LVL1 White Star rocked the Maker Faire!

It was amazing to share the excitement of transatlantic balloon flight with so many people!  We’d like to thank the staff of the Makerfaire and The Henry Ford museum for putting on such a great event.  We’d also like to thank Matt Richardson and Mark Frauenfelder for giving White Star Make Editors Choice Awards!

For everyone we met – remember to put your email address in the field on the right, we’ll send you an email the day before we’re about to launch. –>  We have to wait for winter, and then wait for the Jet Stream winds to be just right before we can choose a launch date.

After months of prep work, we had a flawless demo at MakerFaire Detroit. The electronics from SpeedBall-2 flew Gary’s exhibition balloon up and down and up and down for 9 hours straight, two days in a row, with no intervention needed from the crew.  Before we unveiled SpeedBall-2′s indoor flight, we spent days flying it at our LVL1 Hackerspace in Louisville, KY. The ballast algorithm needed much adjustment, which gave us some invaluable experience in understanding how the balloon reacts to the real world.

We were interviewed by Make Magazine, The Henry Ford museum, and talked to hundreds of visitors over the course of two days.  Thanks to everyone that stopped by!  If you have any ongoing questions, feel free to ask us by email, comment, tweet, or carrier pigeon.

Speedball-2 Dry Ballast System for Maker Faire

Our trip to Maker Faire Detroit 2011 has been filled with many bumps along the way and one of those has been the development of the dry ballast system. Many solutions have been tried and tested, but we finally settled on a jam-free BB dispensing device!

The device works by inserting a dowel rod with a specific pattern of holes perpendicular through the dispensing pipe. A servo with a custom made dowel-to-servo coupler (made with LVL1’s new laser cutter!) spins the dowel rod back and forth at a programmed rate determined by code on a Teensy 2.0, kindly donated by PJRC (http://www.pjrc.com/). As the dowel rod spins, BBs drop into the holes from the top and eventually fall out the bottom as the dowel rod rotates around.

As one could imagine, a major problem with any dry ballast design is jamming. We made two design choices to prevent this. First, we chose to spin the dowel rod back and forth, which prevents pinch jams between the holes and the pipe wall from permanently jamming the device. Second, to prevent bottle neck jams in the pipe, we chose to use a Sprite Zero bottle circa 2011 for its convex bottle neck and to taper the PVC pipe where it meets the bottle in order to create a smooth, fluid funnel.

After several days of testing, the dry ballast system has been successful and is ready to strut its stuff at Maker Faire. Come by the White Star Balloon booth at Maker Faire Detroit 2011 and check out Speedball-2 in action! You’ll be glad you did!

Come one and all to see SpeedBall at MakerFaire Detroit

Take it to Detroit!  LVL1 Hackerspace’s White Star Balloon team is going to be showing off theMakerFaire Detroit Logo SpeedBall balloon system at MakerFaire Detroit, July 30 & 31 at The Henry Ford museum.  We’re super excited to be a part of this great exhibition of doers and makers!
We’ll have the full SpeedBall-1 Trans-Atlantic robot payload (and possibly the balloon) on static display for you to get an up-close peek at what it takes to make a 3-day airship tick.

SpeedBall-2 is slated to make it’s public flight debut at the MakerFaire, (sorry SB-1!) as a lean-mean indoor flying machine.  It’ll be stripped down to the bare necessities required to control it’s altitude – arguably the most important innovation of the whole program.  Consisting of the classic SNOX Ballast bottle, the Flight Computer, the Comm Controller, and the Ballast Controller, the load frame and a small 12v pack of AA batteries, SB-2 will hang from a small custom plastic balloon.

Guided by a vertical cable to keep it from wandering around the museum, SB-2’s balloon it will have a calibrated leak, causing it to slowly sink down, a high-speed simulation of helium loss over a 3-day air voyage.  This will allow you to see the prowess of the ballast system and control algorithm, as it manages ascents, descents, and altitude holds, fully autonomously – look ma, no wires!

We’re working now on putting it all together and testing the demo setup at the LVL1 Hackerspace.  Follow our Twitter @LVL1WhiteStar for up-to-the-minute progress updates.

How to Build the World's Lightest Quadrifilar Helix Antenna

After the scrub on the launch pad for flight attempt A, we went back to the books, to try and figure out what we could do to improve our odds the next time around. One of our biggest setbacks was the inability make an antenna suitable for our use: We needed an antenna tuned for 149 MHz, not needing a ground plane, weighing as little as possible.

After 4 tries, and some expensive test equipment, the end result was a Quadrifilar Helix antenna weighing only 80 grams!

Our ground test antenna was a 5/8ths wave whip antenna, which works well, but unfortunately needs a ground plane. Tests with both a quarter-wave dipole and a J-pole antenna were lackluster. Documentation from our satellite service provider implied that a quadrifilar helix antenna would provide the best coverage at all. While these antennas are pretty, their design and construction was voodoo magic at first.

Thanks to some design documentation here: http://jcoppens.com/ant/qfh/index.en.php and some help from the balloon community, we had some baselines for creating such an antenna. We still went through *quite* a few revisions.  We went through 3 revisions that didn’t work, and one which works pretty darn well!

Here are the antennas which didn’t work:

Continue reading

How to Build the World’s Lightest Quadrifilar Helix Antenna

After the scrub on the launch pad for flight attempt A, we went back to the books, to try and figure out what we could do to improve our odds the next time around. One of our biggest setbacks was the inability make an antenna suitable for our use: We needed an antenna tuned for 149 MHz, not needing a ground plane, weighing as little as possible.

After 4 tries, and some expensive test equipment, the end result was a Quadrifilar Helix antenna weighing only 80 grams!

Our ground test antenna was a 5/8ths wave whip antenna, which works well, but unfortunately needs a ground plane. Tests with both a quarter-wave dipole and a J-pole antenna were lackluster. Documentation from our satellite service provider implied that a quadrifilar helix antenna would provide the best coverage at all. While these antennas are pretty, their design and construction was voodoo magic at first.

Thanks to some design documentation here: http://jcoppens.com/ant/qfh/index.en.php and some help from the balloon community, we had some baselines for creating such an antenna. We still went through *quite* a few revisions.  We went through 3 revisions that didn’t work, and one which works pretty darn well!

Here are the antennas which didn’t work:

Continue reading