A slower pace and Astdroid’s own spinoff

A couple days went by without hearing new of Astdroid, but I remained optomistic. A week went by and my hopes faded slightly. At about a week and a half in I admitted some amount of defeat and purchased a new phone. Now that it’s been a couple weeks I have no choice but to wonder if Astdroid will ever be found.

It’s been slightly demoralizing in some senses, the launch and communication with the phone had gone so well, but in another sense it wasn’t entirely unexpected. Sending a phone into space and recovering it is an ambitious goal to begin with. Couple that with bare bones equipment and a first try and it would have been very impressive indeed to have had a 100% successful inagural launch.

The silver lining for a failed first attempt is found in lots of lessons learned. In studying our data, reading of other lost balloon accounts, and taking a hard look at our code, I know our next launch will be a drastic improvement.

Perhaps, in some sense, things moved a bit too quickly. In an attempt to stay in the zeitgeist of the internet (and its notoriously short attention span) I wanted to get this project running and to its first success as soon as possible. Some things were overlooked, others consciously ignored in favor of a speedy schedule. I put alot of work in a short period of time, which was great, but with it came bugs.

After the failure to recover the first attempt at flying Astdroid the last thing I wanted to do was immediately sit down and start over again. I realized that doing so much so quickly had burnt me out.

About 2 weeks ago, having had some time to relax my brain, I revisited one piece of Astdroid that had bothered me and contributed to its recovery failure, the location tracking. Although the code I had written had worked as anticipated and we were able to watch Astdroid fly in real time across Denver, the battery it used to do so drained it incredibly quickly. In my tests it had gone from a full charge to 0% in about 2 1/2 -3 hours. As the balloon took much longer than anticipated to reach the height we expected, it’s quite likely that Astdroid wasn’t even on at burst, much less on the way down.

I have since completely rewritten the location tracking code, breaking it up into a separate project and greatly improving the battery life achieved while running it. In my estimation, the battery life has been increased on the order of about 3-5 times (I’ll be able to be more specific with some additional testing).

Since the end goal of Astdroid is to provide an application that others can download to replicate the project, I consider this a big achievement in redesign. We all know that 2 1/2-3 hours of batter life simply won’t due if the end goal is for this application to operate without the assistance of other devices for such an ambitious task.

Like I said, there were lots of lessons learned from the first flight. I’m approaching things this time around with a little more attention to detail and a lot slower pace. You’ll continue to see updates here, but they may be fewer and farther between. Rest assured though, this project is by no means dead.

In breaking out the live tracking code of the Astdroid project and taking a deep look at it I realized it had a use as a utility on its own. I decided to spawn off a project for that functionality called LiveTrax. I consider it a tangible byproduct of Astdroid’s software achievements.

LiveTrax is currently available in the Android Marketplace for free. With a couple button pushes your phone is tracked in real time and a link to a unique url is provided for your to share with your friends and family.

In addition to tracking a phone as it hitches a ride with a weather balloon I envision it to be useful for hiking, road trips, and races. Even something as simple as “I’m on my way to meet you, here’s where I’m at now u.livetrax.me/m/____” It’s often illustrated how many great products we use today originated from NASA ventures, I consider LiveTrax spawning from Astdroid much the same way ;) I’ll be adding some cool features in the coming weeks so stay tuned! I’d love to know what you think!

Posted in Project Update | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

MIA

Last Saturday was the big day. After an incredible fundraising period, lots of work programming, designing, and testing, and hours spent on the phone making sure everything was ok with the FAA, it was time for Astdroid’s first launch.

We woke up at 5:30AM, drove up to Boulder, CO (about 40 minutes from Denver) rolled out our big tank of helium and got to work.  My wife (@erinpier) streamed on her phone via UStream allowing people from all over the world to watch. The weather was perfect. We had donuts. It was great!

We were scheduled for a 7:30 launch time and were in the air at approximately 7:46. The balloon rose directly over head for about 30 minutes before moving south as we had anticipated. We noticed it rising a little slower than expected as we watched Astdroid Live while the HTC Evo and the Astdroid application were sending back data. Other than that things looked good. The application told us the craft’s position, temperature, speed, elevation, and battery percentage. It was working marvelously!

Once the balloon was less than a speck in the sky we decided to reward a launch well done with a coffee and a small breakfast before heading back to Denver and ultimately preparing for the recovery part of the journey. At about 9:30 we saw that Astdroid had stopped reporting it’s location at about 30,000 feet, just like we had expected, as the cell towers were no longer in range for a 3G connection. No worries, we still had updates from our SPOT GPS (though only at 10 minute intervals as opposed to 30 second intervals) and knew we were still on course, drifting across Denver heading for Colorado Springs.

At 10:11AM the updates from SPOT had stopped. We waited for a bit knowing that sometimes the SPOT missed an update. 20 minutes became 30 minutes became an hour. Something was wrong. At 10:11AM we went from everything going as expected to not knowing what had happened.

So, here is where things become speculation:

  • The balloon rose more slowly than was expected in part due to a heaver payload than recommended. Our payload was just under 880 grams while the max was 905 and the recommended was 605. We figured that accounted for the slower rise up. We also believe that means the balloon never reached its ceiling (90,000 feet).
  • Because of this, the balloon likely popped at a lower altitude.  My guess would be somewhere in the neighborhood of 60,000 feet.  Though that’s only a guess.
  • The transmission at 10:11AM was the last one before Astdroid reached ground, landing in a way that didn’t allow for it to communicate its location.  Upside down?  In a valley?  In pieces?  Who knows.

We went and checked out the last known location.  No luck spotting Astdroid.  The unfortunate thing about the SPOT GPS is that only updates every 10 minutes.  If that was indeed the last update before it hit ground it might have traveled an additional 30 seconds… it might have traveled the full 10 minutes… that’s alot of range.

It was beginning to get dark so we went home that evening empty handed.

That night we took a hard look at the data.  Here’s what we came up with.

There were 2 possible scenarios.  The SPOT GPS had stopped operating for an unknown reason in midflight, thus leaving us with absolutely no idea where Astdroid may have landed OR we were correct in assuming that it had stopped transmitting due to it’s position on the ground.  Being that the second option is the only one that would allow us to recover Astdroid, we pursued that avenue.

Here’s what we have from the SPOT GPS tracker:

Using that we were able to take a look at the speed between updates:

The distance deltas dropping from 9 miles to 4 near the 3rd and 2nd to last points lead us to believe the balloon burst and fell before drifting to the ground.

As you can see this aligns nicely with the idea that the balloon burst and fell (quickly) as expected before the parachute could open (at an elevation of 60,00 feet there would not be enough air for the parachute to open) before drifting.

This would mean that if the payload were moving consistently with these speeds, or better still, slowing down, then the payload would have been travelling at about 20 mph.  At 20 mph with a maximum interval of 10 minutes that would mean that Astdroid were within a 3 mile radius of the last known point.  Adding to that the knowledge that Astdroid was travelling almost due south at it’s last update, we conjectured that it fell within a cone of about 3.3 miles.  So that’s what we decided to explore.

The next day we decided on another recovery attempt, armed with much better knowledge.  We were able to do 1 mile sweeps from the last known point, but we saw nothing.

Blue line - The SPOT GPS Track. Orange polygon - 2 mile cone. Yellow polygon - 4 mile cone. Red line - GPS track of explored area

We covered almost 4 miles on foot with no signs. To cover the entire area is almost impossible as it grows exponentially with each mile in radius. The area is populated, but not heavily.

I’m still optimistic, hoping any day somebody will call and say they found a strange cooler in their backyard.  I have some ideas about enlisting the help of some local geocachers to go explore. However, it must be said that there’s a possibility it will never be found.

There were many, many lessons learned from the experience and this has by no means ended the project.  Next time we will be better armed with knowledge, experience, and data!

I’m posting all of the data from the Astdroid launch here.  If you’ve got an ideas, send then my way!

Google Earth KML of SPOT GPS track, Projected Cones, and Explored Tracks

SPOT GPS gpx file

SPOT GPS csv file

I’d love to have written this post sharing incredible photos of space with you, but this time it was not to be.  Next time, next time we will have our due success.

Posted in Launch | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Prelaunch Loadout

Well folks, the day is here. We will launch from Wonderland Lake in Boulder, CO at 7:15AM. It’s been a hectic week pulling everything together but I’m going into this with some pretty high confidence.

Here’s a video I recorded of the payload before launch.


See you in the morning!

Posted in Launch | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Almost there…

Just wanted to provide a quick update for everyone and let you know that Astdroid is moving along quite well. 

Last week I was able to complete a significant amount of work on the app.  It is now able to track, take timed photos (from both front and rear facing cameras), and post location updates to a website for live tracking.  The website side of thing still needs a little work, but it should be operational shortly.

As far as the craft itself, all the pieces are in place.  I recieved the recovery parachute I ordered from Rocketman and now have the last of the parts I’ve ordered.  Need to do some work on securing things, establishing windows, and insulating but that shouldn’t take too long.  Truthfully, I’ve seen successful projects succeed with much less so I feel good about the design and consideration we’ve used. 

I’m getting more and more confident in the app doing its job and the phone being the only necessary electronic component in having a successful and recoverable flight.  That being said, rather than risk a $600 phone I decided to buy a second-hand Spot GPS Tracker off my buddy for $150 as a form of insurance.  With it riding alongside Astdroid, should the app fail we will not only be able to recover the phone via Spot, but also learn what may have gone wrong and fix any software mistakes.

The list of what remains to be done before launch is pretty slim at this point.  I’m looking forward to announcing a launch date soon!  Stay tuned!

Posted in Project Update, Testing | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

The (Test) Launch of Astdroid I

Yesterday was a big day, folks!  After spending about a dozen hours writing some code I felt comfortable enough with my Android application to do a test launch of Astdroid.  So, along with my lovely assistant (my wife twitter.com/ErinPier) and my dogs, I packed up the 167 lbs. tank of helium and headed to a local park to do some testing.

This was the first time I’d filled one of the weather balloons I’d received a couple weeks ago and wow, do those things hold alot of helium.  It took about 10 minutes to fill the balloon up enough to produce lift with the phone and payload (a piece of styrofoam with a hole cut out that the phone fits into) attached.  The balloon and payload were subsequently attached to a 500 ft. spool of mason line (string) so that I could test out the application and the balloon lift while still keeping things in reachable and recoverable distance.  With the balloon filled and the Android App running, Astdroid was ready to take its first flight.

The first Astdroid launch photo

Things were progressing smoothly and I was just about ready to let the line out when I heard “Danny!” followed by a BAM!  I looked over just in time to see the styrofoam sled carrying my phone bounce off the pavement and then looked upward to see the balloon float away.  Remember how I asked for a resource of where to learn better knots to tie in my last post?  Well, my deficiency in knot expertise got me again.  The payload had become detached from the balloon and fell to the ground while the balloon set off on its independent tour of the stratosphere.

Luckily, the styrofoam did it’s job and protected the phone 100%.  And even luckier, I planned for failure had another balloon along with me.  At that point, I decided that I couldn’t let my knot tying ignorance persist any longer and spent an hour and half tying knots with the help of this page later that night.

With the second balloon filled I was ready to give things another go.  The balloon began to drift up and got about 100 feet overhead before the weight of the string leveled things out.  Since it looked like we’d need more helium to get any higher, I began to reel in the line in hopes to give it another go with some more juice.  With the balloon safely back on the ground, I considered the first (test) flight of the Astdroid project complete!

First successful return!

With another minute or two of helium added to the balloon it was time to see just how far this thing could go while remaining safely retrievable.  It took off at an amazingly fast rate and was quickly 300 feet over head.  As the wind began to push it away rather than letting it drift upward I decided it was again time to reel things in.  After a couple minutes, the balloon was safely back on the ground, the I clicked “Stop” on the Astdroid application, and we headed home to look at the results.

The launches are only one part of this project.  The data and photos/video are the other… and that’s where things get cool.  The two launches produced two KML files (Google Earth formatted GPS tracks).  I’m still a little bit amazed at exactly how cool they look!

1st flight on the right (smaller bumps), 2nd on the left

If you’re interested in taking a look at the data in Google Earth yourself, here are launches I and II.

Along with the really cool data, I captured video of the two flights.  Be warned, they’re enough to make you a bit dizzy.

As you may have seen, I tweeted out a URL for others to track the flight of Astdroid.  It’s the only part of the project that didn’t go off without a hitch.  While live tracking IS working, it seems that I set the timeout for a data connection to be too short, meaning that since it couldn’t post an update within the 30 second window I asked for it simply didn’t happen.  Simple bug, should be an easy fix… and once it is, I’ll continue to invite everyone to follow along online!

Where does the project stand?

Very confident!  Even with the loss of a balloon due to faulty knots, we accomplished alot!  The Astdroid App recorded data, took video, and the craft successfully flew and return to earth!  Not a bad day!

What are the next immediate steps to be accomplished?

  • Features need to be added and bug fixes need to be made to the App
  • A better payload craft needs to be designed with plexiglass portholes, insulation, and STRONGER KNOTS!
  • Need to affix a recovery parachute and radar beacon
  • Need to purchase an external power pack to support unexpectedly long flight

Question: Craft design?

Does anyone have any particular ideas for how the payload should be designed.  From most of the similar project I’ve seen, it’s traditionally a styrofoam cooler, but I’m up for other suggestions.  What about padding? Rope?  Anything to keep it warm since the air is going to get down to -70 degrees Fahrenheit?  Something better than acrylic for “windows”?  As always, let me know your thought either via the comments or discussion group.

It’s been a great week!  This is getting exciting!

Posted in Launch, Project Update, Testing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Hello, Astdroid.

The fierce attention over the Astdroid project as a consequence of the post on Mashable has died down quite a bit in the last week, as is to be expected.  Good thing, really, I don’t know how long I’d have been able to keep up.  Still getting emails everyday from people offering their help and support, which I will never have any complaints about, no matter the quantity.

While the press about Astdroid is great and all… we haven’t done anything yet!  I can only hope that we see this kind of attention after we’ve successfully completed our goal!  With that in mind, let’s get down to business.

I think that with every update to the Astdroid project, 3 topics should be addressed

  • Where does the project stand?
  • What are the next immediate steps we hope to accomplish?
  • A question, something that I could use some help from the community on answering.

I’m not a aeronautical engineer, nor a meteorologist, nor much of a designer, and truthfully not much more than a software engineer with huge desire and drive to make this project a success, so please feel free to hop in any time, either via the comments, email, or the Google discussion group I’ve just set up.

Where does the project stand?

Moving right along, actually.  I have recently received 4 weather balloons that I’ve ordered from Kaymont, a website I’d been referred to via the blog of a similar project.  I ordered two 200 gram balloons and two 500 gram balloons.  The 500 gram balloons will be the ones we’re likely to use for flight, ultimately.  The 200 gram balloons will be used for testing.

Looks weird, but gets the job done

You’d be surprised at just how much helium is needed to achieve lift of something that weighs only a couple ounces.  Being impatient in waiting for the true weather balloons to arrive I spent a Sunday afternoon trying to see how many of those punching balloons (remember those as a kid? bigger balloons with rubber bands attached) it would taked to raise a Flip Mino HD off the ground while taking video.

6 gram balloon test failure!

Well… it was a failure.  It seemed that the balloons popped at the exact frequency with which it was necessary to prevent them from crossing threshold of getting off the ground.   I expect to see much better results from actual balloons designed for this kind of thing.

From an app perspective I’ve been busy there as well.  Essentially, I’m working on creating a dashboard of sorts with all the information that will be useful to monitor from Astdroid as it takes flight.  Any fellow developers, think of it as “Hello World” for the instruments of the phone.

Blurred out the exact location of home. You know, for space nerd stalkers

It’s been fairly easy and straightforward so far, programming wise.  Haven’t hit any major stumbling blocks, which is always a nice surprise.

What are the next immediate steps to be accomplished?

The first thing I’d like to do now that the balloons have arrived are test a 200 gram balloon tethered to the ground carrying a Flip Mino HD as a payload.  It will be a cool way to test payload designs, establish how much helium will be needed to bring something the size of the EVO (roughly) off the ground, as well as capturing some neat video in the process.  I’ve got about 1,300 feet of mason line, so it should still get pretty up there without flying into too much danger.

Question:  Knots?

In rigging up my failed contraption of punching balloons I had several fly away from tying crappy knots.  Not a big deal, costing about 40 cents apiece, but that’s a different story when talking about the weather balloons as they cost between $25 and $35 each.  Not to mention the disasters that could take place if the wrong parts detach at upper altitudes.

Does anyone have any suggestions for what knots to use, where I can learn to tie them, and what would work best for tying to a balloon and then subsequently attaching a payload to that?

Sounds like a mundane question, but it’s these little things that can doom a project.  Just ask NASA and the Mars Climate Orbiter which crashed into Mars because of a conversion between imperial and metric.

If you’ve got any ideas leave a comment or respond at the discussion group post!

Posted in Project Update | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Funding of Astdroid, A Brief History

Horray!  We did it!  Here you are at Astdroid.com, a place I hope many will visit in keeping up with the Astdroid project.  There’s lots to be done, and with your help and input I hope to make this project both successful and something we can all be proud of.

Let’s recall how we got here.

After pitching my initial idea to kickstarter, the project kicked off on June 9th .  In the first few days it garnered a good bit of attention from places like cnet, androidguys.com, and phandroid and earned the first few backers.

After the initial ferver, Astdroid funding fell on some hard times

As with most things on the internet, the attention was fleeting and things slowed to a halt through the middle of the funding period.  Being honest, I had my doubts about its success when with only 5 or so days remaining a mention on This Week in Google from Gina Trapani blew down the doors with support and backers.

(The Astdroid mention comes at about 1 hour, 2 minutes, 45 seconds in)

The mention on This Week in Google was not only a huge moment for Astdroid, but a personal moment of pride for me.  I’ve followed and respected Leo Laporte for well over 10 years and have been listening to him and Gina on TWiG since the start.  Hearing a blurb on their show got me giddy.  My favorite part however, might be the talk of my friends bugging Gina to get us mentioned… little did she know it was the backers of Astdroid themselves, none of whom I’d know before, who were going above and beyond to get the project attention!

After TWiG things took off!

After TWiG there was no stopping the project.  On July 8th with 3 days remaining we crossed the goal of the $1,800 and the project became a success.  In the final hours those that still wanted to be a part of the venture continued to show there support.  On July 11th the project deadline was crossed with over $250 beyond what was asked with 66 total backers.

Yesterday, after the project’s close, the excitment continued with a post on mashable.

Work on the project itself has begun!  On the day of the project’s close I picked up 167 lbs. of helium.  Can’t wait to begin experimenting!

That's alot of helium!

In the coming weeks I’ll be asking for suggestions, ideas, help, and feedback and continue to do my best to make this the group venture I hope it to be.  Please feel comfortable to share your thoughts!

Posted in Funding | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments