Week 15

week15This was the last week of our class, and the final week of the “Deliver” phase of the course. We focused on finishing the class video about our activities all semester long. The students all selected their favorite still shots and video clips from the footage taken by our GoPro cameras during flight, plus we made sure to thank everyone who assisted us all semester long, making sure our project was a success!

The final class video project is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Si7E3VK0p94

The students wrapped up the semester by submitting their second individual self-assessment, where they reflected on their accomplishments and lessons learned from the class. Thanks to all the students for all their hard work!!!!

Week 14

week14This week was our second to last week of class, and our first full week post-launch! The students were all very excited to watch the videos from our cameras, and to work on creating the final class video about our project, documenting all the class activities throughout the semester in a five-minute video showing off our progress and achievements.

IMG_5065While the students in the class were working on their video, Antohne Smyth, a student in Prof. Andy Opel’s media production class, created a fantastic 360 degree video for us from our launch videos, which we made available online here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YX6d460KDbU. We very much enjoyed watching this video in our Google Cardboard devices, which helped give the virtual reality perspective to our project!

IMG_5049We also discussed some lessons learned from the launch / methods for improving our approach, specifically way to extend the battery life on the GoPro cameras (the batteries on the cameras gave out at about 18,000 meters). In addition, we explored options for adding flotation devices to the orange twine connecting the payload to the parachute in a way that wouldn’t obscure the cameras but offer the chance of salvaging the cameras if the payload had landed in a lake.

Week 13

week13On Monday, April 4, 2016, at the start of Week 13 of the course, we launched our balloon from Florida State University’s intramural fields, which provided a suitable wide-open location devoid of trees or other obstacles that could snag our balloon or payload. We needed a day when the weather was perfect — no surface winds, not a cloud in the sky, and a relatively slow moving jet stream immediately overhead — and the day was perfect for our needs.

launchingThe launch itself went flawlessly, especially considering none of us had done this before (it also helped that had a dress rehearsal the day before, where we did everything except fill the balloon). Working from the ground up, we secured the cameras in the rig (all the GoPro batteries were fully charged and ready to record) but waited to turn them on until we were just about ready to launch (we were worried about how long the batteries would last in flight). Tightening the cameras mounts in the rig was a little tricky, as we didn’t want to snap the plastic, but we managed to secure all five cameras without incident (for good measure, we also secured the camera pointing down with a zip-tie).

payloadOnce the cameras were ready to roll, we activated the SPOT Satellite Tracker, Eagle Flight Computer, and APRS Radio Transmitter, and confirmed that everything was working perfectly — special thanks to the Tallahassee Amateur Radio Society for setting up a digipeater close to campus so that we could track our payload from the Intramural Fields. We also made sure that everyone at the launch knew how to track both devices on their phones.

launchteamOnce the payload was ready, we attached the parachute and began the process of inflating the weather balloon. To prevent any accidental loss of the balloon, we made sure that two extra safety lines were attached to the balloon at all times. Tracking the amount of positive lift as we inflated the balloon was a little tricky as the balloon swayed from side to side as we inflated it, but we used two different scales to find the most accurate measure. Once we had the right amount of helium in the balloon, we tied off the end, attaching the orange twine (leading to the parachute) to the balloon at this time.

launching_groundAt this point, we were ready to launch. We turned the cameras on, disconnected the safety lines, and slowly raised the balloon, step-by-step. We didn’t want to jerk the twine or payload, so we let the balloon go up slowly, working our way down the twine from the balloon to the parachute, then down the parachute to the twine connecting the parachute to the payload (we had a carabiner at both ends of that twine — duct-taped shut for safety), and then down that twine to the carabiner hooked above the payload. At that point the balloon was about fifteen feet overhead, and ready to go. We confirmed that the payload was properly balanced under the parachute (with none of the twine caught up on anything), and let the balloon go — counting down from 3, 2, 1!

balloon_burstWe then chased the balloon across North Florida, tracking our payload in real time on our phones. Using both the SPOT satellite tracker and the APRS radio transmitter (http://aprs.fi/) turned out to be a great idea as it gave us confidence that we knew exactly where the balloon was at all time. We constantly tweeted our payload location as we chased it, plus we were broadcasting publicly on K4TLH-11, so many people were tracking our flight at the same time!

landingsiteWe were lucky that the winds were blowing almost exactly due east, so we were able drive almost straight out on I-10, following our balloon in real time. The balloon reached a height of 20333 meters before it popped over Madison, FL, at which point the parachute deployed, and the payload floated back to earth, landing (almost exactly two hours after we launched) in a Potash Mine in White Springs, FL. We are very grateful for the assistance provided by the employees of PotashCorp in locating our balloon, parachute, and payload, without whose help we could never have recovered our cameras.

Having successfully recovered our payload, we then set to work creating a video about our project!

Week 12

week12This week was the final week before our launch, and everyone was scrambling to finish their design and development tasks! Team Video printed a new model for the GoPro Camera rig, and tested it with five video cameras (four pointing out and one pointing down). Team Printing worked on finishing their 3D-printed torches, including painting a unique design of their own creation. Team Tracking worked with the NWS to predict possible landing spots based on when and where we launch, in order to pick the best launch date. Team Mechies worked to streamline the payload design to reduce the total payload weight down to two kilograms (all inclusive). And Team Social worked on ramping up our outreach efforts to invite people to our launch party. The College of Communication and Information published a news story on our project, and we presented at Digitech on March 30.

torchWhile we had originally planned to launch the torch on Saturday, April 2, a line of severe storms swept through on Friday, April 1 in the evening, causing us to postpone our launch until after the weather cleared and the high altitude winds died down. Sunday, April 3, was a beautiful day in Tallahassee, but the jet stream was located immediately above us and going at 145mph due East, risking our payload ending up in the Atlantic Ocean. In order to maximize our chance for success, we decided to delay our launch until Monday, April 4, with a projected landing spot near Lake City, halfway between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.

Week 11

week11We spent this week — the second week of the Deploy phase — continuing to piece together our payload and finish all of our 3D printing, while preparing for a visit from the Tallahassee Amateur Radio Society, who kindly volunteered to help the students learn how to use our new APRS Radio Transmitter.

assembling1The students completed the 3D design and printing of the GoPro camera rig and the FSU torches, and prepared to assemble the final payload. We also called the local party rental store to reserve our tank of helium for pickup next week.

tarsWith assistance from the Tallahassee Amateur Radio Society, we fired up the Eagle Flight Computer and the APRS Radio Bug, and figured out how to get both of those working. The Flight Computer tracks GPS location and altitude, along with temperature, humidity, and barometric pressure, and records those data every minute on a MicroSD memory card, while he APRS transmitter broadcasts that same information over the APRS radio network.

balloonThe APRS radio system requires a line of sight to the IGate transmitters, so we drove up to the north side of Tallahassee (the nearest IGate is at the intersection of Thomasville and Bannerman Road) to confirm that it was working properly. The Tallahassee Amateur Radio Society also suggested we could use a handheld IGate to help locate our payload after it lands, by providing directional data through the transmitter.


posterWith the tracking systems in place, we were ready to proceed with final preparations for our launch at the end of the next week, weather permitting of course! Our friends at the National Weather Service here in Tallahassee are keeping an eye on the weather forecast for us!

Week 10

week10This week — our first week back after Spring Break — marked the first of three weeks in the “Deploy” phase of the class. We are launching in less than a month — Saturday, April 2, @ 10:00 — weather permitting! We therefore spent this week working on several big picture action items: 1) preparing to assemble the payload; 2) developing a testing plan for the mechanics and electronics; and 3) developing a pre-launch checklist for the day of the launch.

Our goal as we head towards the Launch Day is to make sure we don’t go into any of this blind — we need a clear checklist of everything that needs to be ready before we let the balloon go: batteries charged, trackers transmitting, cameras running, etc. We need to be 100% sure (as best as possible) that nothing unexpected will happen. To that end, each Team worked on the following items this week:

week10aTeam Video printed and tested the strength / stability of the final version of their 3D-printed mount for the 360 degree video cameras. They also tested installing the cameras in the mounts, and checked to see how far in front of the cameras the 3D-printed copy of the FSU torches should be placed. Finally, they prepared for the 360 degree video, making sure that all the cameras were ready, including batteries and storage media.

week10cTeam Printing finalized their design of the FSU Torches, printed their design, and tested attaching the torches to the payload. They also explored the potential use of a protective coating for the 3D printed material, in order to increase the stability of both the torches and the camera rig.

Team Tracking worked on learning how the new Flight Computer and APRS Radio Transmitter worked, in preparation for meeting with the Tallahassee Amateur Radio Society during Week 11. They also worked on solving the problems with the cellular GPS tracker, eventually deciding that it may not work for our trip into space. Between the SPOT satellite tracking system and the APRS Radio Bug, though, we should be in good shape.

week10bTeam Mechies laid out entire payload, including all the electronics on top, and the camera rig underneath, and marked the plywood platform so that we know where everything will go. They drilled holes, installed bolts, and tested the twine by dangling the payload from the parachute, making sure it will not snap in flight. They worked with the Team Video and Team Printing to make sure everything was ready to be assembled next week.

flyerTeam Social documented all the in-class activities on social media, and prepared to roll out their social media campaign leading up to the April 2 launch date. They also prepared flyers / handouts to advertise the Launch at Digitech 2016, including a poster for the iSchool’s display table. We also created a Facebook event page to help spread the word and encourage people to attend the Launch.

Week 09

week09This week, the last week of our design phase, and the last week of class before Spring Break, opened with some very clear action items. We needed to finish our design plan, and purchase the remaining items necessary so that we could assemble and test our payload as soon as the students returned to campus.

payloadmarch6Working together with the whole class, we finalized our sketch for the payload design (see image). We also decided to purchase the Flight Tracking Computer, APRS Radio Transmitter, and Helium Tank Inflator from High Altitude Science, especially given our concerns over the tracking devices we already had… We also began the process of searching for someone who had a Ham Radio license who would like to participate in the launch and help the students use the APRS Radio Transmitter.

lowesAt that point, approximately a third of the class headed to Lowe’s to purchase the hardware needed to assemble the payload. The most difficult thing to find was a suitably sized threaded rod (3mm in diameter) to connect the two halves of the 3D-printed GoPro camera rig to each other and to the payload platform (we eventually found correctly-sized rods at Hobby Town USA).

hobbytownIn the meantime, while Team Printing continued to work on their design for the 3D-printed FSU Torches, and Team Video continued to tweak the design for the 3D-printed GoPro camera rig. We decided to purchase a specialized coating for the 3D printed devices to make them stronger and less likely to delaminate. We also tracked down at least two people on campus who already had access to the software we would need to stitch together our 360 degree videos, all of whom were delighted to work with the students to assemble the videos, once we got the cameras back from space. Team Tracking continued to work with the cellular and satellite trackers, figuring out how each worked in more detail.

The students then headed off for Spring Break with some very clear action items for each team…

  • Team Video needed to finalize their design of the GoPro camera rig, print the two halves, coat them with the new protective coating, install the five cameras, and test! This may involve finding the correctly sized screws for attaching the camera cases to the mount, as the screws that come with the GoPro cameras didn’t quite have room to fit in the rig.
  • Team Printing needed to finalize their design of the FSU Torches, and figure out how to attach them to the payload platform. Once determine, they need to print, decide whether or not to coat with the protective coating, install, and test.
  • Team Tracking needed to finish testing the cellular and satellite tracking systems, and make a go / no go decision on each (additional testing during Spring Break demonstrated that the satellite tracking system seems to be working properly). They also needed to figure out how to use the new APRS radio transmitter.
  • Team Mechies needed to finish gathering all the required materials to assemble the payload, built it, and test it under all possible conditions.
  • Team Social needed to figure out a method for ramping up our social media campaign without knowing the actual date of launch for certain (we are still aiming for Saturday, April 2, at this point).
  • We also needed someone to take point on figuring out the new Flight Tracking Computer, Pressure/Temperature Sensors, and APRS Radio Transmitter.

Finally, each team handed in a brief progress report (Progress Report 1) detailing their accomplishments over the last three weeks; these progress reports were posted to the students’ website.

P.S. Over Spring Break, word continued to spread about our plans to Launch the Torch, and several people reached out to us looking for ways to participate, including:

  • Digitech, which asked the students to showcase their technologies at an annual event for student innovation on March 30, as part of FSU’s Research and Innovation Week.
  • The local student chapter of ACM SIGGRAPH, which volunteered to work with our students to edit the 360 degree videos.
  • The FSU Meteorology department, which volunteered to help track our weather balloon using a variety of technologies including Theodolites.
  • The Tallahassee Amateur Radio Society, which volunteered to help our students track the balloon using our APRS Radio Transmitter.

Week 08

week08We began this week, the second of our design weeks, with several clear action items for each team:

  • Team Video: Research 360 degree video software and review free options!
  • Team Printing: Determine size of torches and whether we want three separate or three together, and where they will be vis-a-vis the cameras.
  • Team Video and Team Printing: work out how to attach the 3D printed torches to the 3D printed camera rig, so that the torches are where we want them!
  • Team Tracking and Team Mechies: work out ascent and descent rates based on estimated weights to determine how long up, and how long down, so that we do not land in the ocean!
  • Team Mechies: Finalize balloon and parachute purchase decisions based on previous action item!
  • Team Social: Continue to document class activities and post on social media outlets.
  • All Students: Please Follow #launchthetorch on social media!!!

workingIt was very important that we wrap up as many outstanding design issues as possible in order to finalize the class purchases (the tracking equipment, having been finalized during Week 07, was already purchased). Each team therefore set to work this week addressing their action items.

dremelTeam Video successfully printed a 3D rig to hold the GoPro cameras for shooting 360 degree video, although there were complications with reversing the rig parts to get all the cameras pointing in the right direction (this will need to be fixed in a future print). They also researched different options for creating 360 degree video, settling on Kolor Autopano as the best (albeit expensive) option.

3ddesignTeam Printing explored several different design ideas for the FSU torches, trying to determine between printing individual torches in 3D vs. printing the torches seal.




calculationsTeam Mechies worked with Team Tracking to finalize their choice of a 600g weather balloon and a 1.5 meter parachute, aiming for a flight time of approximately 90 minutes up, and 30 minutes down. They also decided to try making their own inflator for the weather balloon.



testingparachuteTeam Mechies worked with Team Video and Team Printing to determine their options for affixing the GoPro Camera Rig, the 3D Printed copy of the FSU Torches, and the payload containing the tracking devices to the weather balloon and parachute.



sketchSeveral different options were considered, but by the end of the week we had settled on a design where the payload was affixed to the top of the GoPro Camera Rig (which would have five cameras — four pointing out, and one pointing down), and the FSU torches would hang down from the payload in front of the cameras.

Week 07

week07This week marked the transition from the “Explore” weeks to the “Design” weeks, and was the first time the students met in their assigned teams (based on their preferences as reported in their first individual self-assessment). We divided up into teams, and passed out the notes collected during each of the five Explore weeks for the teams to review.

torchesinspaceAfter spending some time getting to know each other and learning why each team member was assigned to each team, the students were assigned two action items: 1) to develop a timeline listing the major milestones their teams would have to accomplish in order to complete the launch; and 2) to prepare a shopping list for successfully completing the project. Given a projected launch at the end of March, time was of the essence, and it was important that we order supplies ASAP. Once the team meetings had concluded, the class met again as a group, and we hashed out a combined shopping list for each team:


  • GoPro Cameras x6 (or x5) if we don’t care about camera pointing up; The iSchool has 2; and it looks like we can borrow 3 more, so that gives us 5; Cameras need to include cases!
  • Rig to hold six (or five) cameras in proper orientation for 360 degree video; Will try to 3D print this rig, and test to see how it holds up under stress and cold; Perhaps we could 3D print the rig, and coat it in superglue, or something similar
  • Anti-fog Inserts for Camera Cases; http://www.amazon.com/GoPro-AHDAF-301-Anti-Fog-Inserts/dp/B009QXFFYS/; $11, Amazon Prime (pack of 12)
  • Software to Edit 360 degree video — this is expensive! Will need to review our options more…
  • Filament for Dremel Printer for printing the camera rig


  • Filament! Transparent for printing the torch tops at least
  • Paint (unless we want to change filament for torch base)
  • Lights (LED?), Wires, Batteries


  • Spot Trace Satellite Tracker, http://www.amazon.com/Trace-Anti-Theft-Tracking-Device-Black/dp/B00GQ8WW4M/, $100, Amazon Prime, Plus Annual Service Plan ($100/yr) for pings every five minutes
  • Cell Phone Tracking Systems (Device plus a pre-paid SIM Card, No Plan Needed), http://www.amazon.com/ABLEGRID%C2%AE-RealTime-Tracker-Vehicle-Tracking/dp/B01535CSCE/, $22 including SIM Card but there may be other options…
  • Tile Short Range Audio Alert, http://www.amazon.com/Tile-Gen-Phone-Finder-Finder/dp/B011HT9AL2/, $25, Amazon Prime
  • Handheld GPS system for going off-roading while looking for the payload; this will not be going into space, just need to find one we can borrow!!


  • Balloon — 600 g? $55 from High Altitude Science, Need to order ASAP once we settle on the size / desired ascent rate
  • Parachute — 5 foot? $75 from High Altitude Science for 1.5m Parachute, Need to order ASAP once we settle on desired descent rate!
  • Helium, Need at least 100 cubic feet, Where to acquire?
  • Trip to hardware store (Miscellaneous supplies)
  • Weather Balloon Inflator, $85 from High Altitude Science (comes with scale), This might be worth the money to make sure we inflate safely and with the correct amount of helium!


  • E-mail: launchthetorch@gmail.com
  • Twitter: https://twitter.com/fsu_launch
  • Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/launchthetorch/timeline
  • Website: launchthetorch.wix.com/1851
  • Instagram: launchthetorch

Week 06

week06This was our last Explore week in class — Explore: Videos — and the students spent the week experimenting with our GoPro cameras and 3D stereoscopic rig, as well as our Oculus Rift and Google Cardboard Virtual Reality headsets. Their experiences this week helped solidify their desire to create a 360 degree video of the launch, despite needing significantly more cameras for 360 video.

oculusEveryone was excited by the possibility of creating an immersive experience where we could put on a VR headset and experience the feeling of floating in space with the FSU torches. The students did extensive research about what would be required to create such a video, and even offered to volunteer their own cameras for a trip into space, so that we would have sufficient cameras for a true 360 degree video.

The students finished off this week by handing in their first individual self-assessment, where they documented what they learned during each of the five Explore weeks, and described what they would like to accomplish in class moving forward. This information was then used to divide the students into five teams of five students each: Social, Mechies, Tracking, Printing, and Video.