Track your balloon

There are many tools with different pros and cons to track your balloon.

I am only describing the ones I have personally tried. This list will be updated as I launch additional high altitude balloons.

GSM GPS Phone with Tracking Software

A GSM Phone will only work up to a couple of thousand feet high. Therefore it’s mainly a way to find your payload once it landed.

The first criterion to think about when choosing the phone is its service network. You need to verify the phone will have a good signal where you plan to launch and retrieve it. No signal, no location.

In the Bay Area, Verizon is known to have the best network. However Verizon is known to sometimes block the GPS access requests from third party applications. The type of network (GSM, iDEN, CDMA…) doesn’t matter as long as the carrier provides an unlimited Internet data plan (GPRS, EDGE, EV-DO, UMTS, or HSPA…) for the phone. You’ll need to get a data plan from your carrier for the tracking software to transmit its position over the Internet.

The cheapest, lightest GPS phone I found is currently the Motorola I296. Its previous model which has been used in many high altitude balloon launches, the Motorola I290, has been discontinued. However you can still find on ebay. The I296 costs about $60.

Pros:

  • Inexpensive
  • Simple and Light

Cons:

  • Requires a signal upon landing

There are two out of the box tracking softwares:

I chose Accutracking because it simply offers more features and flexibility than InstaMapper.

  • Customizable buffer for store positions while out of coverage (100 max points for InstaMapper)
  • More details about the phone at each point (location + GSM Signal strength + GPS signal strength + Battery level)

In this screenshot, the dates in red shows positions that were initially stored because of the lack of coverage

Installing the software on the phone is straightforward. Instructions can be found here.

Satellite Tracker

The cheapest and most convenient is the SPOT Personal Tracker. This tracker does not need cell tower coverage. It communicates its position by satellite. You log on the SPOT website to see the received locations.

Pros:
  • No cellphone tower signal required
  • Tough built : Operational temp -45C to 85C (-40F to 185F) and waterproof
Cons:
  • 10 min update frequency
  • Max operational altitude is 6,492m (21300 ft)
  • The altitude is not recorded
  • Device + Activation + Tracking option : >$200

Note: The Spot Tracker needs to be facing up towards the sky. I highly recommend you to build a gimbal system for your Spot Tracker. This can make all the difference. Do some real tests with your tracking devices activated and inside the payload as it would be during its flight (closed and tapped).

APRS Transmitter (updated 10/02/2011)

To learn the basics about APRS, click here.

An APRS beacon is basically a device (transmitter + GPS) which emits a radio signal containing its current location.

These messages are received by listening radio stations called digipeaters. There are thousands of digipeaters across the US. Digipeaters repeat the message received to other digipeaters until it reaches one radio station that has access to the Internet. These Internet gateways are called an Igates and publish the received messages on the Internet. You can then follow the location of your beacon online at websites such as Google Aprs.

There are plenty of APRS transmitters available. I chose Byonics’ Micro-Trak 8000 FA for its light weight and flexibility. Byonics has other models though.

The Micro-Trak 8000 FA operates on amateur radio frequencies, and requires a valid amateur radio license to use. To get one, take the technician HAM radio license test.  To take it, go here. Most centers propose a one day combo: class + test.
You can just show up in the morning not knowing anything, study in the morning with them and take the test in the afternoon.

You will need a GPS that works above 60,000ft. Because of ITAR regulations, most GPS do not work above 60,000ft. Make sure yours do. I bought the Byonics GPS4 (works up to 84km = 275,000 ft).

Pros:

  • Reports: location + altitude + speed during the entire flight
  • Locations saved online at aprs.fi and can be exported afterwards.
  • Power up to 10W
Cons:
  • Fairly fragile
  • Requires a lot of batteries
  • Fairly expensive (>$200)
Note: The MT 8000FA has been discontinued and replaced by the Micro-Trak RTG.

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