Monday 29 April 2013


Here's our video of STRATODEAN One - don't forget to view in HD! The photos are at the bottom of this page.

STRATODEAN Go for launch
Go for launch
After six months of planning, one abandoned launch due to weather conditions and a borderline traumatising GPS tracker 'butterfingers' incident, Sunday 21st April saw the launch of our first payload, conveniently named STRATODEAN One. Despite rather a rather pessimistic weather forecast predicting cloud, cloud and more cloud, Team STRATODEAN remained hopeful. As long as the launch prediction and wind conditions were sensible, we were going for it.
The first look out the window at 7:00am revealed a decent bit of blue
sky and the conditions were good so we were all systems go.

Our launch strategy delegated balloon filling over to Mark's Dad and brother, while we were based in Launch HQ (which may look suspiciously like a patio table with a laptop on).

Launch HQ.
STRATODEAN Balloon with custom made filling device!
Balloon with custom made filling device!
STRATODEAN Payload preparations
Payload preparations.
STRATODEAN Everything in its place, including a sneaky photo
Everything in its place, including a sneaky photo.
Over 30 close family and friends came out to watch, which meant we had plenty of young volunteers when it came to the launch. A big thank you to those who came out to support us!

STRATODEAN Nearly time for launch!
Nearly time for launch!
STRATODEAN A shady bunch
A shady bunch.
STRATODEAN Cakes for the punters
Cake for the punters.
STRATODEAN Holding on tight
Holding on tight.

STRATODEAN One launched just before 10.15am from Coleford, Gloucestershire and landed approximately 2.5 hours later, over 100 miles away, in a field outside of Milton Keynes. Our payload, or as one kind gentleman generously referred to it as, our "spacecraft" reached a maximum altitude of 32,127m (105,000 feet) and was tracked by 43 different receivers scattered across the UK and Europe while on its journey. We will follow this post with another detailing some more technical facts and figures.

Lift off!
What went well:
  • Many people tracking commented on the strong, clear signal which was great news, therefore we were happy with the quality of our aerial.
  • We were pleased with the photos from the Canon camera and that we managed to capture lots of aerial photos of our local area (see album at bottom of page).
  • Great launch day atmosphere.
  • The ascent and decent rates were as predicted.  
STRATODEAN Payload recovered
Payload recovered.
STRATODEAN Tracker and camera
The tracker and camera still going strong!
As always, there have been lessons learnt and things we'd change for the future. Room for improvement:
  • Despite (and in fact due to) using anti-fog inserts, condensation formed within the GoPro casing, clouding the lens. For future launches, we will consider launching the GoPro without the protective case.
  • Now that we have a lot of downward-facing photos, next time we could use two side-mounted cameras.
  • Use some black tape around the GoPro-shaped tapered hole in our payload box. Some of the footage taken into direct sunlight had a blue haze due to light reflecting from the polystyrene into the lens.
  • We could have packed up our equipment and left the launch site a little quicker to begin the chase. 
  • Check all cameras (on the ground and up in the air) are set to film at the same frame rate!
  • Ideally, we would not have forgotten to attach our contact details and information label onto the box!
  • It was noted by some trackers that they were losing the beginnings of our early transmissions. To remedy this, we should remove the 1000ms gap between transmissions.
  • The backup tracker did not work at all! Will need to investigate this and decide whether it is worth including next time.
Take a look at our STRATODEAN One Launch video at the top of this page and our Payload Camera album below. Let us know if you can see your house!

Wednesday 24 April 2013

We made the paper - again!

STRATODEAN Forest Citizen
Our follow up article in the Forest Citizen.

Sunday 21 April 2013

We did it!

So today we launched and recovered our first ever high altitude balloon with payload! We have hundreds of photos and a few hours of videos to get through and process, but we thought we'd share with you the first few good ones!

Thank you very much to all that came to watch and support the launch and to our families who have helped and supported us so much during planning, launch and recovery. Also thank you to the guys at UKHAS for your help and advice. We had people all over the UK helping us track and even further afield in France, Belgium and Holland!

STRATODEAN Mark Ireland Cassie Phelps Balloon
Before the Launch!
We had some helpers! 
Our hometown - Coleford, Gloucestershire.
Five Acres, Coleford.
STRATODEAN Stratosphere
We made it to the stratosphere! 
STRATODEAN Housing estate
The housing estate we just missed before landing!
This is how we found it!

Saturday 20 April 2013

Tomorrow is Launch Day

After 6 months of hard work, launch day is nearly upon us! We have spent today doing our final checks, tying parachutes to cord and making sure we are prepared for tomorrow.

STRATODEAN Payload - Mark Ireland
Payload ready for lift off.
Don't forget you can track the progress of the balloon yourself by going to in the morning. Lift off is 10am. Hopefully everything goes to plan and we get some nice photos and video!

STRATODEAN Flight Prediction
Tomorrows Flight Prediction
This looks a lot more manageable than last weeks prediction!

Sunday 14 April 2013

The GPS Tracker

When we launch our payload we will need to know exactly where it is in the sky in order to follow and recover it. It is important then, to have a tracker that will give timely and accurate information to us on the ground about where it is and where it's heading. We decided in the early weeks of the project to use a radio based tracker, the kind that most high altitude balloon enthusiasts use, to track our balloon. There were a few reasons for this - it was proven technology, the radio infrastructure existed for balloon tracking and it would be a good challenge in itself to build a GPS tracker - something that we had no experience in before!

At the very start of the project we had no idea of the community and infrastructure that exists to enable balloon launchers to track their payloads as they fly through sky. A full and extensive explanation can he found on the UKHAS Wiki - definitely worth a read to gain a real understanding of what is going on. In a nutshell however:
  • Either via the #highaltitude channel on freenode IRC or the UKHAS Google Group, you let the community know of a future balloon launch. At this point it is important to know what transmitting frequency you will be using and the frequency shift you will be using to distinguish between a binary 0 and 1.
  • At the stated day and time, enthusiasts over the country listen out for the radio signal being transmitted from the balloon payload.
  • Using their receivers and computer software, they decode the GPS telemetry from the radio signal and upload this information to a central server, which then plots the balloon on the for the whole Internet to see.
  • This has been going on for a few years!

Components and code

There are two main parts to it, the Arduino Uno prefabricated board at the bottom and our arrangement of components soldered onto stripboard fitted on top. On the left of the board with the black blob antenna is the GPS receiver, the silver box is the radio transmitter with its additional SMA antenna connector, the flat component in the middle is an SD card reader and finally 6 AA Energizer Lithium batteries on the right to power it all. There are various LEDs and resistors also needed to complete the circuit - see the Wiki links below. It took a good few months to go from initial research to a fully working tracker! The computer (Arduino) needs to be programmed in order to get things working, you aren't able to just plug things in an expect it to work. The program works as follows:
    STRATODEAN - GPS Tracker
    Our GPS Tracker
  1. Arduino is initially powered up and does a check of all components to ensure that it can use them.
  2. It asks the GPS for location information - it returns lots of information including latitude, longitude, altitude and number of satellites it can see in a text format known as NMEA.
  3. The program extracts the useful bits of data that we need and puts it into a text format that UKHAS is expecting.
  4. The text string has a mathematical calculation performed on it, known as a checksum. This works out a four character sequence that must be added to the end of our string. When our string is received by the UKHAS listeners, their computer will do the same calculation - if the four characters match then they can be sure that the data they have received is how it was originally transmitted by the tracker.
  5. The whole string is then divided into its individual characters and the binary version of each character is sent over RTTY radio transmission by alternating the frequency about a particular wavelength (434MHz - unlicensed and free to use in the UK). This alternating creates the binary code for the string which is then decoded by the receivers.
  6. Saves a record of the text onto the SD card to act as a 'black box flight recorder'.
  7. Repeat steps 2 - 6 until the battery runs out!
STRATODEAN - Initial prototyping
Initial prototyping
When you start out on building your tracker you are always pointed to this tutorial, so we shall do the same: This contains everything you need to get you started on sending data over radio using an Arduino and as I found, a nice easy way to get started on C++. We started out with just the NTX2 radio transmitter on a breadboard and wires going to the Arduino.
STRATODEAN - First radio transmissions
First radio transmissions
In very little time we were able to send simple text message strings over the air and decode them at the other end. In the image you can see the Arduino IDE used to program the board on the right and on the left, dl-fldigi the program used to decode the radio signal. Whilst it's not important to know every detail of how radio transmission works, it is important to know the boundaries in which you can operate. Here in the UK we have 433MHz - 434MHz in which to operate radio transmissions without needing a licence. In order to facilitate this easily, the Radiometrix NTX2 that we are using comes in two preset frequences 434.075MHz and 434.650MHz. Both work in the same way but it is important that you know which one you have - there is a handy label on the side!
STRATODEAN - Prototyping GPS
Prototyping GPS
Once we were happy that we could generate the required RTTY signal using the Arduino and radio transmitter, we then moved on to the second integral part of the tracker - the GPS receiver. Again there is a brilliant guide put together on the UKHAS Wiki page that helped with getting this started: Initially I just soldered some wires into the GPS breakout board and plugged them into the Arduino and hoped everything would work as described, it didn't. The GPS was powering up but we were not getting any data back from the unit. The main reason for this is that this GPS unit with its passive antenna doesn't really work indoors! A quick dash outside with the laptop proved everything was working as expected.

It took a long while and a was a bit of a learning curve to start getting meaningful data back from the GPS. What gave us confidence however was that we were able to use the u-blox u-centre GPS evaluation software almost immediately. Connecting through the Arduino, we could see ourselves plotted on the map and where the satellites were located in the sky - interesting stuff and if you are doing this yourself, definitely download this software!

STRATODEAN - Prototyping GPS and radio
The radio and GPS on the same breadboard for the first time
Once we were happy that the GPS was automatically sending us accurate GPS coordinates and we were able to see these using the Arduino, it was time to try and combine the radio with it. There are a few people who have done this before so using the examples out there really helped get something 'working'. It is not OK though, to just get these examples, program your Arduino with them and hope things will work. It is paramount that you understand exactly what is happening on every line of the code. As well as having a knowledge of how it all works, you will feel much more satisfied! All of our code is available on our GitHub repository. Feel free to use as you wish. It is commented so hopefully should be pretty self explanatory. One thing that did trip us up and worth noting here, was that when using the built-in Software Serial, we were finding that half of the string was getting truncated. This is because of the buffer size in the Software Serial library. Changing this to 128 solved the problem.

We later added the SD card and this also caused problems - especially with RAM. Turns out, simply referencing the SD library causes a whole load of RAM to be used up. I then set about making the code more efficient (encasing all strings in the F() function for example) and using the FreeRam function.

Final solution

STRATODEAN - Underside of tracker
STRATODEAN - Graham helping with the soldering
Mark's brother Graham helping
with the soldering!
Once we were happy enough that the software was almost there and that the physical connections were correct, it was time to make a more permanent fixture for the components. As we had the Arduino Uno, the simplest solution was to create our own 'Arduino Shield'. This meant that we could 'plug in' our tracker when we wanted to use it and then remove it if we wanted to use the Arduino for something else at a later stage. We bought some prototyping stripboard from Maplin and set about soldering! It was just a case of then plugging it in and hoping for the best. It definitely felt more like a proper device in itself once it was soldered.

STRATODEAN - Coaxial shielding removed for antenna
Coaxial shielding removed
Finally you do need an antenna to work with this tracker else no one would hear it! This is is quite simple to achieve with some RG58 coax cable. We followed some examples and advice from the guys on the IRC channel. They said that the most effective and simple antenna is a quarter-wave with ground plane. This is exactly how it sounds - the length of the antenna is a quarter of the length of the whole wave. 434MHz is also known as the 70cm band - so 70cm / 4 = 17cm antenna length. A ground plane is a part of the antenna which help send the signals in a particular direction - in our case towards us on the ground! As mentioned in our Payload Part Two video, we used the coaxial shielding to form the ground plane and the centre coax cable as the main element. It was quite a tedious process to unbraid the shielding - but take your time and you get results.
STRATODEAN - Payload Antenna
Antenna attached to payload
Finally we created the ground plane by attaching the now divided coaxial shielding to the four corners of the payload box. Our payload is quite big compared to others, so if the ground plane over hangs, then use drinking straws or similar to support it. We have used a few drinking straws inside each other to support the centre element and to keep it straight during flight.

What we would improve

Although this tracker has yet to fly - there are already a few things that we would change or improve on the next version. The first is to use a different Arduino board. The Uno is a great prototyping board, but it requires 7v-12v power input so it can run at 5v. This means that we need to use 6AA (6x1.5v = 9v) batteries which are pretty heavy! Following on from this, we would possibly investigate fabricating our own DIY printed circuit board and solder components together with the Arduino chip directly together.

Hope this has helped

Although we haven't gone into the deep technical code and electrical side of things here, we hope this overview will show you the general processes needed in order to create your own High Altitude Balloon tracker. We hope to fly this very soon! If you have any questions please email or talk to the guys on the IRC channel. If you found this post useful or feel inspired to start your own project do let us know via email or Twitter - we'd love to hear from you!

Friday 12 April 2013

STRATODEAN One Launch - Postponed!

As those of you who follow us on Twitter will already be aware - we originally planned to launch this Sunday 14th April. As our first launch, we've been making all the necessary preparations for weeks and were really looking forward to it! We've been keeping a close eye on the weather and wind predictions but on this occasion unfortunately the elements are against us - heavy rain is forecast and the strong winds would take our balloon to the North Sea...not ideal to say the least!

STRATODEAN - Aborted Launch!
Heading for Grimsby!
However, we will not be beaten and have rearranged to launch next Sunday 21st! 

Fingers (and toes) crossed for sun and no wind!

Monday 8 April 2013

Night Sky Photos Three

We moved location for the latest night sky photos to Beechenhurst Lodge, deep in the forest - or so you think! It's in the middle between Coleford and Cinderford so there is a lot of light pollution. Maybe we'll pick somewhere else next time. Definitely still some practice to be had but these aren't too bad...!

STRATODEAN Beechenhurst Lodge Polaris
Beechenhurst Lodge Polaris

STRATODEAN Beechenhurst Lodge
Beechenhurst Lodge

STRATODEAN Beechenhurst Lodge
Beechenhurst Lodge
STRATODEAN Beechenhurst Lodge
Beechenhurst Lodge

Tuesday 2 April 2013

Quick Diagram

Have had a few people ask how the payload and balloon is all going to fit together, so I have drawn a quick diagram!