Can Pi In The Sky get smaller?

This week the Raspberry Pi foundation has announced a new version of the Raspberry Pi computer called the Zero which is much smaller than the existing model. There is more information here at


One of the most successful spin off project  of the Raspberry Pi is the Pi In the Sky radio tracker and SSDV platform. But what of this new Pi? Can it be used to drive the PITS board and further cut weight and maybe battery consumption compared to the existing model? Can it also serve as a useful platform to build a sensor suit for HAB flights?


How will a new satellite plane tracking system influece High altitude ballooning?

This evening the BBC are reporting the agreement to develop a new aircraft satellite tracking system. I recommend following this news story as it may provide new opportunities and controls on high altitude ballooning.


MH370: New satellite plane tracking system agreed

File picture shows French gendarmes and police inspecting a large piece of plane debris which was found on the beach in Saint-Andre, on the French Indian Ocean island of La Reunion, 29 July 2015Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 last year sparked concerns about existing flight tracking systems

A deal has been struck on using satellites to track planes, motivated by the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 last year.

The decision to dedicate part of the radio spectrum to a global flight tracking system was taken at a UN conference in Geneva on Wednesday.

The conference aimed to improve on the current tracking system which relies on ground-based radars.

MH370 disappeared in March 2014 with 239 people on board.

Representatives from more than 160 countries decided to set aside a radio frequency for the satellite tracking of planes at the World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC), organised by the UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

The deal will enable satellites to receive transmissions, known as automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B), that aircraft currently only send to other aircraft and to ground stations.

This will allow “real-time tracking of aircraft anywhere in the world,” said Francois Rancy, head of the ITU’s Radiocommunication Bureau.

The disappearance of flight MH370 exposed weaknesses in worldwide air navigation systems.

The current system leaves around 70% of the world’s airspace uncovered.

‘Record’ response

Soon after the plane disappeared, Malaysia’s communication minister urged the ITU to help find new ways of transmitting flight data in real-time.

The Malaysia Airlines flight was en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing when air traffic control staff lost contact with it.

The plane is long believed to have crashed into the southern Indian Ocean.

In July part of an aircraft wing was found on Reunion Island. Malaysian authorities later confirmed the debris to be from the missing MH370 plane.

Debris map

Following Wednesday’s decision, ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao said the agency had “responded in record time to the expectations of the global community on the major issue concerning global flight tracking.”

The UN’s aviation arm, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), has set a November 2016 deadline for adopting new tracking guidelines.

These will include aircraft sending their position at least every 15 minutes, or more in case of emergency, reported Reuters.

Tracksoar kickstarter fails to hit target but opens web store

Tracksoar APRS track failed to hit it’s kickstarter target. But the company had so much interest that it set up a web store and are taking pre orders for it’s first 50 production run. You can find the store at  . The tracksoar offers an international model but APRS trackers are not permissible for HAB flights in the UK.

EE’s 4Gee action camera. A simple solution to HAB live streaming


This summer EE entered the action camera market with it’s first generation action camera, the 4GEE. Alongside the cool viewfinder watch, the cameras unique selling point is the 4G live video streaming. This offers high altitude balloonists a low cost and simple solution to live stream launches through the Skeegle phone app.

It took some time to test the camera as we often launch balloons out in the countryside where the 4G coverage is poor. We finally got round to testing the streaming service and found it fair. On all occasions we did lose the streaming coverage during the launch. Unfortunately the camera does not come with an audio warning that streaming has stopped so you have to keep checking the camera. When it worked the 720p camera provided satisfactory images though it’s restriction to the Skeegle phone app often restricts the size of the viewing screen.

Offline, the 4GEE is a powerful 1080p 30 fps action camera. Here are it’s specifications.



Qualcomm MSM8926-2 1.2 Quad Core


Internal: 2.5GB
External: Supports MicroSD up to 64GB


4G: Band 3 (1800MHz), 7 (2600MHz), 20 (800MHz)
3G: 900/2100
Wi-Fi: 802.11 b/g/n
RF: 2.4GHz


Ultra-sharp f/2.8, 3.4mm

Still image

13MP (4:3), 10MP (16:9), 3MP (4:3), 2.4MP (16:9) with GPS tag
Burst mode: 13MP full size 8 fps

Video recording

1080p HD video recording (30 fps)
720p HD video recording (30 or 60 fps)

Live streaming

720p HD live streaming (30 fps)


2260mAH Polymer Lithium-ion rechargeable
3 hours video recording

We tested it out in late October with a 2hr 20min HAB flight from Moel-Y-Golfa in mid Wales.

I got u vs forecast

Forecast track (yellow) and actual track (blue)

The camera was set within it’s acrylic case and the lens cover was removed. The camera performed well with the battery life (3hr 30 min) matching the forecast life on the camera display and exceeding the manufacturer’s specification. The image data produced easily sat within the 32gb memory card used. The image quality was also impressive.


4GEE camera image during ascent

With the camera set to the horizon, the fish eye distortion was broadly comparable with the Go Pro Hero 4.0. The camera showed good definition of the fields and forest close to ground level, and clouds higher up. There was also a pleasing depth to the image colours. Unlike the Garmin VIRB XE camera, there was no fogging on the exposed lens.

team impulse2

4GEE camera image just after burst

The weight of the camera with it’s acrylic case is 232gm. This is slightly higher than the Go Pro Hero cameras with battery bacpac (200gm). With a run time of 3hr and 30 minutes, there is no need for extra batteries for most HAB flight that are a simple up and down.

4GEE camera

Overall, we would recommend this camera if you need live streaming and would benefit from an extra action camera. The camera does not have the image quality versatility of the Go Pro Hero but we don’t think that is EE’s aim. The camera costs £250 (plus data) and you can use your wifi dongle or sim card in it to spread the cost of data.

One final top tip if you are buying this camera. To remove the lens cover you need an imperial size Alan key.

Tracksoar Kickstarter Winding Down

The tracksoar kickstarter campaign is nearing it’s deadline. Here is the tracksoar team to explain how close they are.

“Hi everyone, we’re in the final days of our Kickstarter campaign with just $8,000 left to raise. If you haven’t backed us yet now’s your chance! We’ll also be at the SoCal MakerCon on Saturday 11/7 at the Santa Barbara Hackerspace booth. If you want to check out the Tracksoar in person this is your only chance before the campaign closes.


Thank you all for helping us spread the word and helping us get this far in the campaign. We can’t thank you all enough for helping us spread the word and get the Tracksoar made.

For more info on the SoCal MakerCon:
Thank you all for helping us spread the word and helping us get this far in the campaign. We can’t thank you all enough for helping us spread the word and get the Tracksoar made.

For more info on the SoCal MakerCon:

Escaped US defence blimp grounded



A US military blimp designed to detect a missile attack that came loose from its mooring is on the ground and secure, state police say.

The aerostat landed in Muncy, Pennsylvania, after floating for three hours with two fighter jets on its tail.

The blimp caused about 18,000 power outages as it dragged its tether line, taking down electricity cables.

It is not known how the 200ft-long (61m) aircraft came loose in Maryland.

Known as a Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS), it has been criticised by privacy advocates.

The blimp was spotted west of Jerseytown, PennsylvaniaImage copyright AP
Image caption The blimp was spotted west of Jerseytown, Pennsylvania
The blimp coming down in Pennsylvania on 28 October 2015Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The blimp landed in Pennsylvania after causing thousands of power outrages

A recent investigation by the Baltimore Sun found the programme had been “hobbled by defective software, vulnerability to bad weather and poor reliability”.

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.