Project: Unmanned Free Balloon
NK Labs designed a custom payload and launched it on a weather balloon to capture this video.
Algorand hired NK Labs to create and launch an unmanned free balloon payload to bring their new company's logo to the border of space. In order to have a marketing video together in time for their launch, we only had a week to go from background research on weather balloon construction and regulations all the way to the launch itself.
Design and Construction
We started the design by identifying all of the critical components which needed to fit inside of the payload:
GoPros to record video out the side and under the payload
Power bank to keep GoPros charged
Flotation feature in case of a water landing
This gave us a rough estimate of the payload's expected weight, which then allowed us to select appropriate balloons and parachutes.
Due to the short timeline of the project, we soon determined that we would only be able to launch a couple balloons in a best-case scenario. This meant that each payload would need to be optimized for video quality because having beautiful imagery for the client's marketing video was the end goal in this project. One risk we had observed from other balloon launches was that the Sun can ruin shots with too much glare and brightness. To reduce the risk of glare compromising the high-altitude shot of the atmosphere (the most important shot), and, in turn, compromising the entire launch, we decided to add a second horizontal GoPro and logo on the opposite side of the payload. That way, if the Sun interfered with one camera's shot, the other should still capture successful video.
The GPS tracker needed to maintain an upward orientation so that it could transmit its position. This created an interesting challenge for us to control the orientation of the tracker in the smallest and lightest method we could create in our extremely short time frame. We ultimately designed a small gimbal system which we printed on our Form 2.
Internals of the payload: GPS on the custom gimbal on the left; 3 GoPros on the right
After running a variety of simulations of expected trajectories, we chose to launch the balloon from Great Barrington, MA. This location was recommended to us by a fellow free-balloon enthusiast, and it offered fairly promising recovery locations at a safe distance from the Atlantic. The wide, open field and clear skies upon arrival reaffirmed that this would be an excellent launch point.
Since the start of the project, we were well aware of how difficult the process to recover a balloon payload could be. After the balloon is launched, any sense of control is lost and the balloon (and all of the equipment inside it) is subject only to the ever-changing prevailing winds. Running the trajectory simulations helps significantly, but they are limited by forecast inaccuracies, and they require inputs like ascent and descent rate, as well as burst altitude, which can only be roughly estimated due to a variety of factors. There is virtually no ability to guarantee the payload will not land in an inaccessible or dangerous location like a tall tree, a swamp, on a building, or a roadway.
GPS tracking of the balloon as it traveled east across Massachusetts
As evidence of the limitations of trajectory prediction, the payload was expected to land around North Brookfield, MA, but it actually landed about 20 miles due west in Belchertown, MA. Despite the difference in travel distance, the path that the balloon took was extremely similar to the expected path of travel. We were prepared to have to hike through woods, wade through swamps, and kayak down rivers so that we could recover the video files in the payload. As luck would have it, the payload landed about 25 feet up a tree immediately next to a road. It seemed too good to be true, and when we arrived at the location, we learned that the payload was just across the border of a gated section of private property. Upon discovering that the property was owned by the town of Belchertown, we were able to speak with the town administrator, gained permission to retrieve the payload from the property, and even got a police escort to the site.
The payload caught in the tree it landed in.
In the end, this project was incredibly successful. Technologically, all aspects of the project worked about as expected: the GoPros neither overheated from extended run time nor ran out of battery due to the coldness of the upper atmosphere; the GPS reported reasonably accurate coordinates throughout the trip; the balloon lifted the payload to a sufficiently high altitude for the atmospheric imagery we sought. Since the first launch got the necessary video, Algorand had enough time to edit the 15+ hours of video into a succinct marketing video for their company's launch a few days later.