A couple of years ago, I had read about a group of amateur hobbyist’s that had gotten together and built a weather balloon rig that housed a camera, GPS, and a couple of other gadgets. They had setup the camera to take pictures at a regular interval and used the GPS to locate the rig after it had landed. I thought to myself, that sounds like a fun little project.
A couple of months ago I was toying with that same weather balloon idea and thinking of a way to incorporate my Android powered cell phone into the project. The more I thought about it the more I realized that this one device could essentially perform all the tasks I needed for the project. It was then that I began writing an Android app to do everything I needed for the flight. This app had to be able to take pictures at regular intervals, record GPS data, send SMS messages at regular intervals (SMS so I didn’t have to rely on a data connection for location), and have the ability to export the data after the flight. I built the app and put it through it’s paces. When I felt fairly confident that it would work for the flight I started putting everything together from the box that would house the phone to the parachute and the balloon.
Friday morning my Dad, Brother, and I got together at my house to launch the balloon. Everything was an unknown for each of us so we all did our best to anticipate what would happen. The first thing I was worried about was if we had enough helium to get the balloon off the ground with the payload. The way the balloon works is you fill it to its optimum diameter for launch and as the balloon rises in the atmosphere and there is less and less air pressure, the balloon will explode and the payload will fall to the earth. The helium tank I had was somewhat small and I ended up emptying the whole tank into the balloon. The balloon wasn’t quite filled to its optimal diameter but it still had enough lift to lift the payload so that was good.
We hooked up the payload with the phone running the app I built and made sure it was sending out the SMS messages as it was suppose to. It was working fine and all the checks passed so we decided to let it go. I released the SS Sundog at about 10:25AM. I named it the SS (Starship) Sundog because, well, the phone isn’t mine. It is a work phone! Don’t worry, I got permission from my boss on sending it away.
The app was working great and we were receiving regular SMS messages with the location of the phone up till about 20,000 ft where we lost cell signal. At this point the phone was going northwest. It looked almost like it would go by Fargo. We thought this was great. We had to drop off the helium tank in Fargo anyway and we decided to get some lunch.
We got some lunch and waited for word from my phone on its way down. About two hours had passed and I thought that we should have heard from it by then. I grabbed the Chromebook and forced an update from my phone through Google’s device policy. It popped up… in Remer, MN! 160 miles away from where we were. I thought that this couldn’t have been right. I forced another update and it was correct. Even L attitude said the phone was there. So we high tailed it back to my house to get in the vehicles to go recover the phone. Later we would find out that my app actually was working with the updates as it was falling, there was a mix up with us seeing the new text messages it was sending though.
It was about a three hour drive to get to where the phone was from my house. Upon closer inspection of where it landed, it was going to be tough to get to. It was about two miles from the closest road (fire roads at that) in the middle of the Chippewa National Forest.
We got to the fire roads just as it was getting dark. After looking at the satellite view in Google Maps, it looked like the fire roads might actually get to within a half mile of where the phone landed. Once we got there we found out that was not the case. What looked like roads in Google Maps were really marshes with about three to four foot tall grass and very uneven ground. It was a good thing that most of the ground was frozen we we didn’t get too wet. We ended up following game trails through the marsh to get to where we had to turn off into the dense forest for a half mile to get to where the phone landed.
Robert was tracking the position with a tablet and as soon as we got to where the phone should have been we stopped and looked up. There it was! The first place I looked. The phone was dangling from the top of a 40′ tree. It was interesting trying to get it down. We got the phone and hiked back following the same way we took to get there. It was a very tough hike and it was starting to wear on us. It took us quite a while longer to make it back to the blazer. All-in-all we ended up hiking nearly eight miles through very difficult terrain in the dark. I was glad it was over and I think my brother and dad were as well. We didn’t get home till after 1:00AM the next morning.
So the experiment was a success and I got some very cool pictures. A couple of interesting facts: the phone traveled nearly 130 miles in the just over two hours it was in the air; it reached 60,000′ before the GPS lost signal (consumer restrictions enforced by the government); based on the time it was without GPS signal, I estimate it reached nearly 90,000′; it had a top speed of 161mph (when it had GPS signal).
The experiment was pretty fun but as my brother said, next time lets launch it from the middle of ND so it lands in a field!!