SkyTiger I

We originally planned to launch the first balloon on August 11 but a critical piece, the gas regulator, didn’t arrive at the scheduled time so we were forced to postpone the launch to the following week.

The night before the first launch I had a couple important tasks. Other than making sure all of the batteries had maximum charge and emptying the storage space on the electronics, checking the weather forecast remained the most important preparation.Photo by Stephen Johnson The forecast determines which of the predesignated launch locations would be ideal for launching in order to try to ensure a good landing spot. Weather forecasts sometimes seem wrong just as often as they are right and if the landing zone varied wildly from the prediction I conceivably could lose all of the equipment without one extra byte to show for the entire endeavour. If the balloon landed in an area without cell phone coverage the game would be over. The reason for this is physically retrieving the payload and downloading the photos from the SD card is the only way to view anything with this payload setup. I admit I stressed over this for a bit but ultimately decided that the current weather was about as good as we could expect. And so, off to the field we went.Flight: Photo by Stephen Johnson

Getting everything assembled on site took a more time than planned but before long we had the balloon inflating and the project ready to go. After release, it ascended quickly and we lost cell coverage 20 minutes after the balloon leaving us (last reported position at 20k feet). Getting constant position updates feels good because you have proof that, at the very least, one piece of your project functions correctly and you know exactly where the functioning piece is located. After the updates stopped we headed toward where we hoped the balloon would land. Even if you are driving in the wrong direction, something to occupy time other than just waiting for news beats sitting around doing nothing. Thankfully we were traveling where we needed to go and before arriving at the planned landing spot, we started receiving GPS updates again. The balloon was under parachute on its way back to earth! It had flown further than predicted but at the same heading and its final resting place appeared to be within sight of a busy road.

It was hard to determine exactly the environment the payload landed in using Google maps satellite view but we could tell that it was a rural location. Hopefully remote enough that our property wouldn’t be disturbed until we were able to retrieve it!

As I neared the coordinates I kept my eyes peeled, looking for any glimpse of our sky traveller. Success! I spotted it well off the road, across a field. The parachute and balloon remains tangled high in a tree kept the attached payload from reaching the ground but just seeing it was exciting. We parked, jumped a fence, and gathered under the massive tree. Our pinata dangled out of reach, waiting for us to smash it open and collect all of the amazing imagery we hoped it would contain.

Thankfully we never had to resort to violence as one of our party was adept at climbing trees. Attaching a rope to the branch and shaking it proved to work best. It actually took 45 mins to get the container out of the tree but when we succeeded, unbolted the lid, and downloaded the pictures, the results of all our hard work were awesome!

I decided to wait to view the video until I got back home because it was slightly more complicated to pull it from the phone. The video proved to be a major disappointment. It cut out just before the balloon left the ground so none of the flight appeared on the recording. In my tests, I never noticed that the iPhone screen reactivates when you plug an external battery into the phone. This meant that for much of the assembly process the phone screen was on and vulnerable to errant touches. The sun illuminated the screen so brightly that it appeared off when, in fact it was powered on. The only piece of our project that couldn’t be verified with the lid bolted on was the video and, of course, the video was the only failure in the whole process.

Of course the still images were very interesting but I felt disappointed because recording 360 degree video made our project somewhat unique and we didn’t have any flight video. Yet good news existed: after the post-mortem analysis of the first flight I knew how to modify the iPhone software to fix the problem. SkyTiger would fly again!

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