Introduction: How to Send a 360 Camera to the Edge of Space
After falling in love with the Mandalorian I knew I wanted to make a project with Baby Yoda. I couldn't think of a better place to send him than space (well the edge of space). I partnered with Insta360 to attach the Insta360 One X to a weather balloon and capture the adventure.
Step 1: Purchase Supplies
The goal for everything you purchase is to keep it as light and small as possible. This allows you to use a smaller weather balloon and parachute plus purchase less helium. I used a DIY approach but there are several kits available if you wanted a one stop shop.
If you want one of the best kits possible be sure and check out: Eagle Pro Weather Balloon Kit. It's not the cheapest ($750) by any means but their custom flight computer will allow you to measure temperature, altitude and wind speed which my DIY solution doesn’t. For a DIY approach this is what you will need:
I used a 300g version. Weather balloons are measured by their weight in most cases. The size you will need is based on the weight of your payload plus factors like your burst altitude and time of flight. We will get into all of that in the calculations section.
The size of your parachute will depend on the descent rate you are shooting for. In my case I was wanting around 17ft/sec so I went withthe 4ft version since my total weight was about 2 lbs.
Insta 360 One X
There are lots of projects that will use a standard GoPro, for this one I wanted to get 360 footage so I used the Insta360 One X.
You are not getting your payload back without one of these. Some people will try an old cell phone with it’s built-in GPS. Most of these work off of the cellular network which won’t work at high altitude. Make sure and get a dedicated GPS unit.
These are insulated and small, which is perfect to project all of your gear. Fishing Line To tie your payload to the parachute and the parachute to your balloon you’ll need to use line that can break with a 50lb force. This is per FAA regulations.
External Battery Charger
This will keep your camera powered the entire flight.
Weather balloons are pretty easy to poke a hole in, these are just added safety to keep the oils from your hands from getting on them.
Step 2: Build the Payload
The assembly of the payload is pretty simple. I actually wound up having to buy a cooler from our local grocery store that was too tall. I cut this down to size to help keep the payload from tipping over once it landed. This was to keep the GPS unit always pointing towards the sky.
I created an X assembly with the combination of the selfie stick that comes with the Insta360 and a wooden dowel. Not only did this get the camera pushed further from the payload for a better shot but gave the overall assembly a wide footprint for landing.
Step 3: Find the Weight
Once you have completed the payload make sure and get a weight of everything except the weather balloon. This includes the rigging, payload box, and parachute.
You will need this weight for some calculations.
Step 4: Check Your Regulations
The following is specific to the United States if you are launching a weather balloon outside of the US make sure and check with your local authorities.
So if your payload is less than four pounds, and your rope can be broken with 50 lbs you are good to go!
While not specifically required by the FAA here are a few best practices I would recommend (and ones I would use if I was going to do the launch again:
1. Issue a NOTAM
This is a Notice to Airmen. It is a means of contacting your local FAA Air-Traffic Control. You will want to do this 6-24 hours before launch and let them know the following:
- Launch date/time
- Launch location
- Estimated time to burst altitude or 60,000 ft.
- Expected flight duration
- Estimated location of impact
- Diameter of ballon
- Weight and length of payload.
We will get to all of those calculations in the next section.
2. Find an optimal launch location
It’s best practice to make sure your launch and landing locations are out of controlled airspace. A great way to look this is up is at SkyVector.
These are VFR charts (Visual Fight Rules). The biggest thing you want to look out for is airports.
Step 5: Calculate Positive Lift
In order to figure how high the balloon will go, how fast it will take and approximately where it will you land you will need to know your positive lift. Positive lift is the extra lift your weather balloon needs to rise upward in addition to the lift required to carry the weight of your payload, all the rigging and the balloon itself.
I used High Altitude Sciences Balloon Performance Calculator to figure this out. They have a great walkthrough of the process on their site.
Using the calculator you will adjust your positive lift to get the amount of helium, burst altitude, ascent rate and ascent time the amounts that you like.
For me, I was trying to get the highest altitude possible while remaining under 5 ft/s on the ascent rate. Anything higher than that you can run the risk of the turbulence messing up your flight.
Also the Helium tank I rented contained 75 cubic feet, so I had to keep my positive lift low enough that I had enough helium for the calculations.
I went with a positive lift of 700 grams. Which got me just under 5 ft/s with enough Helium.
Step 6: Determine Landing Zone
Now that we know the positive lift we can get a ballpark of where the balloon will land.
I used Astra-Planner, which not only will give you a single simulation of the flight but can run up to 400 different versions that will vary some conditions so you can get a good range on the potential of flights.
Here is an example of a simulation I ran. One thing to note is that the Nozzle lift is the total weight of your payload PLUS the positive lift. So literally the amount of lift you will need if you measured it from the nozzle of the balloon.
Step 7: Attach Weather Balloon to Helium
I used a metal bracket to attach some clear tubbing to the helium regulator. I had to use my heat gun so that I could slip it far enough down the nozzle.
For the weather balloon I used a 1.5 section of PVC that inserted into the throat of the balloon. It was zipped into place with a string that I would use a safety line as well as the string that would go to the parachute.
I could then insert the smaller clear tubbing through the PVC tube and sync it down so that no helium would leak.
Step 8: Fill Up Weather Balloon
Since I know that my positive lift is 700 grams I used a fish scale to measure the amount. This scale also served as my safety when filling up the balloon. One end of the scale was tied around the PVC pipe at the mouth of the balloon and the other end was tied around the helium tank.
For the actual reading on the scale, I need to add the weight of the payload and rigging plus the positive lift. The weight of the scale was then subtracted from that number to get around 3.1 lbs. I filled up the balloon until I got to that point.
For this launch, I actually wound up having a tank smaller than I thought so I only got to 2.8 lbs which lead to a much slower ascent rate (and a MUCH longer driver time to recover).
Step 9: Prepare Everything for Launch
Before launch, I tied everything together. The payload was attached to the parachute with about 4ft between them. The parachute was then attached to the weather balloon with another 4-6ft of line.
I removed the helium tube careful to not allow any other helium to escape. I quickly twisted the end off, folding it and secured it with several zip ties.
Step 10: Launch the Weather Balloon
Here are a few things you will want to double-check before launch:
- NOTAM filed with FAA (if you go this route)
- Balloon Nozzle Lift is confirmed from fish scale
- Camera on and Recording
- GPS Tracker on and sending GPS data
- External battery powering all electronics
- Contact information placed inside
- Payload is sealed (in case of a water landing)
- All strings are tied and double-checked
- Sky is clear of obstructions plus any planes/balloons
Once everything was good to go all that was left was to let the balloon go!
Step 11: Track Weather Balloon and Recover
I used a SPOT 3 GPS tracker to follow the weather balloons journey. The GPS will send a signal roughly every 5 minutes. To save battery it won’t send any new signals if the unit hasn’t moved.
As I was tracking everything from the app I thought that payload had landed but it actually had gone past the altitude that allowed it to record data. So once the balloon had popped and the payload had reduced in altitude I started getting more data points.
By the end the payload traveled nearly 200 miles away and landed in a big field behind a chicken processing plant.
Step 12: Be Amazed by the Pictures/Video!
So this is the real reason you are doing this project right? I sent up both a 360 camera and a GoPro. Unfortunately, I covered up the hole for the GoPro with tape right before launch, but the 360 footage came out great!