A comparison of HAB / Weather balloon flight computers

HAB / Weather balloon Flight computer comparison

Off the shelf flight computers have now been available for several year. But there is always space for a new offering. The UK company ‘SENT TO SPACE’ has recently launched a new offering in the form of their ‘Black Box’ flight computer. To mark it’s launch we thought it was high time that we compared a range of different flight computers to see what they had to offer and to rate them on their value for money.

First off, here is a rundown of the different computers on offer:-





Cost £





Temperature, Humidity,

Pressure, IR,

Visible light, Lux

90.7g including sensors




High Altitude Science Eagle




36g excluding sensors




Hexpert Zlog 7




52g including sensors




Sent to Space Black Box











***** high   * low



Zlog 7

Zlog 7

High Altitude Science Eagle

High Altitude Science Eagle

Sent to Space Black Box

Sent to Space Black Box

Here are some general comments on the trackers:-

From personal experience, the Skyprobe has proved to be a useful and effective flight computer with many sensors. For those users in the UK, the US units can be a little annoying. The battery connection also takes little wear and tear and I have already had to have mine re-soldered on.

The Hexpert is an effective tracker for the price paid. It also has the option to attach a cut down board which works well. It is the only flight computer with an alpha numeric display, and while this may seem pointless, is actually reassuring to see it logging data.

Like the Hexpert and Skyprobe, the Eagle comes without a dust proof case. Given that it only offers temperature and pressure, it is also very expensive. It’s light weight is comparable to the Zlog 7.

Not much is known about the Black Box. Like the other flight computers, the BB has a micro SD memory card reader and a range of meteorological sensors. Unlike the other flight computers though, it comes with it’s own dust proof box. Though we don’t know the weight of the BB, we can assume that this would make it heavier than the other flight computers. This is added to by the whopping 6 AA batteries used to help power a circuit board heater.

Interestingly the BB has a magnetometer which we assume is to measure the Earth’s magnetism and an accelerometer, to measure the acceleration experienced by the payload. This shows a departure from traditional meteorology sensors and the ability to explore other forces. Focusing on the traditional meteorological sensors, I am not sure where the humidity sensor is located and would like clarification that it gives accurate readings despite being located in the box, as humidity is notoriously hard to record.

Customer service





Start up company RockZip looks for investors to help it manufacture super pressure balloons



A US startup needs your help to get off the ground. They make high-altitude balloons — balloons that go really high — higher than airplanes. In fact, some go into space. But starting a company is expensive, so they want people to invest in them.

Austyn Crites is the co-founder and president of Rockzip Highballoons. The company makes inexpensive high-altitude balloons. Crites believes there is a major market for these types of balloons.

“Over 800 weather balloons are launched every day around the world,” says Crites.

Right now, high balloons are used for things like monitoring weather, providing Internet access and testing rocket equipment. But Crites says there is so much more potential — especially for his balloons.

“Most people who think of weather balloons or balloons that go into high altitudes, typically think of latex type. But as they go up higher they stretch until they eventually pop — in about an hour,” explains Crites, “Our balloons are different. They are made from plastic skin. So as the balloon goes higher you can then reach a float time. Our balloons are floating for about 5 hours.”

Crites says schools can use his balloons for science demonstrations. Farmers can use them to monitor crop conditions. And he even believes NASA could use balloons to inexpensively transport cargo into space.

Right now they are testing their smaller balloons, which in the past have floated into other states. The Rockzip team attaches GPS trackers and cameras to their balloons. Their last balloon floated into an Ohio bean field.

Rockzip are proposing to manufacture two types of balloons, the PRO and the BETA. The Pro is designed to float at 30,000ft while the BETA is designed to float at 65,000ft. The balloons also have different float duration. The Pro is designed to float for 5 hours and the the BETA is designed to float for 12 hours. There are also obvious differences in design shapes.



Rockzip has also given us an insight into the valve design for the balloon. 


People can go online to back the business:


Balloon News compares the Garmin VIRB and Go Pro Hero 3+ Black cameras



In recent years action cameras have come and gone but few have posed a real challenge to the dominance of the Go Pro Hero series. The Go Pro’s market share dominance may, however, be under threat by the new offering from Garmin in the form of it’s VIRB camera.

According to Garmin’s web site, the VIRB boasts:-


1080p HD video recording with 16 megapixel CMOS image processor

Chroma display: color, high-resolution; easier control of setup, playback and adjustments

Long-lasting rechargeable lithium-ion battery, record up to 3 hours at 1080p

Rugged, durable, waterproof (IPX7¹) with an aerodynamic design

One of the most attractive features of the VIRB is the built in Garmin GPS unit which records the camera location in an offline mode.

Source http://sites.garmin.com/virb/?lang=en&country=US

With all of these impressive features, we thought we would run off the top of the range VIRB Elite against the Go Pro Hero 3+ Black to see which performed better in the HAB environment. We did two test flights across the UK and the results were surprising to say the least.


Flight 1

Date: 25/03/2014  Launch 5:45am  Landing: 7:58am

Launch site: https://www.google.co.uk/maps/@52.9849266,-3.9664361,511m/data=!3m1!1e3?hl=en

Tanygrisiau, Vale of Ffestiniog, Blaenau Ffestiniog, Gwynedd LL41 3TW

Landing Site: https://www.google.co.uk/maps/@53.0130305,-4.2371323,1706m/data=!3m1!1e3?hl=en

Balloon: 800g Cosmoprene

Payload Weight:1000g

Equipment: Go Pro Hero 3+ Black, Garmin VIRB, SPOT Messenger, SPOT Gen 3, SKYPROBE flight computer

Picture 1 – Just before launch

Top Go Pro Hero 3+ Black    Bottom Garmin VIRB Elite

Top Go Pro Hero 3+ Black Bottom Garmin VIRB Elite


Picture 2 Just after launch

Top Go Pro Hero 3+ Black    Bottom Garmin VIRB Elite

Top Go Pro Hero 3+ Black Bottom Garmin VIRB Elite

Picture 3

Top Go Pro Hero 3+ Black    Bottom Garmin VIRB Elite

Top Go Pro Hero 3+ Black Bottom Garmin VIRB Elite

Picture 4 Just before balloon burst

Top Go Pro Hero 3+ Black    Bottom Garmin VIRB Elite

Top Go Pro Hero 3+ Black Bottom Garmin VIRB Elite

In the first flight the Go Pro Hero 3+Black (with bacpac), running at 1080 video at 24 fps, ran for 2hours 56 min, about 20 minutes longer than the VIRB (1080p 30fps) which ran for 2 hours and 36 minutes. The quality of the video was mixed with the Hero giving a better image prior to launch. The VIRB give a more pleasing image just after launch, and both cameras giving a similarly pleasing image mid way through the ascent and at burst.

snowdon flight path

Flight track from GPS in Garmin VIRB Camera


Flight 2

Date: 27/05/2014  Launch 12:38 am

Launch site: https://www.google.co.uk/maps/place/The+Betsey+Wynne/@51.938886,-0.830506,17z/data=!3m1!4b1!4m2!3m1!1s0x4876fecc32bdb6d1:0xe9a679fe6a54774d

 Landing Site:
Land adjacent to Stratford Rd, Shennington, Ox
Flight duration 121 minutes
Balloon: 1200g PAWAN

Payload Weight:1000g

Equipment: Go Pro Hero 3+ Black, Garmin VIRB, SPOT Messenger, SPOT Gen 3,Cattrack, art work by Rachel Mathewson

Camera performance: Go Pro Hero 3+Black plus bacpac :- 126 minutes approx

Garmin VIRB:- in excess of 121 minutes but last file became corrupt. No GPS recorded.

The results are shown in this short film put together by Whitestone Media


The footage from the Go Pro Hero 3+ was sharper and more pleasing than the Garmin VIRB though the difference in the quality was not great.


All in all I found that the Garmin VIRB held it’s own against the Go Pro Hero3+ Black, with instances where is offered a more pleasing image. The Garmin  VIRB also offered the function of GPS logging, as well as many of the functions offered by the Go Pro Hero 3+ Black. The Black does however offer the higher resolution modes, though these are hard to make use of in the context of high altitude ballooning. Both cameras were very simple to use, though the one push button of the VIRB had the edge over the Hero 3+ Black.

Can SPOT trackers work upside down?

One of the often quoted drawbacks to the use of SPOT trackers for high altitude ballooning is that the antenna needs to point up. Such is the perceived need for SPOT trackers to point up to the sky that some people go to the lengths of making a gimbal that keeps the tracker upright. My experience of HAB flight using SPOT trackers suggests that it you may not loose contact with your SPOT tracker if it does go upside down.

My first experience is that the SPOT tracker rarely spends much time pointing straight up. With the pitch and yaw of the payload, the tracker is most often not pointing straight up. Further, I have seen improved coverage from orientating the tracker to the horizon, and in line with the main HAB tether line. In a flight I carried out on 8th October 2013, I had two SPOT trackers for tracking. The SPOT Messenger (green) was in a polystyrene payload box and a SPOT Gen 3 (blue) was attached to the tether line and arranged parallel to the tether line. Here is the resultant track.

SPOT Gen 3 and SPOT Messenger

SPOT Gen 3 (blue) and SPOT Messenger (green)

Both trackers worked and the SPOT Gen 3 operated marginally better.

In a collaborative flight I did in July, 2013 I used two SPOT Messenger trackers, one orientated upwards towards the sky and the other intentionally orientated down. The flight was designed to ascend the payload upright and descend the payload upside down. Throughout  the flight contact was maintained with both trackers in broadly equal proportion. The payload happened to land on it’s side and both trackers carried on reporting their location until they were turned off.


HAB flight from Aviemore

HAB flight from Aviemore

But what if the tracker lands upside down? In this circumstance it is common belief that the SPOT tracker will not report it’s location. But this is not always the case. In several of my HAB flights, even though the SPOT tracker has been face down, the tracker has still been able to return location messages.

Flight from Aberystwyth

Flight from Aberystwyth

In this instance the payload (bottom right) was upside down in an upland forest in wales and the SPOT still reported it’s location.


In a HAB flight over Snowdonia, the SPOT Gen 3 (centre left) positioned on the main tether landed face down but was still able to return it’s location.

The SPOT tracker is not always able to return it’s location messages when face down and I have come across instances when it has not been able to return the location of it’s final resting place. And while this is not a study, just anecdotal evidence, it does show that the spot can still work even though the tracker is upside down.