New Garmin VIRB XE action camera holds it’s own against Go Pro Hero 4 on HAB test flight



Two years ago the only action camera on the market that was really worth while using on a HAB flight was the Go Pro Hero. Times have changed and there is now a plethora of action cameras out there to tempt balloonists. Amongst them is the Garmin VIRB XE, now in it’s second generation. Balloon News has been lucky enough to borrow the new Garmin VIRB XE to put it through it’s paces in a high altitude balloon flight, and compare it to the latest offering from Go Pro.

First off the basic specifications. We have a basic table here of like for like comparisons.

More technical data is available at for the Hero 4 Black and for the Garmin VIRB XE.

camerago pro hero 4

The proof of any pudding is in the tasting. So we got a Garmin VIRB XE and a Go Pro Hero 4 Black and took them for a high altitude balloon flight. With the glorious Indian summer the UK has been having, we could think of no better place than Snowdonia, where we tested the first version of the Garmin VIRB. Both cameras were packed into the classic configuration of a polystyrene box with the VIRB on top of the Hero 4. We launched them into the stratosphere from Lyn Gwynant campsite at the base of Mt Snowdon on a clear but hazy Sunday in early October. The cameras were packed in with SPOT trackers for recovery and an I Got U GPS data logger to test the GPS output from the VIRB XE.

payload box3

To make the contest fair, both cameras were set at a 1080p, with the VIRB shooting at 60 fps and the Hero at its wide setting and 50 fps. For high altitude balloon flights this is the highest practical setting to maximise the amount of flight recording time considering the battery life and memory card storage. Both cameras were in their toughened cases. In the case of the Hero, the operator has to place the camera in the case. For the VIRB, the camera is fitted into it’s tough outer shell. This presents practical inconvenience as the lens cover cannot be removed. We had to secure the front camera door back with tape and insulate the front of the camera with light plastic. One key disadvantage is that the tape and camera door was visible on the far right of the image but this could be removed later during image processing.

payload box2

Two and a half hours after launching the balloon into clear skies, we recovered the camera payload, a mere 9km from the launch site. Both cameras survived the flight so we’ve been able to make a comparison of their performance.

Battery. Both cameras underperformed on battery life in comparison to their manufacturer’s quoted performance data. The VIRB XE lasted 85 minutes of the 120 minutes quoted by the manufacturer; or 70 % of the forecast run time. The Go Pro Hero 4, with the advantage of a battery bacpac lasted for 2 hours 16 minutes of the 3hours and 56 minutes forecast by the camera. This was only a 56% of the forecast run time. Both cameras were insulated on the side and rear by the payload. The performance of the VIRB XE on the balloon flight is very consistent with tests done at home while the performance of the Go Pro Hero 4 is very much consistent with other flights using it and is not a reflection of the battery bacpac performance. We did run a few tests in which we added an off the shelf battery bacpac to the VIRB XE and got it to last up to 150 minutes, though the last file was found to be corrupt.

Icing on the lens. Both cameras stay ice free until around 10,000m above the ground. After this the Garmin VIRB develops a small spot of condensation (which could be ice) but the Go Pro Hero 4 remains condensation free. We saw this in the earlier VIRB model and it can be a distraction, especially when the camera looks straight at the sun.

condensation spot

Condensation SPOT visible on the Garmin VIRB XE

Image quality. The acid test for the VIRB XE and the Go Pro Hero 4 is the image quality. I sourced 3 images from each camera at the start of the flight and towards the cameras highest point. Comparing the two sets of footage I was able to isolate frames at 4 seconds into the flight and 96 m.a.s.l. in height (image 1). Image 2 is 2 minutes 34 seconds into flight or 264 m.a.s.l.  Finally  image 3 is 64 minutes into flight and at 17700 m.a.s.l. The top image is from the Go Pro Hero 4 and the bottom image is from the Garmin VIRB XE in all cases.


Image 1

In image 1 both cameras have good depth of colour in the sky and grass though they are more pronounced in the Go Pro Hero4.There is however nothing between the images on sharpness. In both cameras there is good definition in the foreground and background. At this height the ‘fish eye effect is clear on both cameras though the distortion levels are not excessive.


Image 2

Again in image 2  there is little difference in the depth of colour for both images with, in this case, the VIRB XE having the edge. Similarly there is little difference in the sharpness of both images though the VIRB XE has the edge over the Go Pro Hero 4 in the clarity of the clouds. Interestingly both cameras have lost the fish eye effect at this altitude with little distortion apparent.


Image 3

Finally there is image 3. Again both cameras have a similar depth of colour though the blue of the sea in the VIRB XE picture has the edge on the Go Pro Hero4. Both images are sharper in different places. The VIRB XE appears to be sharper in the foreground showing the coast. The Go Pro Hero 4 appears to show the clouds on the Earth’s horizon noticeably sharper. At this height, approximately 17km, the fish eye effect is slightly less pronounced on the VIRB XE than the Go Pro Hero 4.

GPS performance. The GPS on the Garmin VIRB XE camera performed well and there is a high degree of similarity between the GPS file created by the I Got U data logger and the camera. Unfortunately the camera shut down around 17km so we could not test the maximum altitude that it would log height and record latitude / longitude.

garmin gps

The output from the Garmin GPS (pink) plotted over the I Got U GPS data logger (red)

Weight. Comparing like for like, the Garmin VIRB, at 152gm is lighter than the Go Pro Hero 4 within it’s camera case. This comes in at 172gm and 192gm when the battery bacpac is included. 20 gm is a small difference and relatively insignificant to a 1000 to 1300gm balloon payload.

Ergonomics. Both cameras are simple to use but the single switch activation to start video recording on the Garmin VIRB XE is a nice feature. It also seems that it would be harder to accidentally turn of recording than in the case of the Hero 4 (out of it’s protective case). The  new VIRB XE’s shape is a great improvement on the original VIRB with it’s elongate shape. This was awkward to mount in a payload box. Both cameras hive light to indicate they are recording and this helps when a camera has been sealed away in a payload box. For the VIRB it also negates the need to have the lcd display on the front exterior of the camera.

virb highest

4  Colwyn Bay and the Llyn Peninsula, Wales

From our point of view we see the VIRB XE is a clear improvement on the first generation VIRB. It also easily competes with the Go Pro Hero 4 in terms of image quality. There are clear advantages to the VIRB XE, the most significant of which is the GPS data feed and the cool overlays that can be put against the video. We would like to see how the GPS performs at higher altitudes though.  There are also clear drawbacks in terms of the lens cover and lack of compatible battery bacpacs to extend the camera life over the entire flight. Clearly though this camera can be used to capture high altitude balloon flights and offers neat features that Go Pro Hero cameras do not.


Over recent years a number of off the shelf APRS trackers have been designed, built and sold as an off the shelf solution to HAB tracking in countries that permit it’s use. Now there seem rash of APRS tracker development projects. Last year we reported on the Eagle flight computer that now has an APRS attachment. This month we can report of another APRS project, Tracksoar, billed as an open source APRS tracker under 2 ounces.

This is what Tracksoar say about themselves.

“We at the Santa barbara Hackerspace have been involved in around a dozen weather balloon launches. We have had a lot of fun with these launches and learned a lot, but found some issues. Most of the commercially available APRS trackers are closed source, large, and heavy, all of which add to the complexity of launching a balloon. So we decided to do something about it, and the Tracksoar was born. The tracksoar is designed to be flown under anything capable of lifting 60 grams, including balloons, RC planes, quad copters, or anything else that flies. The Tracksoar uses the 2 meter radio band (144.390mhz) which requires an amateur radio license to operate.

Tracksoar has been developed and prototyped for nearly a year now and is finally ready for its debut. We have gone through several dozen iterations and almost a dozen prototypes. We have several prototypes of the version 1 board, which we have flown successfully. Tracksoar is an open source project, and all source code, schematic and board files will be published with the kickstarter launch.”

Tracksoar is looking for kickstarter funding to go to market and details of their campaign can be founds at

What will the DJI OSMO offer Near Space Photography?

DJI, the drone makers, have developed a camera on a stick with built in gimble . This will offer drone like image stabilisation to a hand held DJI camera.

There is more information on the DJI Osmo here.

The question on the mind of many HAB photographers is the opporunities it will offer them. Will it have sufficiently low weight, battery life and storage to fly on a HAB? Hopefully we will have more details soon.

CAA web site not accepting DAP 1919 applications from Windows 10 computers

The Civil Aviation Authority web form for completing the DAP 1919 currently does not run on Windows 10 based computers. This adds to the list of operating systems not supported by the web based form and currently also including Google Chrome. The CAA say that they are aware of the problem and will deal with it in due course. The DAP 1919 is the form operators of a captive and unmanned balloon need to complete to receive permission (exemption from rules) to launch a high altitude balloon.

High Altitude Science improve Eagle flight computer

High Altitude Science have improved their popular but expensive flight computer by adding an APRS radio module to down link the tracker information in real time.

The radio module allows you to track your Eagle flight computer with live data anywhere in where you can use APRS devices on aircraft. The Radio Bug APRS tracker plugs into our Eagle Flight Computer’s S1 Port and transmits your payload’s position, altitude, speed, temperature, and pressure once every minute. Because the Eagle Flight Computer’s GPS receiver works above 18,000 m (~60,000 ft), users will be able to track payloads all the way up to burst altitude.

The APRS system uses a network of hundreds of IGates (internet gates) distributed across many countries to receive the data transmitted by HAS trackers.

Radio Bug

The Radio Bug is a state of the art APRS transmitter designed specifically for weather balloon tracking. At just under 25 grams it requires less than one cubic foot of helium to compensate for the extra weight.  The Radio Bug has a 250 mW transmitter mounted in the center of a dipole antenna. This is the most effective antenna for tracking weather balloon payloads over long distances.

This device cannot be used in the UK, but the UKHAS does provide information on where it can be used. Just follow this link.

Loon balloon lands in L.A. Home

If your high altitude balloon has ever landed on a house then spare a thought for the Project Loon recovery team who had to attend an Los Angeles home where one of their huge balloons had landed.


Big balloon crash-lands in Chino Hills neighborhood

An over-sized balloon crash-landed between two homes in the 1600 block of Rancho Hills Drive in Chino Hills early Saturday morning. Photo courtesy of Gina Hernandez

Photo courtesy of Gina Hernandez

CHINO HILLS >> An over-sized balloon believed to be developed by Google crash-landed into a palm tree early Saturday morning, leaving neighbors startled by the contraption.

It didn’t take residents long to figure out what the white polyurethane material was that was stuck between the lawns of two homes in the 1600 block of Rancho Hills Drive.

Sheriff’s deputies came out to the site because the company that owned the balloon reported it had crash-landed, said resident Gina Hernandez.

Hernandez said she was told the device is called Project Loon and is being used to provide Internet access to rural and remote areas.

According to, the purpose is to “use a global network of high-altitude balloons to connect people in rural and remote areas who have no Internet access at all.”

By noon, crews had come to retrieve the device, but Hernandez said that all throughout the morning people had stopped to snap photos of the deflated balloon.

“Oh, people were taking pictures, and taking pictures of themselves in front of them. It was quite the spectacle,” she said.

It was shortly before 6 a.m. when Hernandez heard what sounded like a cement truck driving past the house.

“We didn’t know what it was, but it wasn’t a loud boom,” she said.

Then her husband went out to get the newspaper at 6:30 a.m.

“He came back in and I was like ‘where’s the paper?’” Hernandez said. “Then he told me there was a big balloon out in the front lawn.”

The balloon had crash-landed on a neighbor’s palm tree and parts of it had spilled into her driveway, she said.

Initially, Hernandez said she wasn’t sure what to make of the contraption and if it was safe to be near it.

“It was kind of creepy looking,” she said.

Hernandez said she was grateful the device landed on the palm tree.

“It just landed on shrubbery. Nothing was really damaged,” she said. “The trees diverted it from crashing into the homes.”