back to article Vulture 1: Calling all electronics wizards

Well, it's all go here at the PARIS programme headquarters, and we've spent the last 24 hours pondering the sticky issue of how to release Vulture 1 from the weather balloon which will carry it aloft in summer 2010. Our PARIS Vulture 1 logo More on that in a bit, but first thanks very much to all of you who chipped in with …


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  1. lee harvey osmond

    sheesh! use clockwork

    Why not just calculate how long it ought to take the balloon to ascend to release altitude, and have some clockwork cut the string?

  2. Barely registers

    Setting the bar high

    If you think you can get a better picture than this, then by all means bash on:

    Myself, I think the science has been settled on this one.....

  3. Bassey


    You're planning on launching a hypodermic needle to a high altitude and then let it fall back down to earth?

  4. The Indomitable Gall

    So does that mean... won't be using a ZX81 as the flight computer?

    That just isn't cricket, old bean!

  5. Neil Barnes Silver badge

    syringe/vacuum release device

    Do you have a ban on electronics in the *balloon*? The syringe method seems a good backup approach, but it's going to be tricky to calibrate - you're looking at around 10mb at that altitude, so you'd need a long thin tube to be able to place the plunger, and also need to be pretty sure that the piston is both easy enough to drive and sealed well enough to avoid leakage on the way up.

    There are dozens (well, some) of pressure sensors available which will give an accurate reading at that level - something like the Intersema 5534 works down to 10mb and may be suitable - I have designs and code for an AVR chip altimeter which could be adapted.

    Alternatively, since that unit requires a microprocessor to talk to it, Motorola do some sensors in the right range; they'd just need an op-amp to trigger the release.

    Just a thought...

    (hey, I don't get to do the technical logo often, right?)

  6. Tom Brazier

    Release mechanism

    Haven't really been following so if this has been said before, everyone please berate me.

    You mention some kind of syringe-based mechanism. How about this: attach the plane to the plunger of a 100ml syringe and attach the barrel to the ballon. Suck 1ml air into the syring on the ground (at 100kPa). At 100,000ft (about 1kPa according to, the plunger will fall out.

  7. david 63

    Release mechanism

    I like the idea of a pressure release using a collapsing tube but I think the calibration might be a bit tricky. There are lots of variables and testing is desctructive. Syringe plunger looks more promising.

    Other than pressure both temperature and radiation will change with altitude. I don't think radiation is a goer but could temperature be used with a version of a bi-metal strip. Would have the advantage that it could be tested in a fridge and be easy to calibrate for ambient conditions.

    Just some thoughts to add to the mix. People Who Know Better may well shoot me down in flames. But if any project deserves the benefit of Blue Sky Thinking I guess it is this one.

  8. da3andrew
    Thumb Up


    "what's the best electronics package to make this thing work."

    PIC get's my vote ( They come in a huge range of models depending on the processing power required, number of I/O pins and on-board perhiperals (including timers, A/D convertors, communications trancievers, hardware interrupts, etc). There's plenty of pre-assembeled break-out boards available so there's no need to do too much soldoring either...

  9. Andus McCoatover


    I'll e-mail you on a contact who might help.

  10. Anonymous Coward

    Can't do a drop from an aircraft

    From your earlier article:

    > Our tentative plan is to construct three aircraft: Low altitude prototype for initial testing; fully-equipped medium altitude example for systems-test release from aircraft; and the final operational model.

    See the Air Navigation Order 2005, section 66 (2).

    But you might be able to get a permit - my instructor got a permit to drop me out of an aeroplane.

  11. richard 7

    GPS tracking, camera, data logging...

    internet connectivity and tunes while its on the way down. Strap a smartphone to it :) And for comnparison, drop an unprotected Iphone....

    My LG U820 dies a similar way, I have a video somewhere of it leaving the barrel of a large cannon, punching the cloudline, then the phone hitting the ground.

    Sure someone there can donate a phone.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters

    Two payloads...

    so two sets of trackers then??

    one for the release mechanism and release vid camera.

    and one for the aircraft and its periodic still camera.

    sounds like that Lego Hale project which dropped of Lil'Joe before the balloon burst. (simple timer)

  13. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    Meanwhile, deep in the vaults, a mouse stirred .......

    "Bear in mind we're talking about an aircraft here, so it has to be a light as possible and stowable in the fuselage. If the weight starts to rise, then the wingspan starts to increase, and before you know it we've become Lockheed Martin." .... Ouch, those Direct hits hurt, Lester, but they do like them ... :-) Virtually IntelAIgent Vultures to Strip the MetaDataBase Carcass of ITs Pwnd Carrion, Compromised Failed Systems with Infinitely Odd PornographICQ Drivers, thus for ITs Sinful Viceless Drive to Engage and Harness.

    One of those New Fangled, AIR&dDs with CyberIntelAIgent Feed for Polyamoral Need and Seed ..... Simply CompleXXXX AI Virtual Life Husbandry ProgramMING and AIReProgramMING.

    This idea has great legs and is constantly betatesting for future dates .... Joint AdAIDVentures :-)

    Lovelace XSSXXXXPeriences in D Code Red is the PerlyGatesPython Meeting Point/Green AIdDoor.

  14. Craig 28


    Who the hell said anything about a *hypodermic* syringe? There is more than one kind of syringe, and most of them don't have the needle on the end.

  15. Paul Murphy 1

    DIY hypobaric

    How about making one to start with? a couple of vacuum cleaners, a pressure gauge and a pressure cooker (?) should do the trick for the small scale stuff.

    For larger scale testing a real one would have to do I guess, but if there is a spare gas container anywhere you could try using that???

    Only a thought.

    Another thought on a chase-plane would be the SR.177 ( or 187.

    But then that was cancelled as well...


  16. Albert Gonzalez

    DIY hipobaric chamber

    Get a piece of concrete pipe big enough for your needs, put a thick ( > 30mm) metacrilate circle on both ends, one end attached with some flexible cement (poliuretane may be a good choice, the other end justa a rubber ring.

    On the fixed plate, insert a fitting, and ask your local air conditioning guy to lend the vacuum pump to evacuate the air.

    Envelope the concrete with plastic film to seal it.

    When ready to go, insert model into chamber, engage the pump, hold the rubber ring end until pressure starts to drop and observe the effects from a safe distance.

    If the chamber can be smaller, a bottle with a big mouth may be easier.

    You can also evacuate air with pirotechnically assisted methods, bur are trickier.

    And for the electronics, i reaffirm myself that a HTC Dream / Hero is the way to go, beacuse it has it all included and tested, so you ONLY need to write the software (he he he).


  17. Paul E

    Otto von Guericke's Magdeburg hemispheres?

    How about using a (suitably scaled down) set of these?

    Just put the weight of the plane on the end of one, put it in your chamber and fine tune the vacuum level you would need between them to get separation?

  18. Nebulo

    Lagging etc.

    David63's comment about temperature prompts me to note that it would probably be a good idea to wrap the camera (not the lens, obviously) in a thermally protective jacket. The temperature gets pretty frosty at interesting altitudes, and it wouldn't be much fun if the most interesting photos were missing because the camera or its battery had packed up.

    On a structural note, papier maché presumably counts as paper and can make surprisingly strong, lightweight structures.

    And another vote for PICs, but remember that if there's soldering involved get a home constructor to do it, as we (sorry, they) are still allowed to use *proper* solder with lead in it rather than that dodgy lead-free stuff. (I'm assuming we want it to work reliably :)

  19. Robin Bradshaw
    Black Helicopters

    My money is still on paparazzi

    Avoid the hassle of making the electronics and enjoy ready made software platform you can customise, all the hardware you need can can be got here for $350 + cost of radio modem:

    Just add styrofoam plane, pressure sensor for release control and a time lapse camera and your done, it should even glide back to the launch site if setup right.

  20. Hungry Sean

    micro controllers

    Signed up specifically to vote against pics-- done way too much development with them in the past. Their performance is worthless, their compilers are frequently buggy, and the errata lists are enormous. You'd be much better served by an ARM or Atmel AVR (both supported by GCC so you won't need to shell out extra for a compiler). Though I'm a worthless Yank, I'd plump for some sort of ARM, this being a British space effort.

    Depending upon budget and resources, you'll also need to make a decision on surface mount vs. DIP (DIP is bigger, heavier, but easy for hobbyists and prototyping). There used to be a "tiny arm" DIP with a surface mount ARM and supporting hardware in a 40 pin package which was quite nice, and I also seem to remember liking the AT-mega 70 series (interrupts available on every pin).

    You'll need to browse a lot of spec sheets also to find a part that can tolerate extreme cold-- you may have some success looking for military spec parts. Spraying the whole assembly in insulating foam to hold in the heat might help too.

  21. Chris Long

    Hypobaric chamber

    Your local secondary school should have a perfectly adequate vacuum pump, and the chamber would only need to be big enough for the release mechanism (and possibly the rest of the payload), not the whole model. I'm sure a school physics lab supplier could sort it out.*

    * Always assuming that kids these days are actually allowed to actual experiments - I wouldn't be surprised if some H&S twat has banned them from chucking lumps of sodium into water troughs etc. Killjoys.

  22. Chris Long

    Re: my earlier message of the 11th inst.

    Here you go:

    US$800 but I'm sure El Reg can afford that.

  23. Chris Long

    And another thing

    Has anyone discussed the aerodynamic problems yet? It'll be tricky to design something that can 'fly' in any meaningful sense at both 100,000ft and 0ft - the air is just too thin at that altitude. I suspect that the plane will drop like a stone and reach quite a high speed, before needing to decelerate and transition to a more normal flight mode.

    I don't know enough to suggest a solution but I suspect it won't be easy......

  24. Steve Hersey

    Cold temps, frozen release mechanisms, and reducing weright

    Here's my $0.02 on barometric release mechanisms. Keep it simple, and think about the COLD. I was about to suggest an electronic solution based on a chip pressure sensor (the electronics weigh little if you use tiny surface-mount chips and avoid heavy packaging for the circuitry), but batteries tend to freeze at -40 C. Still, it may be more workable than a mechanical system. You may need to use heaters (probably left behind on the balloon at release) to keep the electronics functional.

    For a mechanical release system, consider the flat, disk-shaped bellows used in an aneroid barometer (but filled with air so it expands at altitude to trip a release lever); simple, can be calibrated to operate at the right pressure/temperature, should be very reliable.

    Speaking of very cold temperatures, that's going to be THE major issue at altitude; making the systems (primarily the batteries) function at those cold temps. By the way, the cold will raise hob with most mechanical release mechanisms like the syringe-plunger actuator.

    Hypobaric testing is of minor importance compared to low-temperature testing that mimics the temperature profile of the intended ascent.

    Here's another thought on electronics, light weight, and thermal issues: Sandwich the electronics between flat sheets of thin foam plastic that form the fuselage/wings; you can get flat batteries that can be insulated this way, too. For structural strength, you cannot go wrong with a strip of carbon-fiber tape as a wing spar. This is frequently used for RC model sailplanes; glue the tape to the top and bottom of a floppy foam wing, it becomes MUCH stiffer.

    Another thought on weight: If using off-the-shelf electronics, strip off all the plastic cases from everything to pare down the weight.

  25. Dave 32

    Vulture 1

    Y'all really should look at some of the high altitude ballooning groups on this (left) side of the pond. There are quite a few groups in the US which launch high altitude balloons with payloads consisting of amateur radio equipment to down-link the data in real time. As for cut-down mechanisms, be aware that the flight is not a smooth event. Once the balloon hits the jet stream, the ride can be exceedingly violent (300+ mile per hour winds!). Thus, the suspension and cut-down mechanism need to be able to handle such roughness.

    As for running a string around the balloon, you really don't want to do that. Latex is exceedingly delicate, and any friction against it can easily poke a hole in it. The best case result is that you have a premature burst, with the payload floating down from a few thousand feet. The worst case result is that you make a pinhole in the balloon, which allows a bit of the lifting gas to escape, producing a "floater" which can float for days (Couple this with 300 mile per hour ground velocities due to the jet stream, and it becomes highly unlikely you'll ever see your payload again!).

    Here's one of the groups where some of the amateur balloonists hang out:

    Oh, by the way, one of the guys has constructed his own hypobaric chamber, complete with low temperature conditioning, and ultraviolet light exposure.


  26. Nebulo

    Re. dropping like a stone ...

    ... Some sort of parafoil design?

  27. Jon Double Nice

    @Chris Long Posted 14:34

    And El Reg in general...

    I seem to recall on Blue Peter or something many years ago seeing them make 'helicopters', whereby you take a strip of paper and tear it lengthways then fold the two halves out into 'blades'. When you realease it from a height it spins like a sycamore seed.

    If you were to produce a similar albeit more advanced/sturdy version with your electronics at the bottom it would have the advantage of being able to freefall at high altitudes where the atmosphere is thin, then when it gets into denser air you wouldn't have to worry about changing from freefall to flight mode - the drag of the blades should keep it the right way up and it'd start spinning and slowing itself down (or at least reaching some maximum velocity).

    If you were feeling particularly clever, you could make the blades adjustable so you could used the accumulated rotational energy to actually slow the descent and even hover.

  28. Disco-Legend-Zeke

    something simple for release

    like a sugar cube and solvent

  29. Mike Moyle Silver badge

    Re: Your backup release option

    I think I see a problem with your "string around the balloon" possibility.

    The payload has to be light enough that the weight won't cause enough friction to hold the pin locked between the downward force of the payload attachment and the upward force of the balloon attachment.

    Note here that I'm assuming something like this:

    Balloon Attachment

    | |

    0 0 0 --------- Release Pin


    Payload Attachment

    ...Now, you may have another suspension system planned that doesn't pull down on the pin at the same time that it's ALSO lifting up on it but I can't see it at first glance.

    Further, given the above friction-lock problem, it seems to me that the total weight of payload and balloon attachment has to be enough that the horizontal force of the tightening string doesn't just pull the whole thing to the side until the combined horizontal and vertical forces on the two strings (hanging and pin-puller) are equal, leaving the payload hanging from a V-shaped cradle. And, since you presumably don't want the plane itself to be that heavy, then you might need to think about a way of making sure that the brick hanging from the bottom of your balloon ALSO lands at non-destructive velocities if the balloon bursts.

    Just a couple of thoughts that occurred...

  30. Anonymous Coward


    You want to make a switch that triggers at a certain altitude? I believe this has been done before but I'm unable to point you in the direction of a document useful to terrorism...

  31. Dr Dolittleaspossible

    I don't need no stinking title!

    Another vote for a PIC based microprocessor approach here, there are quite a few different projects offered online you can base a design on, (such as, built myself a nifty little cycle computer based on this), which are incredibly small and light and offer the opportunity to continuously log the flight to a SD card.

    Also a PIC would allow a number of different 'height measurement' & 'release mechanisms' to be incorporated simply (GPS & pressure sensor for measurement, smart wire or micromotor for release).

    And as Nebulo suggests, get a hobbyist to solder it all together so they can use 'proper' solder!!

    (And if you want to load up a frikin' laser beam I can recommend a certain TAT market...)


  32. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    "...and before you know it we've become Lockheed Martin."

    Does this mean that those of us who are Lockheed Martin employees cannot assist in this project, due to a desire to avoid becoming Lockheed Martin?

  33. 7mark7

    Something to check

    If you are going for a record flight of a paper plane it might be worth checking with the Guinness people what evidence would be needed. The electronics package would need to provide this. It might also be worth checking their definition of a paper plane.

    Would it be possible to get the Ubuntu bloke to just chuck it out the door when he next goes to the space station?

  34. norman

    Why not?

    Why not an airplane shaped zeppelin with a pressure vent that releases one way as the external pressure goes down in relation to the internal pressure.

    The balloon/plane goes up and reaches a balance between the lift of the gas/weight of the plane and the pressure difference releasing gas.

    Once the vent reaches a balance the vent no longer releases gas and the plane/balloon (now heavier than the air) glides back down.... eventually.

    You can carry more weight this way, (a signal?) and reuse the device later. (when you find it)

    /Do not use Hydrogen....

  35. norman

    Ops, I didn't see the "paper" part.

    Sorry, did not see the paper part.

    What IS the record height for a paper mini-zeppelin again?

    Rice paper skin, to hold in the gas, over a carbon fiber frame?

  36. Adam Foxton

    Yet another vote for PICs

    Used them all over the place myself- just remember to code it in Assembler. You lose the compilation problems and solve the speed issues someone above mentioned. You'll only need a pretty simple program, so the extra irritating bits of Assembler are compensated for.

    Small (~3mmx2mx2mm for the 10F222), light, tolerant to -40C, 175uA @2V power consumption (i.e. a week of a watch battery) and sufficiently fast. Sounds perfect for this project- now we've just got to find the other equipment!

  37. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    AIManchurians bearing Wise Gifts*

    " "...and before you know it we've become Lockheed Martin."

    Does this mean that those of us who are Lockheed Martin employees cannot assist in this project, due to a desire to avoid becoming Lockheed Martin?" ... By Anonymous Coward Posted Tuesday 11th August 2009 20:50 GMT

    A Passionate Desire to be a Lead AIReplacement Component Element for Lockheed Martin would Server Everyone Better with Cutting Edge Virtual Technology and Astute HyperRadioProActive IT Methodology, AC. Although that takes an Offensive Defence Contractor/War Scenario Producer like Lockheed Martin into Imaginative Territory which Realises War as the Tool of Fools and the Mad and the Bad and/or the Criminally Insane if you want to be Insanely PC.

    * In a Gangster/Family Movie context, that would be as a SMART Offer IT would be Foolish and Insulting to All Parties not to Savour and Enjoy and Support.

    With Ye Olde Trojan Horse's Head in the Bed Routine, a Following Folly for the Slower Witted and/or Unreasonably Implacable/Unnecessarily Obstructive ...... the Ignorantly Impudent.

  38. Tom Brazier
    IT Angle

    If it's PICs vs ARM vs AVR

    Then surely the arduino board is the way to go. It's open source, so it's got an IT angle.

  39. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up


    I absolutely love that the one to answer my question was amanfromMars. Perfect.

  40. Mr Young


    100,000ft - no experience with that. If any electrickery is required then Lithium Thionyl Chloride Batteries go to -55 celcius! (See Farnell/Saft etc). Don't know about vacuum though! Anyway - all micros are rated at -40 at best...Hmmm

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