which provides significant shielding from the wind.

We've checked in with the FAA, and the MOAR payload is pretty much ready to fly. The connection between the GPS and the transmitter apparently got broken, but nothing a little re-soldering can't fix. All is working correctly now.

The plan for today is to launch MOAR (our attempt at setting a new high-altitude record for an amateur baloon with GPS tracking), and then AHAB2, on which we've decided to significantly reduce the payload and just fly a limited imaging payload, and not much more. Hopefully we can haz pictars.

The AHAB2 payload is going to be given significantly more lift than the MOAR payload, and should be a short trip. We have the ability to capture 90 minutes of imaging, and expect the baloon to have reached its maximum altitude of approximately 84,000 feet, in something under 90 minutes. So we should capture the whole flight up, and some portion of the return to earth, as well.

Tracking for both payloads is visible at:

The upper portion is manually updated data, which we'll use especially while the baloon is at low altitude. Below that, we have links to external sites providing APRS tracking information, which should start getting updated once we get sufficient altitude to be picked up by some digipeaters.

The time is now 9:53am. Internet is spotty enough that I haven't yet been able to load the blog posting page, but I'm writing this post offline, and hope to get it up soon.

Oops, our GPS data was a little sketchy... turns out we mounted the GPS in upside down. Fixed. It's 10:06:45, and we're starting to fill theballoon.
10:20 -- we have launched! altitude 2430 feet
10:53 -- we've actually had internet for a little bit now -- there were some antienna issues between our base station and the evdo link for a while, and those are now resolved. I've been busy paying attention to other things, though, so the blog post is still delayed.
As of 10:57, 47.688, -119.258 21320
As of 11:04: 47.69, -119.21, altitude 24047. Calculated ascent rate: 382 feet per minute.
11:07: 47.69, -119.17, 26205, AR 562


Posted by lucasw on 10 May 2008

Ground Station

Relay Station

Ground Software

Balloon Wrangling


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