HABists give the HABduino radio tracker the thumbs up
By Ian Oakley
We were launching a new logo for our video production company and thought naturally, that near space was the place to do it! We’re also a home educating family, so thought that an upper atmosphere balloon project would be an excellent learning opportunity. So I engaged the help of another home-ed family and we started to research the idea.
We set a date in October for the launch and then spent the next month or so refining our payload ideas, tracking method and balloon set up. Our desire was simply to have some video footage that featured our new logo, against a backdrop of the earth and the darkness of space behind.
Our plan was to use two GoPros, out of their cases, inserted into the walls of a polystyrene payload, one capturing video with the logo, which projected from the lid of the payload six inches, whilst the other took time lapse stills every ten seconds.
For tracking we used a SPOT tracker, and additional GPS tracker. We also were loaned a radio transmitting, the HABduino board with GPS module. When you receive it you just need to use a bit of software to change its call sign and frequency and then basically its ready to go. I should just explain that we were complete novices when it came to all things HAB, and all things radio. This bit of kit just works out of the box and Anthony was incredibly helpful in filling in the gaps for us – for example, we decided to mobile track our payload, so we downloaded (free) radio and decoding software. When we needed help to configure these, Anthony offered to remotely set them up over the internet for us!! So the HABduino is not only a radio tracker, but because you are then registered on the tracking servers, and if you advertise your flight on their notice board, you then have a whole community behind you on the day…which is a very good feeling!!
We purchased a FUNcube radio dongle and suitable antenna for mobile tracking, downloaded the relevant radio and decoding software and also started liaison with Anthony Stirk, the Habduino inventor, who was able to advise us further on the radio set up and get us up and running on the tracking website, and visible to the whole tracking community.
The day before the launch was spent building the payload – the logo, a laminated piece of card on the end of carbon fishing rod, with all other kit safely tied down inside the box. We devised a water tight system with last minute access to the cameras…and went to bed very late that night.
We rose the next day, checking the landing prediction software and weather reports. We’d arranged a site in Dorset for launch, and after having received our permission document from the CAA on the Thurs, we set out early on Sat 19th – myself and Richard, my partner in crime, plus our two sons and one of my daughters who was on video documenting duty.
We arrived at our launch site, a pub in Cashmoor, near Blandford Forum, only to decide that we were uncomfortable with the proximity of some low-level power lines. So we drove up a near-by hill and spied a suitable piece of land near a farm building and headed that way.
The farmer was out, but a neighbour kindly provided us with a mobile number and permission was obtained, so we started preparations, with the weather changing at speed around us.
Once the payload was rigged, tracking devices turned on and checked, we inflated the balloon and tethered it, before turning on the cameras and launching the 1000grm balloon. We were generally surprised by it’s rapid ascent. After a moment of pause in wonder…we then sprang into life, packing up and starting the chase. That first phase was a little chaotic, and it wasn’t really until making a garage stop, and getting re-organised did we really find our groove with the tracking. We always knew we were going to be at least an hour behind the balloon, so we did our best to plan a decent route, which involved us using an actual paper map!!
The actual chase was thrilling. My wife relayed us details from her tracking at home (we’d not planned this – she just got caught up in it!) and was able to help us speculate about possible landing sites around RAF bases. Infact we’d been given specific warnings about not landing in one base, as we’d been told we’d never see the payload again…and at one point, the predictor had it landing on one of the runways!!
It was amazing to watch the ascent…all the way to 3400m plus, and then see the icon on the tracker turn into a parachute as it begun it’s descent. Thankfully the payload missed the RAF base by a few hundred metres and landed in the middle of Thetford Forest…the only significant grouping of trees around for miles! But at least we knew it was accessible to the public. We were constantly receiving updates and ideas from Chris and Anthony via email and text and planned a route to get as close as we could to the payload.
Arriving at the forest, we switched to our netbook radio tracker and went mobile and found we could receive a signal almost immediately suggesting it wasn’t at ground level. One of our son’s spotted it, indeed not at ground level, but some 25 metres snagged in the top of a tall thin pine tree. After some head scratching, we approached a near by farm house and found a very generous hearted local farmer who drove his tractor into the forest to shake the relevant tree…which worked a treat, feeing up the parachute and payload, allowing it to fall into another tree. At this point the daylight had faded, so we resigned ourselves to an overnight stay in a near by travelodge. The farmer had agreed to help us again in the morning, so when we returned to the site, there he was, with the payload under his arm!!
With some trepidation we unloaded the cameras (everything was well protected and in perfect condition, apart from the parachute which had a small hole in it from the tree) and reviewed the media onsite – much to the utter delight of the farmer – everything had worked exactly as intended. The video footage was amazing, and the still documented the entire trip, yielding some simply beautiful images.
We now have the bug and are already considering what our next project should be.
Many many thanks to Chris @ Balloon News for all his help and input, as well as Anthony Stirk.
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