Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Post Drop Testing Ennui

Now that gorgeous Spring time weather is here in North Carolina I have been experiencing some ennui. I've told the team a few times but I'll go ahead and confess it here: I miss drop testing.

As I drive around town I find myself eyeballing water towers, sky scrapers and parking garages and critiquing them for their height, lack of pedestrian traffic, trees and overall ease of accessibility. I'm sure one day I'll be able to turn off the part of my brain that now sees everything through the lens of whether or not I could fling a payload off of it...but for now...I am stuck with this lingering fascination with secluded high places.

We started our drop testing at the DTCC Orange County Campus after a few weird emails to get permission. We emailed a lot of people. I even had Ryan email low rent hotels with large parking lots and bad reviews.

Originally we'd set our sights higher, much higher, 19 stories higher, but it's the oddest thing...most corporations don't want a bunch of nerds coming over and throwing things off of their roof. Something about liabilityblahblahblah...yawn.

So we made our drop testing debut on a very chilly day this Spring at OCC with one very bemused security guard. I've worked at OCC for a few years so it was kind of cool to have the opportunity to get on the roof. Is this a good time to mention that I'm afraid of heights?

 Luckily the team was very understanding and did not try to exploit my weakness at all. /sarcasm

We realized after a few drops that we needed to get more height in order to have more time with the chute engaged. Our team lead was not content to predict our rate of descent with a generic online calculator. He wanted to gather the data and do the math to make sure it all lined up. For that we needed to be sure we had time to observe the fall. We also wanted to make sure we were getting some force on the hull to see how our electronics would hold up. We knew it wouldn't be the same as having the equipment crash land from space, but it was still valuable in many ways.

We made the shift to a parking garage in Hillsborough, NC that had a few more floors but a lot more foot traffic.

The best part of this day was not the data we collected, although we did learn a lot of crucial information about our payload set up.

  1.  We saw how long it took to get the payload flight ready. (Forever.)
  2.  We figured out some limitations to our current sensor and wiring configuration. 
  3. We were impressed by the impact that the cooler could absorb.
  4. We had some success with our chute.
  5. We learned about the challenges of rigging the payload train.
  6. All the gingers got sunburned and sunscreen was added to the TURDS.
  7. We practiced with the radios and telemetry.

But the most important thing, in my opinion, was the team building aspect of the event. Nicknames were earned. Inside jokes were forged. I convinced some teenagers that we were modern day Ghostbusters. Lots and lots of giggles were giggled.

After all, this was the first time someone yelled, "TREEEEEEE!"

And while certainly not the first, this was probably the most memorable time Jimmy said, "That was magnificent."

We had some disgusting weather on drop testing days but they were always glorious. We learned a lot of new skills, confirmed our suspicions through testing, got comfortable setting it all up and taking it all apart and certainly made a ton of memories. 

So yeah, I have the drop testing ennui. They say that pain is art and vice versa so I wrote you a haiku about drop days.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Thank You Notes and Heat Testing

 It was nice to be back at Caramore to get some work done on Sunday. We had a long agenda to cover and we needed to make it efficient because everyone has a busy week this week. We started our heat testing experiment, chose photos for the competition, made a huge dent in the PLAR and wrote a ton of thank you notes.

Yes, that's right, when the project manager of your engineering team went to college with a bunch of debutantes you end up with a lot of thank you cards passing through your hands. You can't do a project like this without help and we've had a lot of help from the community. We also made sure to write some notes to the people who let us get our payload out of their tree. 

We were also excited to pick out some photos for the photo competition and discuss our strategy for video submission.

This photo is one of my favorites that didn't make the cut for the competition. Something about being so far above the clouds and the shadows under the clouds really makes my skirt fly up.

We watched some of the videos on a huge screen in the conference room. Wildcardwell had not seen the launch video and confessed that when everyone was saying to let go he had a sudden urge to just grab the balloon to stabilize it because he'd been holding it for so long. It was just instinct. Luckily, I commanded him to let it go, using what my family calls my, "Teacher Voice"* and he instantly obeyed. If that isn't clear evidence that I should be bossing everyone around all the time, I don't know what is.

Next up, Jimmy calibrated our thermometer while David, Dan and Erick got our payload flight ready for the one millionth time. Everything was still working from our launch day but we needed fresh space batts on all systems. We were concerned that we had cooked our electronics over launch weekend which caused a few systems to fail. Preliminary testing seems to support this hypothesis but we want to run it again to make sure we have the best data for the PLAR.

When we write reports and work on presentations we use Google Docs so that everyone can update at once and everything is being saved frequently. Even though this makes working online more efficient it is still nice to be able to shout across the table to someone to get the answer you need right away. This team is excellent at collaborating and asking questions that get the conversation going.

I feel like we've had to reign in our enthusiasm a bit for the PLAR because of the tight deadline and finals. Dan wanted to explain his new hull improvements, Naomi wanted to georeference the flight photos on a GIS, Erick has a script he'd like to write for the compass, Ryan has some complicated videos he wants to make, Jimmy wants to dig deeper into the data...I've had to tell them that we can do all of this for the blog and ourselves later but that we need to stick to the bounds of this report. That said, I keep catching them procrastinating for their finals by working on HAB stuff. Most students just watch a lot of Netflix.

 A project like this can be addicting. Everyone has plans for our next launch!

* Once I used my Teacher Voice to break up a fight between two 
Senior Citizens in a Bojangles. Do not underestimate how bossy I am.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Swarm Results

From Kory Menke, team lead:
"They just posted the results on the Swarmathon website and here are a few highlights:

Only 12 of the 23 colleges posted code, so just getting a horse, I mean rover, in the race was an accomplishment.

We collected 271 tags over the two prelim rounds, we guessed they would use some form of the power law tag distribution and from testing we thought we would get 45% of the tags and we ended up getting 53% for the preliminary rounds. 

They also had a baseline code run for the preliminary rounds that collected 29% of the tags. Our code was an improvement over the baseline run by 82% which is good but lower compared to our testing.
In the finals we collected 92% of the available tags! Below is a link the results."

The team has earned a cash prize and a trophy! We are not sure what the details will be for either of those things. Even more importantly, we'll be in a better position to apply for the physical competition if we'd like to next year. 

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Silver Alert!

We won! We won! We won! 

Durham Tech earned the silver medal in the Swarmathon with an astounding showing!

More information when they publish the scores on the website but I wanted to spread the good news.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016


Durham Tech had another great NASA opportunity this Spring, the Swarmathon.

The Swarmathon was a challenge designed to get students more involved in programming using ROS (Robot Operating System) and to help NASA guide small rovers called, "Swarmies" to do tasks and collect resources. Eventually this technology could be helpful for space exploration.

This was a tremendous opportunity for our students because it exposed them to a programming language that few people in the country have experience with. Also, they had multiple opportunities to network with NASA and get advice from experts. We were also lucky to get some assistance from experts in the local community.

This software requires a lot of computing power so we were very thankful when our IT department loaned us some machines that we could dedicate solely to running the platform for this competition. Without their generosity I doubt we would have made it very far in this competition.

The team, lead by Kory Menke worked incredibly hard on the challenge and spent some late nights in the geology lab.  The team was composed of Jacob de Forest, Guan-Wen Chou, Jacob Metcalf, Stefalo Acha, and Jimmy Acevedo with help from UNC Computer Science Graduate Student Teryl Taylor, Duke Robotics Graduate Student Barrett Ames. Tom Murphy and I advised the group but they didn't need much from me, I mostly tried to sort out the logistics of what they needed and made sure they could access the computers. 

Kory really dedicated a lot of leadership to this project and made sure the team met milestones and worked out the problems with the code. When they hit bugs, he would chase down the answers. When they needed help, he would reach out to experts. I'm very proud of how he handled these obstacles and look forward to working on our next project (spoiler alert: drones) with him. We're pleased that Kory was offered a research fellowship over the summer as a result of his dedication to the Swarmathon.

This year our school was selected to participate in the Virtual Competition but next year we might apply for the Physical Competition where they send Swarmies to your campus. 

If you're interested to see how Durham Tech performs in the  Swarmathon Virtual competition you can see videos of the competing four Semi-finalist teams at 3:30PM Eastern Time on Thursday, April 21, 2016.  It may be possible that our team is in the Semi-final rounds, so tune in at http://tinyurl.com/2016SwarmathonCompetition. They are also running a score board on that site so you can see how well we do. Regardless of the outcome, I am thrilled with our team and how hard they worked for this event. 

The winners will be announced at the Award Ceremony at 4:30PM Eastern Time on Thursday, April 21, 2016.   

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Post Flight Tracking

Since our GPS wasn't functioning when we launched, I have been going through our photos from the flight and plotting our path using landmarks from images matched with satellite images. Some of time I was not able to get good information, like when the balloon hit the jet stream (presumably) and was tossed around quite a bit and we didn't get clear images, but during a lot of the flight we were able to get really great images that we really fun to scan for landmarks. Here are a few examples:

Crossing over Lake Norman during ascent

Buffalo Lakes during descent
Lake Auman during descent

Some unique building roofs during descent
I will be putting together an official flight path map once I get all the data together, but here is an example of what I have been doing to track the images (and in turn the balloon flight):

Eventually I will have a full set of maps comparing the predictions from the days prior to the launch, the morning of the launch and actual flight path so stay tuned!

Monday, April 18, 2016

Post Launch Assessment Review (PLAR)

"Woo...that project was great but I bet you're glad that's over."- Everyone

"Um. No."- Me

"But you've launched your thing so that's it...right?"- Everyone

"Um. No."- Me

That's right kids! It's time to get back to work. Google Calls and Sunday meetings! Break time is over! 

(Where is the snooze button on Julie? We need seven more minutes.)

It's time for the Post Launch Assessment Review. You didn't think we were sending a bunch of stuff to space just for fun, right? Nope. It's time to process all of that data, identify errors, plan future launches, recap the experience, and sort through all of those photos to pick out the keepers.

Oh yeah, and while you're at it you should probably put it all in a formal, twenty page report. 

I'm actually looking forward to polishing everything we came up with and seeing it all together in one place. We're hopeful that we can solve the mystery of how to extract the radiation data from the Polimaster. It's proving to be a tough nut to crack because it runs on Windows2000/XP. Wish us luck!

Friday, April 15, 2016

This Time Last Week


An alternate title for this is: In which Dan saves our biscuits.

Or: 30MPH gusts are no joke.

Before we went out to launch the balloon, Doug came over to explain to us how the launch was going to go down.

He told us the Disney fantasy version of how the launch would come off, a leisurely release of the balloon into calm skies with plenty of time for reflection and appreciation of the moment. 

Then he detailed what he described as a "less optimal launch" in which the wind comes up, we start losing control of the balloon, someone just starts yelling, "Let it go!" and then a team member needs to start booking it with the balloon to guide it as it gets lift.

Dan's ears perked up at this.

Dan wanted to be the guy to race down the tarmac with the payload in his arms. He did stretches. He jogged in place. He said sporty things like, "Let's do this!" As a bit of an adrenaline junkie, he was inadvertently training for this moment his whole life.

It's important for you to realize that volunteering for this took some courage. These balloons can be dangerous. They have a lot of lift and power on their own and the high winds just exacerbate that. The lines that they use are high test and can cut through your skin and get wrapped up around you. Dan already has a scar from crossing with a line during drop testing. Doug had told us some intimidating stories about other people getting their palms sliced open. Basically, you don't want to be on the wrong side of this thing when it gets going.

On top of that you have the pressure to be the key person who is keeping all of our precious electronics in our delicate hull from smearing along the pavement or klonking into a tree.

Do you see Dan in the back? Do you see how intimidating he looks? Dan Daugherty is a steely eyed balloon man.

I was fairly certain that, because the weather was so tumultuous, we were going to have the non-Disney launch. We weren't even going to have the Pixar launch.  Not even a Hanna-Barbera launch. No, this was going to be rough. I told the team to make sure they were communicating clearly and loudly and to be ready for action.

Then the training that Doug gave us paid off as we stepped into the chute.

Being up close to the balloon in that wind was terrifying. Not because I thought that it would hurt me but because I was so worried that I was going to pop the balloon and we'd have to start all over. We had a back up balloon in the TURDS, so it would not have been the worst thing, but at that point everyone just wanted to see this albatross get off the ground.  

As we moved out of the chute, with David and Naomi slithering across the ground, you could feel the wind smack into the balloon. For something that is meant to go to space...these balloons feel very flimsy. While we were filling, the team next to us accidentally let go and popped their balloon on the ceiling of the gym. When you're nervous and running on fumes something like that feels amplified and we were all realizing that these balloons were much larger and harder to control than the ones we had trained with. We were all acting like a bunch of space cats in a room filled with space rocking chairs. Not popping this thing was on everyone's mind. It was certainly on my mind as I watched the latex morph around my gloved fingernails. (That's when I jump back.) It was on my mind when David instinctively pinched the balloon. And then again, when the balloon strayed perilously close to the brick and the wire fence. 

Once it became clear that this was going South, Doug started giving the command to let it go and the team sprung into action. All of us released our hold, Jimmy snatched up the ring, Dan got on his mark and then he just took the hand off like he had done this every day of his life and ran that thing to safety. It was awe inspiring. 

Once it was in the air? I can't describe how that felt. I can use words like, "elated" and "euphoria" and I can tell you that my eyes welled up with love and pride for my team. I could even attempt to describe what it was like to set this fragile baby free after hundreds of hours of work...but really you had to be there. 

While watching it fly away the idea that it would go to space and then we'd see it again, 300 miles away, in another city, just seemed ludicrous to me. How could this even work? How could that teeny styrofoam cooler and dainty balloon make it back safely? What were the odds? 

In the longer version of this video you can hear Jimmy saying, "Alright." which is Jimmy-code for, "Start getting ready to transition to this next thing." and you can see my mumbling, "No. Jimmy. No 'Alright.'" Even though we were giddy with relief we still had a long day ahead of us, and if you've read the rest of this blog you know we still had some challenges before we'd see our project again.

- Julie

Thanks, North Carolina Space Grant!

I made a thing!

Now to go crawl into the Marianas Trench where I can't cringe at the sound of my own voice anymore.

Thursday, April 14, 2016


This is a poster we built to talk strangers through our project's history. We also hope to share some helpful discoveries we made so that future ballooning teams might be able to learn from our successes, our failures, and our work.
A full-scale hi-res file (8MB) is available here.

We'll dig into each section in more detail with future posts, but I wanted to share the big-picture view in its entirety. We're proud of our work!

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Balloon Chase Playlist

I don't know what was going on in the other cars when the SPOT showed up...but in our car we celebrated by popping in the "Balloon Chase" cd.

There were some mopey times when I worried that it wasn't going to get used so it was particularly liberating to hear the first track coming out of the speakers.

I've taken the liberty of making a truncated version of the playlist for your listening enjoyment.  If you listen to it in the car....watch your speed.


Our team was very tired after our weekend of excitement... so tired even that we all stayed up after midnight discussing whether or not this large blue body of water we took pictures of was the ocean. (Julie set us all straight and sighed heavily a lot at our ridiculousness.)

How many emails does it take for two gingers to launch a space balloon?

1,463 metric emails. 

Monday, April 11, 2016

We were wondering why our on-board GoPro hadn't worked...

We were wondering why our on-board GoPro hadn't worked...
...and that might be the problem. Our hull was SO effective at insulating our gear that we built up a massive heat reservoir. The GoPro likely got even hotter than the peak of 37°C, as it was nestled among the battery banks, and the GoPro itself puts out a good deal of heat. 

We'd spent so much time worrying about keeping things warm that we didn't consider about keeping them cool. This was exacerbated by the fact that our balloon prep took longer than expected and by the fact that we got our payload flight-ready much more quickly than expected. 

Something we can test! 

(N.B. for those less metrically inclined: 37 ° Celsius is about 99° Fahrenheit. ~JMH)

Mighty Duck Tape

Seen And Heard

I don't think I've mentioned on here that our team meets every Sunday from 3-6 (later if we're doing drops....much, much, later if a big presentation is on the docket) and has a Google Hangout Video Call every Wednesday from 9-10 pm. These standing meetings are mixed in with builds, drops, foxhunting and other terms that make sense to us and have become part of our team vocab.

You may have also noticed a preponderance of "Seen" and "Heard" coming from the team. Early on in the project I deemed it necessary that every member reply to every email...and if they did not have time to reply they needed to at least send me an email that said, "Seen." This bit of weirdness has stuck with us throughout the project and then morphed into, "Heard." (Sometimes we would mix it up and ask the team to reply with their favorite onomatopoeia.) During stressful days when everyone was giving rapid instructions, a well placed, "heard" has often made transitions smoother, tools get into the right hands quicker and safety first-er.

The best part is that, while some of this evolved out of Jimmy just being Jimmy, a lot of it came from two games that Jimmy had us play for team building; Space Team and Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes.

Space Team is a game played on your cell phone where everyone is trying to pilot a spaceship that keeps breaking down. Wormholes are encountered, slime covers your screen and your job is to yell out things like, "Jam the flux capacitor! Plunge all toilets!" until someone does that thing. It can get pretty intense. We're awesome at it, as you might imagine.

Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes has the team diffusing a bomb remotely while one person is sitting in front of the bomb...generally under the table...somewhat patiently explaining a series of puzzles. The team has a manual that helps them solve the puzzles....hopefully before the bomb goes off.

During the end of the project Dan started cracking us up by repeating whatever goofy thing was just blurted out.

"Space cookies heard."

"Underpants heard."

"Expert heard."

If the team has any favorite quotes as heard by Dan, I'd love it if you'd share them in the comments.

Dan explains the hull

This picture needs no explanation...

Drop it like it's cold and rainy outside!


Rainy day inflation

More from our rainy test day

This was my second favorite day of this project, our rainy test inflation and drop day.

Team's first balloon
Team's first launch
When one balloon doesn't cut it...
...use two!

More of our dress rehearsal testing day

Here are some pics of our somewhat messy dress rehearsal. By messy I mean at least five of us had a payload dropped frighteningly close to us, and we completely busted the hull so much that there was no bottom at one point, so we made a false bottom out of duct and masking tape. We also added a space brick that Jimmy threw against the ground to get us an accurate mass. I'm so glad we did so much testing though, it really helped prepare us for the real deal!

Testing for conductivity

One thing we needed to do after meeting with the judges was to verify that our foam going on top of our electronics was not conductive. Here is David testing it out in the hotel.

Sunday, April 10, 2016


Look how nicely the tree cover slowed our payload down. Our payload train -- which was about 6 feet long or so -- came slewing in, snagged the chute and ring, snapped the tether train, and then gently chucked the remaining polystyrene hull into the branches another 8 feet or so away. (Here's a hotlink to the image just in case)
Inline image 1

 I wish we could have recovered the chute & ring for more post-analysis, but it was too tall for our level of climbing experience in a tree that had already proven to be partially dead. It was also getting late and we'd been mucking around with ropes for well over an hour. -Jimmy
(and another hotlink)
Inline image 1

Unboxing Video

Here's us cracking the payload open! Our ground team showed admirable restraint in waiting 30 minutes for the rest of the recovery team to extricate themselves from trees.
We flew lightweight vanilla wafers (vegan, for inclusivity) nestled in our lower 'basement' shelf. They occupied slots recently vacated by 9V batteries which had been cut to reduce our overall mass budget.

They tasted like victory.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Launch Day is Over!

I am so proud of my team right now. We've had a long, rough week with some unpleasant surprises and they have rallied every single time. Throughout this whole stressful ordeal they have laughed, rolled with the punches, supported each other, praised one another and communicated clearly and with respect.

I could not be more overjoyed that they have had the launch that they deserved. 

The checklist on the Drive says you guys should sleep now. Caramore maneuver right into your bed. 

Heard and seen.

Go Home Spot!

The wrong APRS shows you a more detailed depiction of how much ground we covered today.

You can even see our lunch pit stop! :)

First bits of data from our flight

Some stats, glancing quickly through the data:
- max altitude: 23175 m or 76,033 ft
- lowest pressure: 2069 Pascals or 0.02 atm

Excited students: 7
Milliseconds of atmospheric data recorded: 20107000
Space cookies eaten: 8/4s, or 2
Trees climbed: 3
Pictures taken (automatically): 5,420
Miles driven: 387.3 +++
Balloons lost: 0
Electronics malfunctions: 1
Average hours of sleep:  3.34

Heading home. Hoooo boy.

Checking out our footage