This week we are featuring the Balloongineers from Washington state in the USA. Not only did they nearly set a record in GSBC 2014 for dropping an egg from altitude without breaking it, they also proved to be one of the most dedicated teams, skiing, hiking, and eventually flying in a helicopter to recover their HAB from the snowy mountains. They want to do even more in 2015, though hopefully have a bit of an easier time recovering their HAB. Find a brief interview with the team, youtube videos from their GSBC 2014 launch, and the full story of their recovery below!
Q: Please introduce yourself.
We are a group of designers and engineers that enjoy getting outside the box. Myself (Jon Huffman, team lead), I just like to do crazy things and get people involved. As my wife says, “63 years old going on 12”. A family member told me of this competition and I then asked some engineering friends at work if they would like to help out. Then there was life!
Our official team mates are Terry Simpson, Jon Huffman, Ian Hayles, Reg Rumwell, but we have a cast of many that advise us and come out to the launch.
See the story at bottom of this email from last year it pretty much says everything.
Q: How and why did you get involved with high altitude balloons?
While at dinner with my brother-in-law one night said “Hey I got something that is just down your Alley” .
My wife said “Really! Did you have to tell him, now he is going to want to do it!
Ian, the new guy at work thought it would be a great way to get to know fellow co-workers.
Reg, well he just thought it sounded “Way cool”
Terry, the guy never sleeps and always needs a project to keep him busy, I suggested this one.
Q: What are the goals of your high altitude balloon group?
Our team goals are to:
Take better photo’s
Beat the Egg Drop world record (currently 109,000 by a high school)
Mine for precious metals from Asteroids
Plus some top secret plans of course for Year #2
Q: What is your favorite part of the Global Space Balloon Challenge?
For Terry it is the design / engineering aspect.
Myself, it is seeing everyone ask questions, getting people get involved, and just saying I did it!
Terry‘s daughter likes making it a school report tracking our progress for her class mates.
Reg, “search and rescue” and things the Engineering Geek’s cannot contribute (like a lot of hot air)
Ian, ““search and rescue” of things that disappear In the sky
Q: What do you think is the future of HABing
I have no idea of where and to what heights HABing will go (pun intended ) but it is fun to be involved and see it growing by leaps and bound.
“Video of Launch to Crash”
Time laspes of Going up to burst altitude
Balloon burst in slow motion
OUR STORY, YEAR ONE
Reaching New Heights
A team of Issaquah-based ultrasound engineers participate in the Global Space Balloon Challenge
May 13, 2014
The photograph of the balloon burst is one of a kind. While it looks vaguely reminiscent of a jelly fish serenely floating in a calm sea, it actually captures the very instant a weather balloon burst at 84,177 ft. (25,657 m) above the state of Washington. A team of Issaquah-based engineers, calling themselves the "Balloongineers," launched the weather balloon from North Bend, WA on April 20, 2014. The effort was their entry in the annual "Global Space Balloon Challenge."
The Balloongineers science experiment: "We're going for the world record height for dropping and recovering an intact uncooked chicken egg," says Jon Huffman, Staff CAD Engineer, initiator and coordinator of the mission.
A raw chicken egg was included in a custom payload that hung from the nearly 7 ft. diameter, helium filled, weather balloon. The payload contained a multitude of sensors and devices that captured data for the 2 hour and 45 minute flight over the Cascade Mountains. "You can buy a kit for a basic payload," says Jon Huffman. "But where's the fun in that?" adds Terry Simpson, Sr. Staff Hardware Engineer and fellow Balloongineer. Terry programmed a small microcontroller to capture and store temperature (internal to payload and external to payload) and pressure data at a rate of 15 times per minute for the duration of the flight. The payload also included three high resolution (1080p) video cameras, one looking directly up at the balloon, one looking directly downward (to Earth) and one looking out the side of the payload (at the horizon). It was all contained in a simple box. "Most amateurs use stryofoam and duct-tape," according to Jon Huffman.
At this point, you may have visions of random balloons crossing commercial flight paths and payloads raining down to Earth at terminal velocity. "You have to register your balloon, the launch time and expected flight path with the FAA," explains Jon Huffman. The payload must also include a radar reflector making it visible to aircraft. "It makes the payload look about the size of a Cessna," Terry Simpson says as we look at the approximately 1 foot square aluminum box. After the balloon bursts, a 5 foot parachute automatically deploys and floats the payload back to Earth.
How do you find it when it lands?
As you might expect of an engineering team, they used simulation software (freely available on the internet) to predict both the balloon's burst elevation and its flight path. This enabled the team to estimate where it would land, aiding their efforts to recover it. They were also able to track its location via an onboard tracking GPS device. "It's like the device used to track stolen cars," explains Terry. It pings its location to satellites approximately every 2 1/2 minutes. A website maintained by the tracking GPS unit manufacturer allows one to track its location with real-time updates. Terry and Jon started making the approximately 3 1/2 hour drive to the expected landing location right after the launch.
They tracked the balloon's progress via an iPad as they drove, but they got a little nervous when the regular pings suddenly stopped and were gone for over an hour. "The tracking GPS unit goes silent above about 60,000 feet," explains Jon. "It doesn't start transmitting again until it gets below that elevation again." At 1:04 PM, they started getting pings again. They recorded 4 more pings on its descent, then it stopped. This time, though, something had gone wrong. "It’s designed to send two pings from the same GPS location, then stop," explained Jon Huffman. "It never 'double-pinged', so we didn't know exactly where it hit the ground." Somehow it had landed in a way that didn't allow the second ping to be received by orbiting satellites. "Maybe hanging upside down, maybe underwater," Jon speculated. They did know approximately where it was, though - deep in the remote wilderness of the Okanagan-Wenatchee National Forest. They headed out on a forest road that would bring them closest to the anticipated landing area. Terry had brought along wet suit in the event it would be necessary. As it turns out, they needed the chain saw that he had left at home. With a downed tree blocking their access, they would have to come back another day. “I didn’t think we were ever going to see it again,” recalls Ian Hayles, Sr. Electrical Engineer.
The predicted (green) and actual (red) paths of the balloon. Plot provided by Terry Simpson.
That's where Steve Martin comes in. "If anybody can get to that balloon, it's Steve," says Rob Hunt, Sr. Mgr. Engineering. Colleague and friend of the Balloongineers, and avid outdoor enthusiast, Steve Martin (Sr. Staff Electrical Engineer), offered to go get it. Steve has spent much of his life exploring the mountain wilderness of Washington State, and had even passed very near this way-point location on a mountain biking trip in the past. A week after the launch Steve set out on the trip from the nearest forest road access. "There are no trails, it's just pretty much pick your best path," explains Steve. "With that much snow, it doesn't matter though, you just go overland on skis." Steve used his telemark skiing skills to get him to the last known way-point of the balloon. He searched the surrounding area on foot, and used binoculars to explore the local mountain sides. The trip was approximately 15 miles of round trip skiing and hiking in challenging terrain. "It didn't leave much time to look for the balloon." Unfortunately, he had to cut the search short and head back empty-handed.
In the meantime, the team thought through other options for accessing the remote area. As thirteen days had already passed, time was becoming an issue. Any additional snow in the mountains might cover it until summer. While it came at a cost, Jon ultimately decided on a helicopter service to aerially search the area around the last known way-point. Of course, there were no guarantees. With fellow Balloongineers waiting for word, Terry finally got the call - "I've got the package."
Now the question was did they get any data and video? Terry wasn't optimistic about the egg. "Before the launch date, I put an egg in my freezer as a little experiment," explains Terry. "The egg cracked, and it's a lot colder up there than in my freezer."
Jon and Terry started analyzing the data that weekend. It was amazing the payload had survived the punishing trip. "We recorded external temperatures as low as -45 deg. C", says Terry. With the heat pack and waste heat from the electronics, the internal temperature stayed above 17 deg. C for the majority of the flight and despite decreasing quickly during descent, never dropped below -5 deg. C. That kept the batteries and electronics functioning properly. And the egg? Well, it survived, but another team is claiming to have successfully dropped an egg intact from 109,000 ft. Officials are reviewing the competing claims. Either way, the Balloongineers will be back next year. "We have some ideas for improvements," says Reg Rumwell.
There is plenty of opportunity for others to get involved. "This was a really exciting project," says Jim Mertens, Sr. Director of Engineering, Issaquah. He was one of several Issaquah employees that joined the Balloongineers for the launch. "I think it would be a great team-building opportunity to have entries from other BU sites like Mountain View and SUSKO join in the competition next year."