Top 5 Questions for a Weather Balloon Engineer

Flying weather balloons is not exactly a super popular hobby so when I run into people whether it’s at a personal event or a work event or something I’m actually doing with weather balloons people like to ask a lot of questions so let’s get some of those answered today!

Question #1: How did you even get into this?

Back in 2015 my wife bought me an Arduino computer, it’s a credit card sized micro-controller – a circuit board really – and for somebody like me that’s a software engineer I loved the idea of making something to connect the software world into the hardware world. I started building my first project and I built a simple LED that would turn on and off automatically. It would turn on and a few seconds later it would turn off. I called my wife over and I said “Honey! Come here, you’ve got to see this! I built the most amazing thing ever! It’s so awesome!”  I showed it to her and it blinked and it went on and off…. and on… and off…. and that’s all it did. She wasn’t very impressed, but I figured I had to make something real-world that would actually interact with the real environment. Blinking an LED in my office was kind of cool, but if I could actually make something that would interact with the environment that would be pretty awesome! So the first thing that I found was these high-altitude balloon flights which are very popular over in the United Kingdom. They do a ton of them there and everybody was using Arduino and Raspberry Pi to do this sort of thing. I knew I could do that and I love space. I like science. I like programming and software engineering. So I went to work it took me months to get into it and then in April 2016 we launched our first flight, that was OLHZN-1. We set it off into the air… and I never saw it again. It’s still out there somewhere. Failed. The battery failed, but I figured we’ve got to try this again. OLHZN-2 went up and we found it! I saw the pictures from that and I was hooked! I absolutely loved it and that’s how I got started in weather balloons.

Question #2: Is it safe?

How do you make sure that you don’t collide with aircraft and that you’re actually being a good human being and not a hazard to everybody? The answer to that is yes! It is absolutely safe, but there are regulations and rules that you have to follow. Those are super important to follow because they ensure your own safety, they make sure that aircraft are safe and that you’re making people’s job easier, especially for air traffic controllers, pilots and people that manage our airspace. More than just following the regulations, we actually go above and beyond and we do some of the things that are required of big payloads but not technically required for us. That’s things like having an open dialogue with the FAA having a good relationship with them. They’ve actually watched some of our videos and some of them are fans so just taking that extra step to understand the rules make sure you’re following everything that’s out there and being in open communication with your local FAA office makes things so much safer and easier for everybody involved, especially air traffic controllers! Their job is hard enough as it is so if you can relieve some of the stress by providing them all the information it just eases everybody’s mind.

Question #3: Where do you get helium from?

If you don’t know it, helium is actually at a shortage right now. It’s a non-renewable resource and prices are just going through the roof – our prices included. So finding helium can actually be tough, especially if you’re an amateur or you’re just getting involved with it. There are a lot of places that don’t want to provide helium. We started out by getting helium at a local welding supply store. The other option is you can go directly to one of these gas suppliers that would be places like Praxair or Air Gas. Those are the big names around. You can try to rent directly with them, but typically they’re going to want a corporate environment like a school or a business to sell to. They don’t usually rent directly to individuals, but you can always try. The last thing that I’ve seen people do is actually go to a party store and buy party balloon helium tanks. This is not a great option, but if it’s your only option, fine, but just keep in mind that those helium tanks from party stores are not the purity levels that helium would be for the National Weather Service or if you’re going to Praxair or Air Gas or a welding supply store so you’re not going to get the lift that you would from a regular helium supplier.

Question #4: How do you find it again after you launch it?

Generally, a weather balloon flight is going to have some sort of tracking system onboard. Ours typically have two or three tracking systems onboard. There are three common tracking systems that you can fly with. One is a cell phone – I don’t recommend doing that! It’s not legal in the United States to have tracking onboard a cell phone and have it actively tracking while it’s in flight. It also doesn’t work once it gets above like 5,000 feet so it’s not a good solution. Option #2 is a GPS tracking system. This would be things that hikers use when they go out hiking up a mountain and they want to have some sort of GPS tracking system. The most popular one is probably the Spot 3 Messenger that is used on weather balloons all the time. It’s a great tracking system but the tricky thing for this is that it needs to be pointed upwards at the sky at all times. Where that becomes problematic is when you land. Sometimes the payload box will tip on its side and you need to make sure that your GPS unit is still pointing upwards when it lands on its side or upside down. The best way to handle this is to build some sort of gimbal system.  They are super easy to build. The last solution is really the best solution which is amateur radio tracking systems. In order to do that you have to have an amateur radio license – that’s ham radio! This scares a lot of people. It is super easy to get a ham radio license, especially the technician level here in the United States. It’s really not that hard to do. There are practice tests and apps that you can get for your Android phone, your iPhone or your iPad and it’s really not hard. I highly recommend it. It’s good for ten years once you do it then you can get into all sorts of things like radio-controlled projects and even go beyond weather balloons.

Question #5: Why do you use a fisheye lens?

This is a big one it probably should be Question #1 to be honest because it really is the number one question that I get asked and I could really write an entire article all about this. I’m sure this won’t make people happy, but let’s see if we can explain this and try not to make too many people angry. That might be impossible… So the big reason why we use a fisheye lens is because the camera… is easy to work with! It really has nothing to do with the lens itself it’s just
that the camera works well with our tracking systems. We can easily power it up and power it off with our circuit boards. It lasts with an external battery for the entire flight. It produces good quality footage and the wide-angle lens or fisheye lens doesn’t bother me. Someday will we try a different lens? Sure, why not. It’s just not our top priority right now. Right now we’re testing things like the reliability of our tracking systems. We’re trying to do live video from our weather balloon while it’s in flight. We’re trying to do cut-down systems so that we can recover our balloon consistently without a crazy amount of effort trying to get it down from an 80 foot tall tree. Those things are much more important to me than helping Flat-Earthers determine whether the earth is round or flat. It’s just not my goal, but you’re welcome to go for it. At some point we may do a more in-depth article about fisheye lenses or about the curvature of the Earth, but that’s not really what this article was for today. I just wanted to get you the top 5 questions and the answers that we have for them.

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