Battle Blimps




Introduction: Battle Blimps

About: I'm the former Frontend Engineer for Instructables. Problems with the site? It may have been my fault... Like what you see? Sing my praises!

Battle Blimps are Bluetooth/RFDuino-controlled blimps designed for truly insane battling. We've developed them to be filled with hydrogen for explosive battles at Burning Man, but this design also works filled with helium for dueling indoors.

Read on for lots of detail on the current design, schematics, code, and notes on assembly. Please note, though, that this is a project still under active development. In the push to Burning Man 2015, we'll keep publishing updates with more detail as we improve the reliability of all the systems and in response to feedback here!

If you'd like to support us in this final development push, get access to blimp PCB boards, or see some of the awesome schwag we've designed, please check out our crowdfunding campaign on IndieGoGo.

Step 1: Things You'll Need

(As noted previously, all of this is still under active development!)

Battle Blimp Brains

Remote Control Systems

  • Xbox controller
  • Computer with a bluetooth adapter, running VirtualBox

Lift Systems

  • Helium, plus a latex balloon (cheap, easy) or Mylar (slightly more expensive).
  • For hydrogen battles, you will need PLA/Corn plastic sheeting (e.g. a compost bag), nichrome wire, a voltage controller, and Kapton tape.
  • And of course, helium or hydrogen

Airframe and Propulsion

  • Lightweight spars (carbon fiber, balsa, or thin steel rod)
  • Motors, propellers
  • Wire and connectors
  • Fin material (paper or thin plastic film for Helium battles, or high-temperature Kapton film for Hydrogen battles)

Ignition Systems (for Hydrogen battles)

  • Nichrome wire
  • Snap-off blades
  • Safety gear!

Step 2: Blimp Brain

The brains of a Battle Blimp are a PCB with an RFDuino and many other components surface mounted on it.

An aside: Surface mounting is an awesome thing to know about. Learning to do it is like peering behind the curtain into the secret world of tiny manufactured goods that rule the world. It is amazing that you can actually just make this stuff. As noted before, there are tons of good instructables on how to learn to surface mount your components.

We'll provide more detailed instructions soon. Again, you can preview the bill of materials we currently have under development. You can also preorder the Battle Blimps PCBs on our crowdfunding campaign. Or, just check back here in the fall, when we will publish the designs for our production hardware.

All of the Battle Blimps source code is open source. Check out our Github repository, which includes some more-detailed instructions on setting up the hardware, installing the Arduino ans RFDuino libraries, and compiling the source to be loaded onto the Battle Blimp controller.

Step 3: Remote Control System

Our remote control system currently consists of a laptop running VirtualBox, routing an Xbox controller's signals over bluetooth to the Battle Blimps. For detailed instructions on this, visit the aforementioned Github repository and follow the remaining steps:

  • Install VirtualBox
  • Get Ubuntu Image
  • Set up Bluetooth Hardware
  • Set up Remote Control Software
  • Compile Pygame
  • Get the Xbox Control Working

Step 4: Lift Systems

A simple lift system for a Battle Blimp can be nothing more than a latex or mylar balloon filled with helium from your local party store. Fly your blimp around and try to ram your friends.

The next level of destructive fun is to mount needles on your blimps (wear eye protection!) and pop opposing blimps. These indoor blimp battles can be lots of fun!

However, we believe that true blimp battles involve sending your friends down in flames, and for that we've ended up creating our own hydrogen gas envelopes. There are a couple reasons we did this. First, most balloon material is toxic to burn, and we intend to hold several hundred blimp battles. Second, many balloons (e.g. latex) hold gas under too much pressure, and our early tests have shown that igniting these can be dangerously loud (and also shoot flame directly back at the attacking blimp, which is less fun).

The material we settled on is corn-derived PLA bioplastic, which burns cleaner and is fully biodegradable. The photos above show our process: Using nichrome wire (similar to what is in your toaster oven), we created curved patterns taped down to plywood with high-temperature Kapton tape. Compost bags (or other PLA film) is folded and laid on top, and then we run current through the wire to heat it up and create a seal along the seams.

The resulting balloons hold air quite well for balloons that only need to survive for about 15 minutes at a time. The life expectancy of a Battle Blimp will likely be much shorter than this :P

Step 5: Airframe and Propulsion

A Battle Blimp airframe has three main spars for rigidity, wrapping around the gas envelope or balloon. At the nose are small motors for pitch and yaw, and at the rear is a larger motor for thrust.

We 3D printed the connectors and motor mounts for our airframes (files coming soon!), but as you can see, the shape of the airframe is very simple. There are basically two 3"-4" tetrahedrons, one each at the nose and tail, with three spars connecting them and securing the balloon in the middle. So, you don't need 3D-printed connectors to build a blimp: Our initial prototypes were literally bits of carbon fiber rods taped together into the same structures you see above.

The tail fins help Battle Blimps fly more true. For our flammable balloons, we use Kapton film (the same high temperature film we use to tape down our nichrome wire for manufacturing gas envelopes), simply stretched and taped across a curved piece of carbon fiber or (very thin) steel.

Step 6: Ignition System

To set your foe's Battle Blimp ablaze, you need an ignition system. To build ours, we mounted small blades (tiny snap-off blade segments from standard hobby knives) in front of a coil of nichrome wire. When ramming another blimp, the blades create a small, v-shaped puncture in the gas envelope, shooting a column of hydrogen back over the ignitor.

You can guess what happens, then:

Catastrophe: The attacking blimp also dies!

The video attached to this step shows a series of test ignitions we've done, using different blade orientations and designs to maximize the ignition reliability when striking at different angles and also with different guard designs to avoid fouling of the ignitor coil when molten plastic starts flying around.

Step 7: Find (or Create!) a Place to Battle

For helium battles, any indoor space without wind will work. A building atrium or even a large living room work pretty well.

For hydrogen battling, though, we need to carefully separate the explosive Battle Blimps from the players and spectators. At Burning Man 2015, we'll be constructing a 3V geodesic dome to house these battles, with a screened cylinder within where the blimps will fly.

Step 8: Thanks! (And Bonus Video)

Want to see the blimps flying? More video and exciting info about our project? See the video we made, above, for our campaign at Also, visit us if you'd like to help us bring this project to completion and get some Battle Blimps PCBs!

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    25 Discussions

    Congratulations on a fantastic fun idea!

    After seeing this, I plan to have my high school electronics class design and build blimps. I experimented with 18" but the balloon alone weighs bout 25g. What size balloons do you use?

    I'd like to encourage folks not to go the Helium route. Helium is a precious commodity on Earth, we're losing it, and it has many applications (respectfully) more important than our entertainment.

    Use Hydrogen. Be careful, and have fun

    3 replies

    I'd like to point out that 'use hydrogen' and 'be safe' is... a strange pair at best.

    Small quantities of hydrogen like these are quite safe by themselves. It gets dangerous when you start mixing hydrogen with stupidity.

    While Helium is rare, we aren't running out. Helium is constantly created by radioactive decay in the Earth. Companies are just not investing in exploration for new sources because of the artificially low stockpile sell off price in the US at the moment. When that stockpile runs out other deposits will be found and exploited.

    Wow! It looks awsome! just wish It didn't need arduino. I don't have any. :(

    What about a system that instead of destroying the blimp (causing money loss) "paralyzes its brain" temporarily, i.e. renders it less and less maneuverable with every hit, or as hit and score mechanism like in fencing?

    In this way the fun is longer and more intense, IMHO, although cost would rise a little.

    Paralysis and hit&score mechanism can be implemented using a combination of electrically connected nose probes and conductive threads like those used in fencing suites or any other conductive fabric or coating and software routines in the "brain" of the blimp.

    Let the kids (and Wimps) play.

    A Q-tip probe soaked in orange oil should pop a latex balloon on contact.

    1 reply

    That's amazing! I just saw this video:

    Neat idea. Maybe with higher limonene concentrations, the effect would be even more immediate?

    It's perfect! It's perfect! I'm so excited about this. I want my own fleet! Great job!

    I've been tinkering around for ages on this idea but never came up with a stable and authentic concept. Never considered self ignition. Brilliant.

    I love that fact that you are using hydrogen. It's cheap and easy enough to make your self. Helium is starting to be less abundant and can be quite expensive. Maybe it can shoot nichrome darts? Or maybe have a laser tag situation where instead of using a high power laser use IR like laser tag guns and then have a self destruct which could be as simple as a piece of steel wool and a battery. maybe the spectators can control a remote control anti aircraft gun to try and shoot them down this way. Or even a self destruct just incase the balloon goes out of range, which if you are building your thunderdome it shouldn't be an issue. Great idea keep up the good work!

    2 replies

    Also love that remote destructive capability also brings in the spectator participation that you describe.

    Yeah! One of the first motivators of this project was realizing that H2 was both an efficient and inexpensive lift gas _and_ explosive fun :)

    We've been thinking of remote destructive capabilities as well. Lasers, as mentioned below, IR, or even formed-beam ultrasound. The latter is interesting because we'd also like to explore things like flocking behaviors, etc...

    Sounds fun. I want to build one.. however i like the joust idea as a blunt all out all else failed attack but I would perfer a more inventive projectile approach. Within limits. No actual firearm rounds and bb's/pellets or other such systems limited to certain FPS for safety. It would be interesting to see what systems ppl come up with. Set a Standard Hydrogen volume size allowable. and let people sacrifice maneuverability for protection of weapons.. What materials people use should on a class system based on $$. But small explosives such as fire crackers etc or even area mines if there payload allows and of coarse that factors in to their allotment of hydrogen would make an epic sport. Better than robot wars with more bang.

    1 reply

    Totally! So far we've been thinking of this more as an art project/tech demo. But obviously it would be really interesting to see it pushed competitively. Are you involved with Battlebots or other robot sports? I'd appreciate any thoughts on what communities/key people on Twitter might be interested in starting a public discussion about this. We don't want to own anything -- we just want more people to experience how fun these are.

    P.S. Having the blimps have a absorptive coating + lasers on attacking blimps would also be amazing. We've done some thinking on this as well!