Published: April 12, 2022

students pose in field with flight control unit

You're standing in the middle of this vast—as far as the eye can see—grassland. And this thing that you just let go of in downtown Boulder has traveled there on its own. There's this moment of disbelief until you're right there with it. ~ Zack Weaver, CEAS lecturer, ATLAS Institute


Video from almost 101,000 feet, beginning shortly before the balloon bursts.
First students built the instrumentation. Then they attached it to a high-altitude weather balloon that took it to an altitude of 101,000 feet. Thanks to the geolocation technology they had incorporated, they were then able to locate it 120 miles away in Eastern Colorado. 

The collaborative project was part of a class taught by ATLAS Lecturer Zack Weaver called Creative Technologies, a required class in the College of Engineering MS in Creative Technology and Design, offered through the ATLAS Institute. 

The instrumentation they built included an Arduino microcontroller connected to sensors that measured and recorded location, temperature, air pressure and altitude. A GoPro was sent along for the ride, capturing continuous video of the four-hour flight that began outside the Boulder Public Library’s BLDG 61 Makerspace, where Weaver works, and ended in a field in Eastern Colorado 120 miles away.

The students, many of whom began the class without much of a technical background, wrote and tested the code for the microcontroller, designed and built the insulated casing that held the camera and protected the electronics and batteries from temperatures of approximately -35° Fahrenheit. The payload design allowed environmental sensors and a GPS antenna to capture and record data to an SD card. The students were then able to plot and compare flight simulation data and actual data visualized in Google Earth.

“The students learned which creative technologies could be used to pull off this feat,” Weaver said. “It’s probably not the right terminology, but they get a ‘crash course’—learning many things very quickly.”

Besides coding and electronics, students also learned wireless communication, design and fabrication techniques, including laser cutting, 3D printing and integrating electronic components into the student-designed payload. As required by the Federal Aviation Administration, the team registered the balloon flight, providing its anticipated flight path based on their models.

“This class is a blast,” said Neill Shikada, who is enrolled in the Creative Industries track of the ATLAS Creative Technologies and Design master's program. “I've come from knowing nothing about electronics to designing quite a few aspects of the instrumentation for our balloon flight."

Alejandra Guerro, a social impact master’s student, echoed Shikada’s sentiments. “I'm definitely enjoying the class,” she said.  “A lot of technologies that seemed intimidating or difficult, now feel more accessible. I've learned that I can learn just about anything with enough Googling, patience and help from classmates.”

“Needle in a stack of needles”
As the pressure decreased with the rising altitude, the 7-foot-diameter balloon at ground level expanded to an estimated 25 feet before bursting. Its dizzying descent was captured on video.

Prediction software provided an estimate of the balloon’s location within a five-kilometer radius. Then, using the Automated Packet Reporting System (APRS), a ham radio network connected directly to a web server, they were able to pinpoint the balloon’s location to within one-tenth of a mile. As a backup, the team put a small commercial GPS tracker onboard that tracked the balloon's position online in real-time, but the APRS system worked perfectly. 

“We added as many redundant tracking systems as possible without weighing it down more than necessary,” Weaver said. “Every gram is critical to how high the balloon can fly.”

Because the flight took approximately four hours, Weaver and some of the students had plenty of time to drive out to Eastern Colorado, initially aiming for where they thought the balloon would land and then course-correcting once they had actual coordinates. 

“We dream of seeing this thing coming down, but in Eastern Colorado, it’s like finding a needle in a stack of needles,” Weaver said.

Crash course
In addition to mapping the actual flight path on Google Earth, students were asked to analyze variations and anomalies compared to the predicted flight path. While examining the data, students discovered that the sensors recorded higher temperatures than the APRS reported and concluded they were mistakenly measuring the interior of their insulated casing. They also learned the limitations of a $5 altitude sensor, which loses accuracy over 60,000 feet.  

“These limitations, and the opportunity to read the data to discover them, are intentionally baked into the experience,” said Weaver. “It contextualizes the affordances and constraints of the toolset.”
“The project helped the students understand that they can’t learn all creative technologies,” he added. “We set a context that provided constraints for deciding which technologies are needed and to what extent. It helped them to not be overwhelmed by an overabundance of choices.” 
The balloon flight was the key project for the first half of the Creative Technologies course; the second half is designed so students use the balloon experience as a reference for their independent design projects. There’s also a lineup of guest speakers, giving students diverse perspectives on similar types of technologies and how they are used professionally.

“I've shown them a reasonable amount of new technologies,” Weaver said. “The students will define any additional technologies they need to work with on a more individual basis. So at this point, they're in charge of the class, and I'm just there as support to run logistics and to bring in cool people for them to meet.

“I remember sometimes feeling almost complete isolation as a grad student on campus," said Weaver. "Getting off-campus and out in the world came as such a novelty. I think this group of students had that experience, particularly driving out to Eastern Colorado. And they didn't just learn how to work with electronics and design tools; they applied them, and it took them to new places."