Weather Balloon Altitude Control System

Weather Balloon Altitude Control System
Weather Balloon Altitude Control System
Senior Design 2014-2015
Tim Basta, Scott Miller, R Trevor Clark
Randy Larimer, Berk Knighton
Montana Space Grant Consortium
Executive Summary
The field of high altitude ballooning is an effective and relatively inexpensive way to deliver
scientific payloads to the upper atmosphere for data collection. High altitude balloons can be
grouped into two main categories: zero pressure and burst. The burst balloon is designed to ascend
constantly until it reaches a certain altitude, at which point it will burst allowing the payload to
descend back to the ground. The zero pressure balloon is much larger, and is designed to ascend to
a certain altitude, then float until the flight is terminated. The zero pressure balloon is more
versatile than the burst balloon as it can float at neutral buoyancy for extended data collection. The
burst balloon is significantly less expensive so it is commonly used by facilities that use
meteorological sounding packages and university ballooning groups with smaller budgets. The Goal
of the altitude control system is to provide the ability to fly the lower cost burst balloon at neutral
buoyancy. This will allow users to collect data on a floating platform without the increased expense
of a zero pressure balloon.
Table of Contents
Problem Definition
Functional Analysis
Alternatives Evaluation
Project Planning
Concept Development
System Architecture
Detailed Design
Analysis and Test
Problem Definition
University level ballooning programs and stations that collect meteorological
sounding data typically use relatively inexpensive latex weather balloons to transport their
payloads to high altitudes. These balloons are made to fly to a high altitude and then burst,
providing no control over the duration of flight and the altitude of data collection. For
longer duration flights, zero pressure balloons are typically used. These balloons are many
times more expensive than latex weather balloons. The goal of this project is to develop a
low cost alternative to zero pressure balloons that will still provide neutrally buoyant
flight. To accomplish this goal we will develop a valve that is user controlled that can be
inserted into the neck of the latex balloon, then can be opened to vent helium and therefore
control the altitude and duration of the flight.
The mechanical portion of this project will consist of a flow tube that will be
connected to the fill nozzle. This flow tube will feature a mechanical gate vent system to
allow Helium to be vented from the balloon during flight. The mechanical valve gate will be
located at the bottom of the flow tube. this device will also have a fill port that will interface
with the fill station, to allow the balloon to be filled with Helium after attachment to the
device. The circular valve gate will actuated by a small motor, which will be controlled by
the onboard microcontroller.
The electrical portion of the project will consist of multiple control and wireless
communication systems working together to give the user control of the flight and facilitate
various in-flight experiments. One control system will be connected to the mechanical valve
assembly which will control the motor which opens and closes the valve, wireless
communication with the main command capsule, and reads various sensors. A second
control system in the main command capsule will act as the main communication and
control hub for the flight system. This module will consist of a microprocessor which will
wirelessly control the valve system and interface with the users onboard long range
tracking and or communication system. Research will be performed on which
microprocessors and wireless protocol will best suit the project. Custom printed circuit
boards and supporting electronics will be designed for each module.
Needs Description:
University level ballooning programs and stations that collect meteorological
sounding data typically use relatively inexpensive latex weather balloons to transport their
payloads to high altitudes. These balloons are made to fly to a high altitude and then burst,
providing no control over the duration or altitude for data collection. For longer duration
flights, zero pressure balloons are typically used. Zero pressure balloons provide a long
flight duration at a near constant altitude. However, these balloons are many times more
expensive than latex weather balloons, which puts them out of reach of smaller ballooning
groups. This design will seek to develop a system to use burst latex balloons in place of zero
pressure balloons. This will be done by developing a valve that can be inserted into the
neck of various sizes of latex balloons to vent helium sufficient to achieve neutral buoyance
at a user controllable altitude. This will reduce the cost associated with doing experiments
that traditionally required a zero pressure balloon.
Currently the only group that has successfully done anything like this is in the past,
outside the military, is the BOREALIS program at MSU. BOREALIS has made a prototype to
vent helium. The current system requires a wired connection from the vent to the payload,
this allows the user to manually open and close the vent. The improvements that need to be
made are to adapt this system for traditional 2000 and 3000 gram latex balloon as well as
smaller 200 gram balloons used for weather sondes. The main things that need to be
improved are making a valve design that can be used for weather sondes and for larger
2000 or 3000 gram weather balloons, wireless communication between the valve and the
main payload, and the valve needs to have the ability to autonomously open and close to
achieve neutral buoyance at a user selectable altitude. Using a valve will reduce the cost
associated with doing experiments that traditionally required a zero pressure balloon.
Being able to wireless communicate with the valve will reduce possible complications such
as the wire connected to the valve getting tangled with the parachute. Wireless
communication between the valve and the main payload will further reduce the weight of
the system. Having the valve autonomously navigate to a desired height will reduce human
error and the need for communications between the ground and the balloon during flight.
This system will allow for a broader range of experiments at smaller university level
ballooning programs to be done at relatively low cost. Particularly this will provide a stable
camera platform for the BOREALIS program to record the 2017 eclipse. Another important
application of this system will be for use with weather sondes in extreme weather
situations, such as hurricanes. This is will be beneficial because it will allow weather
sondes to collect data for longer periods of time and at selectable altitude. This will reduce
cost and risk of using aircraft to take these measurements.
Stakeholder List:
A low-cost controllable-altitude balloon platform has a diverse group of stakeholders. The
stakeholders include the students and campus faculty involved in the program, the Montana Space
Grant Consortium, and the atmospheric science community. Each stakeholder has a unique vested
interest in the completion of this project as detailed below.
The primary stakeholders are the students and campus faculty directly involved in the
program. The students responsible for the project have a vested interest in its completion as it
fulfills a graduation requirement for their respective majors. The project also offers them valuable
engineering design experience to take with them to their future employer. The campus faculty are
also stakeholders in the project’s success. Not only are the faculty asked to help guide their students
towards successful completion, they are also ultimately responsible for assigning grading marks for
the student’s work as well. The faculty are also invested in the program to help further Montana
State University’s reputation of producing excellent engineers.
The Montana Space Grant Consortium (MSGC) BOREALIS program is a stakeholder in this
project as they are the organization sponsoring the student’s work. MSGC is interested in a
controllable-altitude balloon platform for their 2017 total solar eclipse project which hopes to take
live images of the total solar eclipse from the stratosphere. A reliable altitude control system for
their balloon payload is essential for placing their cameras at the correct altitude to capture the
Finally, the atmospheric science community will greatly benefit from this system. Scientists
currently use latex weather balloons to measure atmospheric and weather phenomena using
measurements obtained as their balloon payload rises through the atmosphere. Once their payload
reaches a certain altitude it bursts, terminating their flight and experiment. An altitude control
system (such as that being developed in this project) would allow more measurements to be taken
before the flight is terminated as the balloon could loiter at a specific altitude without bursting.
In conclusion, the stakeholders include:
Students and faculty involved in the project
Students directly involved in the design, build and testing of the project
Campus faculty supporting and grading the students
Montana Space Grant Consortium
MSGC BOREALIS program requiring a stable camera platform in the stratosphere for
their eclipse project
Atmospheric Scientists
Scientists involved in measuring atmospheric conditions
Project Goals:
The main goal of this project is to provide a system that will allow users to fly payloads at
neutral buoyancy using latex weather balloons (Burst balloons). This system will be required to
vent the correct amount of Helium from the balloon within the time constraints of the balloon
mission. This system will also be required to restrict the flow of Helium adequately enough when
closed to eliminate variability in the float altitude. The two sub-goals for this project include
autonomous vent control, and short range wireless control of the Helium vent. The autonomous
vent control will be an electronic function built into the valve itself. It will have a user interface for
selection of float altitude, and a microcontroller that will make vent decisions based on the user
selection. The short range wireless control will give the user the ability to control the valve
manually by using another long range communication system on a different payload container on
the same payload chain. For example: the user would send the 'open vent' command through their
standard communication system (e.g. amateur radio or satellite modem), the command would be
received by their payload chain attached to their balloon, and the command would be transmitted
short range from the communication payload to the valve system.
Project Constraints:
The constraints placed on a high-altitude weather balloon system include project length,
cost, weight, density, breaking force, temperature, endurance, size, and communications. A detailed
look at these constraints is provided below:
The project must be completed within the two semester Senior Design sequence
specified by Montana State University
The project must be completed within the budget assigned to the student group by
Actual dollar amount is yet to be determined
Valve and control systems must be as light as possible to allow other systems to
utilize the total weight allowed (see below)
FAA regulations (FAA Part 101 – (a)(4)(ii) and (iii)) require no more than six
pounds per payload, and no more than 12 pounds overall total for multiple payloads
FAA regulations (FAA Part 101 – (a)(4)(i)) specify an upper maximum density of
three ounces per square inch to avoid catastrophic aircraft damage should a
collision occur
Determined by dividing the total weight in ounces of the payload package by
the area in square inches of its smallest surface
Breaking force
FAA regulations (FAA Part 101 – (a)(4)(iv)) require that any rope or suspension
used for the payload must break free with an impact force of no more than 50
Payload must survive impacts with the Earth once the flight terminates
Parachute system must reduce speed to 10-20 feet per second depending on
payload / experiment requirements
All systems must be able to withstand temperatures from -60⁰C in the upper
atmosphere through +35⁰C at the Earth’s surface
Mechanical and electrical systems must operate through this range for extended
periods of time as indicated in the endurance section
Both mechanical and electrical systems must be able to operate for the duration of
the mission
Typical BOREALIS loiter flights (“zero pressure flights”) last approximately 3
Typical BOREALIS flights require that any flight systems are operational 30
minutes before balloon launch
While there are no size constraints directly placed on the valve and control systems,
they must conform to the weight, density, and breaking force specifications
provided above
Control system must be able to interface and communicate with the current
BOREALIS communications payload which includes an NAL Research 9602-LP
Iridium satellite modem connected to an Arduino Uno microcontroller
Communications protocol / interface can be determined by the designers
Functional Analysis
The following functional specification overviews the high level requirements of the valve
control system. Very few if any technical details will be provided however the overall function of
the system will be detailed. The functional specification starts with a black box model which
describes what each individual subsystem does along with a high-level look at how the systems are
connected together. The next section is functional specifications. The functional specifications
provides a granular look at what each subsystem must do to accomplish the overall goal of the
project. Each high level function is broken down into smaller sub functions as needed. Finally the
design metrics for the project will be presented. The design metrics are the overall design goals that
the end product will be weighed against to determine if the project was successful or not.
Black Box Model;
This project consists of four main subsystems, the preexisting long range communication
system, an Iridium satellite modem, a controller in the main payload to interface to the Iridium
satellite modem, a controller up on the valve with a GPS unit, and the a valve to vent helium.
Currently the MSGC BOREALIS program is using an Iridium satellite modem to communicate with
the balloon payload other ballooning groups commonly use amateur radio DTMF. This project will
entail designing a main payload controller that can interface to an existing communications system
be that a satellite or amateur radio DTMF. This controller will then via a wireless connection
communicate with a controller up on a valve closer to the balloon. This valve controller will then
directly control a valve that is inserted into the neck of a balloon which will open and close enabling
or restricting the flow of helium out of the balloon to achieve neutral buoyance. The valve controller
will also have the functionality to operate autonomously, venting helium to achieve neutral
buoyance at a preprogrammed attitude. It will do this be implementing an algorithm to interpret
GPS data and determine when and for how long the valve should be opened to achieve the user
selected altitude.
Functional Specifications:
The purpose of the valve system is to allow users of latex high altitude balloons to fly them
at neutral buoyancy. This will be accomplished by venting a certain amount of helium out of the
balloon during flight to affect the amount of lift produced by the displaced air. This will allow users
to extend the duration of their flights, and allow them a degree of control in flight duration and
The electronics package will consist of two functional subsystems: a control subsystem and
a valve subsystem. The control subsystem will reside within the main payload container that the
end user supplies. The control subsystem is responsible for interfacing with the end user's tracking
and command system (Iridium satellite modem, amateur radio, etc. ) The interface protocol will
need to be well documented for easy integration with the end user's existing payload. The interface
will allow for remote control of the valve and its various functions. The control subsystem must
wirelessly communicate with the valve subsystem. The control subsystem must have an endurance
of 6 hours.
The valve subsystem interfaces directly with the valve mechanics and is responsible for
actuating the valve as required. A wireless connection must be established between the control
subsystem and the valve subsystem if required. The valve subsystem must also have a autonomous
mode which works independently of the control subsystem if activated. The autonomous mode will
use internal logic and various sensors to determine when to actuate the valve mechanics. In either
mode the valve subsystem must be able to wirelessly send status updates and sensor readings to
the control subsystem.
Specific design requirements for this project are as follows:
The valve system will be required to have a sufficiently high flow rate to allow the user to
bring the balloon to float (Neutral buoyancy) within 15 minutes of being open. Due to the
ascent rate of the average high altitude balloon flight, the time window for venting is limited
to a maximum of 15 minutes. If the vent time takes longer, the balloon may burst at high
altitude due to excessive volume.
The valve system will be required to achieve float at a pre-specified altitude to within a 10%
degree of accuracy. This design requirement is aimed at making this product marketable to
institutions that collect meteorological sounding data that will require altitude control that
is acceptably accurate.
The valve system will be required to operate inside the temperature range of -60 C to 40 C.
This is the average operating temperature range from ground level to 100,000 ft.
The valve system will be designed for use with 300 gram Kaymont brand balloons. Future
designs may include a design that is compatible across other brands or sizes of balloons, but
this project will be designed for a balloon commonly used for meteorological data
The total weight of the valve system cannot exceed 8 oz. The 300 gram balloons commonly
lift a 2 lb. payload, and the addition of a valve system weighing more than 8 oz. becomes
unreasonable compared to the average payload weight.
Communication specification for interfacing the valve system with the end user's payload
The valve system is not required to control or track the end user's payload, however
a data link protocol is provided to interface with the user's system if desired. The
protocol specifies the method of communication the valve system expects from the
external control system such as baud rate, serial protocol, timing, etc.
Battery endurance of 6 hours
The complete valve system must operate for a minimum of 6 hours, however no
particular power usage specification is required as long as the other functional
specifications are still met (temperature range and weight would likely be most
affected). The valve system design must determine how best to achieve this goal
through efficiency of operation, battery capacity, DC/DC converter requirements,
sleep states of the microprocessor, etc. The 6 hour requirement is based on the
intended use of the end product.
Cost per unit less than $100 for 100 units.
Due to the average cost of weather sounding packages, it would be unreasonable to
expect a customer to pay more than $100 for the neutral buoyancy upgrade.
The valve system will be required to provide flight termination for the balloon by venting a
significant volume of Helium to cause the balloon to descend back to ground level.
The valve will be required to have an in-line fill system that will allow the user to attach the
balloon to the valve prior to fill, then inflate the balloon with Helium through the valve. This
system will also require a fill station that will interface with the Helium tank regulator.
This project will be required to be accomplished within 3 test flights and 1 demonstration
flight due to budget and time requirements.
Design Metrics:
The design metrics for the project are the most important project goals that must be met for
the project to be a success. These specifications are the most important high level goals as they are
the specifications given to the project group by the end user. If these design metrics are not met the
end user will not only be displeased, they may proceed with another company's product.
The design metrics for the project are specified as follows:
The valve mechanics must be simple to connect the latex weather balloon to and also hold
onto the balloon so it does not disconnect in flight.
The valve mechanics must allow for inline fill of the latex weather balloon.
Inline fill allows the end user to attach their latex weather balloons to the valve
mechanics and then connect their helium supply to the valve. The valve system must
not be cumbersome to connect or interface with.
A float altitude between 30,000-60,000 feet within a 10% tolerance must be achievable with
the system.
This altitude range encompasses the altitude regions in which the end user would
typically utilize such a system, and an acceptable tolerance level at those altitudes.
The valve must weigh no more than 1/2 pound.
If the valve system is heavier than that specified the end user will lose valuable
payload weight for their experiments.
The entire system must cost no more than $100 per unit in 100 unit quantities.
To be competitive or desirable with the intended market the entire valve system
must not cost more than the cost of a typical weather balloon ($100).
Up to three test flights and one final flight may be used to test the project design.
Alternatives Evaluation
This section of the report will cover the design alternatives proposed by the Capstone
group. These design alternatives are a group of ideas that could possibly be used to accomplish the
functional requirements. This report will discuss the design alternatives in detail, then rank them
based on operational criteria proposed by the Capstone group. This report will also discuss the user
operation requirements for the project. These can include ergonomics, setup, maintenance, and
correct operation of the product.
Design Alternatives:
The design alternatives area is where you will be explaining the top design selections that
you have come up with. Here, about a 1 – 1 ½ pages for each design idea along with sketches needs
to be produced so the reader can get a good understanding of what the concept is. The sketches
don’t have to be perfect. You can make copies of the ones in your journal and scan them in.
Mechanical design alternatives:
Diaphragm valve: This design alternative will obstruct the flow of Helium through the vent tube
with a flexible rubber disk trapped against a ridge internal to the flow tube. Venting will be
accomplished by an armature pushing on the diaphragm from the outside, temporarily
compromising the seal and allowing the Helium to vent.
Butterfly Valve: This design alternative will use a disk of rigid material connected through the
center axis by a rotating connection point. The inside of the flow tube will have a sealing ridge on
half of the circumference, and have an identical sealing ridge on the outer opposite side. The flow
would be obstructed by having the disk rotated about the pin until it contacts the stops. Helium
flow will be allowed by rotating the disk in the opposite way.
Circular gate Valve: This design will use two circular disks of rigid material that lay flat against one
another and cap off the end of the flow tube. Each disk has as identical and symmetrical hole
pattern such that when the openings are lined up, gas is allowed to flow through the openings. By
rotating the top disk, the openings are misaligned, and the flow opening is closed. The two disks
will use a high viscosity lubricant at their interface. This will help make the seal gas tight, as well as
prevent the two surfaces from wearing on one another.
Electrical Design Alternatives:
Design Alternative 1: Microprocessor with external short range radio.
This alternative is using a microprocessor with an external short range radio module, such as an
Xbee ZigBee module.
Design Alternative 2: Microprocessor with amateur radio link.
This is probably the most commonly used solution to this design challenge however there are a lot
of things to interface together and it is somewhat complicated.
Design Alternative 3: Microprocessor with integrated short range radio.
There are some microprocessors that have integrated radios similar to ZigBee modules. This
system will have the least amount of components
Client/User Operation:
The client and user operation of the valve has both mechanical and electrical considerations
and will be explained in detail individually.
Proper operation of the physical valve and related components is vital to the end user
successfully deploying the system. There are complexities associated with integrating the system
with the end user’s tracking and communication system as well as with connecting and filling the
necessary weather balloon. Easy to follow instructions and methods to reduce incorrect usage will
be vital for preventing errors and avoiding unnecessary confusion and frustration.
The valve system will require an interface on the outside of the flow tube that will allow the
user to easily and quickly connect the specified balloon type to it. This will be either a surface that
provides enough friction to retain the balloon nozzle, or a latching system that will capture it.
The valve system will also need an in-line fill system that will allow the user to fill the
balloon with Helium through the valve system after it has been connected. A unique fill nozzle that
can interface on one end with the Helium tank regulator, and on the other end with the valve, will
need to be created. This will allow the user the most efficient launch procedure, instead of having to
fill the balloon then attack to the valve.
The electrical and computer user interfaces are also important components of the valve
project. The electrical operation considerations will be detailed separately from the computer user
interface. Electrical operation includes the specification for interfacing the end user’s
communications equipment with the valve microprocessor. The computer user interface is used to
select the valve’s operating mode as well as for downloading sensor and operation data.
The user interface for the electrical system describes how the end user will interface their
communications system with the microprocessor within the valve system. Because the valve
system must interface with a wide range of tracking and communication systems, a protocol
standard must be developed and documented. This document will specify how to physically
interface with the valve microprocessor, electrical specifications for logic levels, and how data is
expected to be sent and received. The specifications for the physical connection with the device
must include port pin-out diagrams, special handling requirements (such as static electricity
precautions), and where to find the ports on the printed circuit board. The electrical specification
must include maximum and minimum electrical ratings, supported logic levels, and timing
requirements. Finally the protocol which is used to communicate data to and from the valve
microprocessor must be detailed (such as how and when to acknowledge a data byte).
The computer user interface will be used to both upload operating information to the valve
microprocessor and for downloading data stored in its onboard storage. A graphical user interface
should be used to easily perform these actions which can be run from either a software application
or a specially crafted webpage. If any features are not self-explanatory a user manual or electronic
help document should be present to guide the end user through the operation. The interface will
allow the end user to select modes of operation such as fully autonomous mode, a desired altitude
ceiling, what sensors to record data from, and/or if the valve should expect commands from the end
user’s own communication equipment mid-flight. The interface must also allow for downloading
flight information after the flight has concluded. The user interface must present this data in an
easy to work with file format such as comma separated values within a text file.
Decision Matrix:
Using a design matrix the best solution for the design challenge can be selected via
quantifiably criteria. In a design matrix on the left the different design alternatives are listed and
then along the top of the matrix the different design criteria are listed. Then the design alternatives
are systematically scored on a scale, in this case we are using a scale from 1 to 5 with 5 being the
best, against the selected criteria. For this design the selected criteria are power usage, cost
effective, ease of integration, durability, ease of use, and overall effectiveness. Power usage is
probably the most important criteria for this project. This is because low weight is a critical
requirement for the ballooning payload. More power usage means more batteries which translates
into more weight. Cost effective was chosen as a criterion because the final design needs to cost less
than $100 per unit for 100 units. Ease of integration with the rest of the system and ease of use for
the end user are obviously important because if it is too difficult to use no one will want to buy or
use the product. Durability of the design also translates to the lifetime of the product. A longer
product lifetime increases the value for the end user. The design alternatives were also scored for
overall effectiveness in meeting the design requirements for this project. The design matrix
generated is shown below with total scores for each design alternative in the far right column.
Ease of
Durability Ease
Microprocessor 3
and Short
Range Radio
Microprocessor 1
And Amateur
Radio With
Microprocessor 5
With Built In
Short Range
Scale: 1-5 With
5 Being the
Mechanical System
Butterfly Valve
Rotating Gate
From the above design matrix the winning design alternatives for the electronics system is
microprocessor with a separate short range radio module, and for the mechanical system the
rotating gate valve. These designs are superior to the other alternatives when compared with the
selected criteria.
Project Planning:
This report will detail the Project planning for the Weather Balloon Altitude Control
system currently being designed. This report will contain risk analysis information that
covers the severity and probability of the failure modes possible for this system. Next,
plans for mitigating risk items above the design threshold will be detailed. A brief
breakdown of the work structure for the project will also be included. This will cover high
level tasks that need to be completed for the project. The responsibility matrix will assign
various design goals to certain members of the design team. Finally, the report will be
concluded with a project schedule that will include a timeline for project goal completion.
Risk Analysis:
Open failure: The valve could fail to open on command, resulting in the balloon to rise to a
terminal altitude and burst, causing the project to fail the mission parameters and
potentially become lost.
Flow failure: the valve could fail to vent an adequate amount of Helium to satisfy the
mission requirements.
Close failure: The valve could fail to close after the venting cycle is completed, causing the
balloon to become negatively buoyant before float is achieved resulting in mission failure.
Mechanical Failure: The mechanical linkage between the balloon and payload could fail,
resulting in the payload descending before mission completion.
Communications Failure: The wireless link between the main payload and the valve
controller could fail and the ability to control the valve could be lost. This could result in the
balloon gaining excessive altitude and bursting if control is lost before burst, if control is
lost after neutral buoyance was achieved the balloon could go derelict, or if control is lost
when the valve is open the balloon could vent excess helium and land before intended.
Autonomous valve algorithm failure: If the algorithm to come to neutral buoyance fails the
balloon will either never vent helium and gain excessive altitude and burst of, vent too
much helium and land early, or the valve may open and close undesirably.
Code failure: Any type of infinite loop which may occur in the code would effectively
terminate the microcontroller's ability to control the valve or make other decisions.
Electronics failure: the power system which runs the electronics could fail or short and
draw more current than intended. This could cause the microcontroller to reset, damage to
the power system or electronics, or reduced battery life.
0=lowest severity, probability
10=High severity, probability
Risk Item
Open Failure
Close Failure
Flow Failure
Mechanical Failure
Communications Failure
Autonomous Valve Algorithm
Code Failure
Electronic Failure
Mitigation Strategy: ( it was determined that none of the risk factors were unacceptable, so
mitigation strategies were created for each one, independent of a trend line)
Open failure: This problem can be solved by appropriate tolerancing of mechanical
components, and correct execution of the autonomous vent code.
Flow failure: This problem can be solved by increasing the effective flow area of the valve.
Close failure: This problem can be solved by appropriate tolerancing of mechanical
components, and correct execution of the autonomous vent code.
Mechanical Failure: This problem can be solved by applying appropriate safety factors to all
mechanical components in the system.
Communications Failure: Thorough testing will the full system to insure there is no
interference or other unforeseen problems that would result in communications failure.
Autonomous valve algorithm failure: In order to mitigate the risks associated with the
algorithm rigorous simulation and testing will be done to assure that the algorithm
performs as intended.
Code failure: Full systems testing will mitigate most common code failure modes. Watchdog
timers can be used to prevent total system failure if unforeseen infinite loops occur.
Electronics failure: Full systems testing will mitigate any issues experienced with the
electronics design or power system. Current draw during different modes of operation will
be measured and analyzed to ensure the power system can perform as required.
Environment testing can be performed in the BOREALIS lab vacuum chamber.
Responsibility Matrix and Work Breakdown Structure:
Order Electronic Components
Electronic Prototyping
Valve 3D Modeling
Mechanical Calculations
Order Mechanical Components
Mechanical Prototype
Casing Design
Code Development
PCB Design
PCB Assembly
Website Construction
Final Mechanical Systems Assembly
Final Electronic Systems Assembly
Project Schedule:
Concept Development
The design alternative that was chosen from the decision matrix is a micro-controller with
an integrated radio and a rotating gate valve. Now that these design choices have been selected
above the others they will be further explained and developed. The individual components will be
explained in greater detail along with how they integrate with the other components in the overall
system. In order to make the best overall product a number of interviews were performed to get
some feedback on how the current design could be improved and if there should be any additional
features added. In accordance with the feedback that is received the design will be potentially
changed or added to. Even though the seemingly best design has been chosen there is some
potential for some design choices to fail. In order to prepare for this possibility a contingency plan
is developed and presented here.
Concept Design:
In order to achieve the goal of developing a weather balloon high altitude control system a number
of alternatives were evaluated. The designs that scored highest in the decision matrix were a
microprocessor with a built in wireless receiver and transmitter and a valve with a rotating gate.
This is shown below.
The following is a detailed explanation of the different components of the chosen design.
1. Preexisting Communications - This is not part of the design but is something the design will
interface with, so it is helpful to understand its function. The BOREALIS program at
Montana State University uses an iridium satellite modem for communications between a
ground station and the balloon during a flight. The ground station communicates with the
modem by sending an email to the Iridium company who then sends it via satellite to the
modem on the balloon payload. The modem has a serial connection and three digital pins
that can be interfaced with. Other ballooning groups use a variety of different options for
communicating with the balloon. Traditionally one of the most common has been using
amateur radio with a DTMF encoder and decoder which usually have a serial interface. The
goal of this design is to have a system that can be easily interfaced to whatever a given
group is using for their ground to payload communications. This will be accomplished by
having available Serial, I2C, and digital pins available.
2. Main Payload Micro-Controller And Radio Module - A micro controller that is compatible
with Arduino and a separate radio module will be used to relay commands from the
consumer's preexisting communications to the valve controller. As was mentioned in the
Preexisting Communications section this micro-controller will have serial, I2C and digital
pins available for interface with whichever ground-to-payload communication is being
employed. This will allow the customer the flexibility to use whatever method of
communication they choose. The micro-controller will receive and information sent from
the ground and will then be able to transmit that information to the valve controller
wirelessly via its integrated radio. The wireless feature will prevent any tangling or other
complications associated with using a wired connection between the main payload and the
3. Valve Micro-Controller And Radio Module - A second microcontroller and radio module will
be used to control the valve servo using a wired PWM signal. This micro-controller and
radio module will be the same one that is used in the main payload. The Valve controller
will receive commands from the main payload via its integrated radio and then according to
the received command send a PWM signal to the servo opening or closing the valve gate.
Another one of the goals for this design is to have the ability to have the valve operate
autonomously. What is meant by this is for the valve to open and close in order to come to
neutral buoyance, or float, at a preselected altitude. In order to accomplish this the valve
controller will be interfaced to a GPS unit so that it can read altitude data. Using this altitude
data in an algorithm the controller, based on rise rates, will determine when and for how
long to open the valve in order to achieve the selected altitude.
4. Rotating Gate Valve - The method by which the Helium will be vented from the balloon will
be a rotating circular gate valve. This valve will be constructed from milled polycarbonate
sheet 0.056 inch thick. The valve will consist of two circular parts that will be overlaid. The
outer and larger of the two circles will have four triangular holes placed symmetrically
about the inside of the circle, with one #6 hole at its center. This outer circle will be secured
to the end of the vent tube by a cylindrical tube cap, also milled from polycarbonate sheet.
The inside circle will be the negative of the outer ring, meaning that when the two rings are
overlaid and rotated to the correct alignment, the triangular hole in the outer ring are
closed off. This inner circle will also have a #6 hole at its center. The inner ring will have a
1/8 inch long #6 diameter pin secured to its center hole with adhesive. A four point servo
horn will be centered and secured to the opposite side with adhesive also. The servo horn
will attach to a sub-micro servo, and the servo along with a low powered compression
spring will be closed inside of the two halves of the servo casing, which will allow the
compression spring to press the servo and inner circle assembly forward, ensuring an
adequate seal between the inner and outer gate circles. The two gate circles will also be
coated with white lithium grease for lubrication, and to improve the seal made by the two
circles in contact.
5. Valve Housing - The valve housing, or main body tube, will be made from polycarbonate
tube I.D. 1 inch, wall thickness 1/16 inch. This will be cut in an 8 inch section, and have a
rectangular section removed from the lower end to allow for the servo casing to be
attached. The gate cap will then be secured, compressing the compression spring slightly.
The body tube will also have a balloon retention ring secured around the top to ensure that
the balloon will not come off during flight. The body tube will also feature an electronics
enclosure on the outside, with dimensions still to be determined.
Evaluation Criteria:
In order to make a more desirable product for the customer. A number of interviews with
potential customers were performed with the following questions.
Interview Questions
Our engineering team is designing a $100 microprocessor-controlled helium valve system
which will allow latex weather balloons to maintain a set, pre-selected altitude in the
atmosphere. This will allow a scientific payload to remain airborne for up to six hours.
Would your team be interested in such a product and how would the increased flight
duration be beneficial to you compared with your current flight system?
2. The helium valve being developed will be easy to attach to the industry standard Kaymont
latex weather balloons. All mechanics and electronics will be unobtrusive, light weight, and
rugged. How important is ease of use for a system such as this, and what concerns would
your team have about integrating a valve such as this into your existing flight system?
3. Our design will allow for fully autonomous operation or manual control using your existing
flight communications system (or both) to reach the desired altitude. Would your team
prefer one mode over the other?
Wireless communication is used to communicate between the valve assembly and the main
command and control payload. This avoids having to run external cabling which can
become tangled or damaged during flight. If wireless communication could also be extended
to your other payload electronics to facilitate wireless communication would you be
interested in such a feature? Do you have any concerns about the use of wireless
5. Are there any other features your team would like to see incorporated into this product? If
so what features?
The interviewees consisted of Berk Knighton, Randy Larimer, Angela Des Jardins, and Jen
Fowler. They provided feedback for how the product could be improved and features they would
like to see incorporated. This diverse group of potential clients includes educators, product
engineers, and field scientists. Through their unique perspectives we can determine if our plan is
converging with a perceived need that is currently underserved in the market we hope to enter.
Dr. Des Jardins' Response:
1. “I can think of several experiments that would benefit from a longer exposure to the spacelike environment as well as benefit from more time to collect data. Also, a longer flight
affords more control for landing in a preferred area.”
2. “Ease of use and reliability are certainly key. At this time, we simply tie the balloon closed
and let it burst, so adding a complicating factor would be a big step for us. If instructions
and information are very clear, I would feel more confident about using the valve. Other
concerns for integrating: we don’t have a method for cutting down our balloon – we just let
it pop. We would need some reliable way of terminating the flight at the time we wanted if
we were to have a valve. Also, we currently do basic flight predictions with an on-line
program that does not have extended flight time available. I would need help in finding out
how to predict how long to let the balloon float at what altitude, how long to vent the
balloon to get there, and in how to know when I should terminate the flight. Finally, we are
thinking about making the transition to hydrogen because it is so much less expensive. You
mention that this is a helium valve. I would want to make sure it would be okay for me to
use this valve using hydrogen as a lifting gas.”
3. “It seems to me that the only autonomous part of our current flights is that the balloon will
pop. Without that, it seems like each flight is so different, I can’t imagine how an
autonomous flight would work. That being said, in order to use manual control, I’d need
lessons on how to know how much to vent and when to get my desired float time and
altitude. Also, in order to use manual control, I’d have to have some way of communicating
with the valve, right? We don’t currently have any capability for sending commands, so we’d
need that additional piece (and complication) to our set up.”
4. “Reducing tangling sounds great. We don’t currently have any communication going
between payloads (as mentioned above) – we just store the data and retrieve it – but if we
did have that capability, I could see it being useful.”
5. “I already mentioned the most important features that might be incorporated – a
termination mechanism, communication to the payloads, and flight predictions. Can’t think
of any others right now.”
Randy Larimer's Response:
1. “Yes a cost effective solution to spend more time in a radiation filled environment would be
beneficial for testing redundant computing systems. Since the cost is reasonable more
flights could be conducted compared to sounding rockets or larger NASA balloon flights.”
2. “A simple to use system would be beneficial since my team has limited ballooning
experience. Can the balloon be filled easily as helium is expensive if we mess up? Is it easy
to tell when the system is powered on and working from a distance? We do not want to
fiddle with the system.”
3. “Fully autonomous would allow my team to set the altitude and forget it, focusing on our
real time data at float altitude. I guess having a backup manual mode would be good if
things go bad during the flight. What commands and how do I send them to the valve would
be a concern. Is there a format for the commands that I must follow?”
4. “Wireless communication between multiple payloads would be great! What command
format would I use to send and receive data on this wireless link? Will the wireless link
interfere with any of my other wireless products such as GPS or iridium communication?
Will it function next to a noisy GoPro camera or other high speed devices? How many hours
of service can I expect from this wireless link? Will it last the entire time?”
5. “Some type of test feature to determine that the wireless communication is working
between payloads…LED’s or audio? Some type of addressing for multiple payloads so I
know who I am talking to? Cut down or easy fill options would be great!”
Dr. Knighton's Response:
1. “I can see some potential applications for such a device. Since we are in the business of
flying radiosondes on routine basis, several hundred a year, it seems unlikely that we would
find use in our standard application where we are simply interested in collecting vertical
profile data. Severe weather events are times when extended flight times at a specified
altitude are desirable and we would definitely find your system useful for this application. “
2. “It's got to be easy to use and robust. Even though we launch often, our group doesn't
allocate much time to the process. Because we see this as a special application we are
willing to tolerate a bit more fiddling, but we are certainly interested in a device that
interfaces well with our existing equipment.”
3. “Autonomous operation for sure. We will know ahead of time what altitude level we will
want to study. Our data retrieval system is totally automated and so not having to have a
dedicated operator is very important.”
4. “Sounds great for academic ballooning programs, but we don't have any need for
communication between our measurement payload and the valve.”
5. “Since we do not anticipate recovering the system cost is critical as is ease of use. Setting
the altitude and powering the system needs to be easy. System status lights for power, GPS
lock and altitude set point acknowledgement are important features so that we know that it
is ready to fly. The ability to be able set the altitude manually or through a smart phone
will be helpful. We don't want to have to use a computer to initialize the valve system.”
General trends in the responses of our interviewees will be covered in the Converge Plan section.
Convergence Plan:
To build a convergence plan it is important for our team to take into account the feedback
received during our interview process (with potential customers) to determine if any changes need
to be made to our final design. This ensures that we are correctly gauging the needs of the intended
market and that we are providing a product that serves to resolve a need which (we feel) is
currently lacking in this market space. Incorporating this feedback also shows that our engineering
team is aware of the importance of our client's needs which will help build loyalty between our
design team and our clients.
The response from all interviewees was generally positive on all fronts and confirms that
our product fits into a very niche market. In the following paragraphs the feedback will be
evaluated for each interview question and how that feedback will help us converge our engineering
plan towards a completed product.
The first interview question was to gauge overall interest in our overall product from
several different perspectives, including academia, meteorology, and engineering. The overall
response was positive in confirming that a device such as ours would be accepted and desired. Dr.
Des Jardins suggests that the currently available flight prediction software in this sector cannot
predict landing zones when the balloon floats/hovers during the flight. As landing prediction is a
major component of traditional weather balloon flights we may need to develop our own flight
prediction software which can handle our flight profile or find products on the market which have
this capability already. Dr. Knighton indicated that he did not see a need in the market for vertical
profile radiosondes, however he noted that scientists studying extreme weather would be
interested. The potential academic clients were interested in how our product could allow for more
advanced, long duration flights for student experiments. Mr. Larimer also mentioned several
engineering specific use cases which could benefit from our system such as radiation tolerant
computing. From this feedback we note that in general our plan converges with the client's interest
in the capabilities it provides to their work. No changes would be required based on this section,
however the new areas of interest mentioned by our interviewees may indicate that we have not
fully investigated all of the potential uses for our product. It will be important for us to continue
conducting market research to find other niche applications for the helium vent.
The second interview question attempts to determine if our proposed design will be easy to
use and durable in the eyes of our potential clients. The question also opens the door for any
concerns the interviewees have about integrating the valve into their current system. The overall
response indicated that there was a slight hesitance to add additional complexity to existing
systems. Another common theme was that the system had to be as easy to use as possible to ensure
the device is actually used and to prevent errors. This does converge with several of our stated
design choices, including reducing external wiring by using wireless data transmission, integrating
a fill nozzle into the valve, and designing towards compatibility the industry standard latex balloon.
This also indicates that our team needs to potentially spend additional time on the documentation
and software design to ensure it is easy to use and configure our product. Finally, Dr. Des Jardins
inquired about our system being compatible with hydrogen gas. The industry may start to move
towards hydrogen gas as a buoyant gas since helium's price is highly dependent on oil production.
As hydrogen is explosive while helium is not this would present an additional engineering challenge
and likely also change the procedures for using the valve. While we will likely not change our design
plan to accommodate hydrogen at this phase, it will be very important for us to continue to watch
the market for helium to ensure our product is viable for the future. Our team must also ensure that
sufficient warning is provided to the clients to avoid using hydrogen gas with our product.
The third question is meant to determine how involved the end user will be in the operation
and control of the valve. Our team is currently planning to have two main modes: autonomous and
fully manual. The autonomous mode attempts to reach a preselected altitude with no input from
the user other than initially inputting the altitude. Manual mode would turn off any automatic
control functions and would rely on the end user having a method to control the valve midflight,
such as another microcontroller or satellite uplink. The feedback received from our interview
sessions overwhelmingly suggests that autonomous mode will be the stand out, and preferred,
mode of operation. This suggests that we need to invest a significant portion of our development
into the code performing the autonomous decisions. We will also need to focus on very thoroughly
documenting the proper use of this mode as some clients were apprehensive about how
complicated this process may be. There was some interest in the manual control mode but mainly
for contingency reasons. A standard protocol document which explains how the end user will
interface with and control the valve in manual mode will need to be thorough in scope. The
feedback received from these interviews suggests that our current engineering plan will converge
with the needs of our clients.
The fourth question asked of our interview panel was used to determine if the wireless
communication that we plan to implement would be a useful feature to the clients. Specifically we
currently plan to use wireless communication between the valve mechanism and the main control
system microcomputer which resides in a command payload below the valve (approximately 20
feet away). An additional feature our engineering team is planning on implementing is a general
wireless communication spec which would allow the clients to send data between payloads. This
would rely on wireless expansion modules that we would package in with our product. The
majority of those interviewed felt the wireless communication with the valve is a great idea that
they would like to see implemented. The wireless expansion modules sparked interest for those in
academic settings. As with most of our features, the interviewees wanted to know exactly how
these modules would work and how they would implement them into their current systems. This
suggests again (as a common theme) that we must have very thorough documentation which
describes the details required for using these more advanced features. Dr. Knighton suggests that
the radiosonde community would not see as much value in wireless communication. Our team will
need to determine if this suggests we need to explain the virtues of the wireless capabilities with
these groups more thoroughly, or if we need to market the other features of the valve to this
specific market (radiosonde meteorological community). The feedback received suggests that our
current engineering plan for this feature will converge with the requirements of our academia
clients, and our overall system will still be beneficial to the meteorological community.
The fifth and final question was open ended in an attempt to gather any other general
feedback the potential clients had to offer. The common themes mentioned were ease of use,
confirmation of proper operation, and low cost. Ease of use has been a common theme throughout
our interviews which again suggests our documentation needs to be thorough. The overall system
must also have features to indicate proper operation and status. LED status indicators were
mentioned several times as a way to confirm operation. This was not previously something the
engineering team considered so we must implement this feature to converge our plan with our
client’s needs. Dr. Knighton mentioned cost as a main metric by which our system would be
evaluated to the meteorological community. Referencing his suggestions to question four, this may
suggest that a second model of our valve could be developed with cost as main design factor.
Removing extra features such as wireless communication may result in an inexpensive product
which is more desirable to that community. If we implement these suggested features our plan will
converge on a product which our clients would be interested in using.
Contingency Plan:
There is some chance that our design choices will not work. In order to minimize the impact
on the end product it is necessary to make a contingency plan. Two potentially problematic design
choices are the valve design (it may not allow for the necessary amount of air flow), and the
selected microcontroller configuration (it might not interface as well as we would like or it might
consume too much power during operation).
If the microcontroller configuration selected does not work for various reasons the
contingency plan is to use the next design alternative that scored the next highest in the decision
matrix. If it is required we could select a low power, less powerful micro-controller for our design.
Also a more commonly used microcontroller could be selected, one that has been previously used
with a radio module for something similar to this application and has example code available.
There is a question as to whether or not the gate valve will have a high enough flow rate to
provide the user with neutral buoyancy within the specified vent time window. The gate valve
currently utilizes approximately 45% of the flow area available within the geometry of the flow
tube. If the flow rate ends up being inadequate, the butterfly style valve will be used. This valve will
allow an estimated 75% of the effective flow area provided by the inner geometry of the flow tube.
System Architecture
This Report will detail the system Architecture for the Weather Balloon Altitude Control
Project. The report will first explain in detail the system architecture plan for the project, covering
the major interfaces, their position in the assembly, and their function. This includes The flow tube,
the gate valve, the nozzle of the balloon, the main payload microcontroller, and the valve servo. This
section will be divided into mechanical and electrical groups to clarify the nature of each system
and its respective interfaces. The next section will cover the system interfaces together in a block
diagram. This representation will provide better insight into the different sections, and how they
interface. The next section will detail the sub-system interfaces. This includes the valve controller,
any third party communication payload, and the commands uploaded by the user during flight. For
this project, these are entirely electrical, and are explained below in more detail. Finally, the report
will cover the user interface for this project. this will include any setup, handling or operational
interfaces the user may encounter while using this system. For this project, user interface includes
attaching the balloon to the valve, filling the balloon through the valve using the fill station,
attaching the payload to the bottom of the valve, programming the microcontroller, and interfacing
the user's existing communications payload to the valve controller.
System Architecture Plan:
The mechanical portion of the valve project will have 3 interface connections. The first will
be an interface with the Helium fill station nozzle. This nozzle, when connected, will press a limit
switch connected to the microcontroller. this controller, after reading the switch as being pressed,
will activate the servo, and open the gate of the valve. this will allow for Helium to pass through the
tube of the valve into the balloon, which is the second interface. The flow tube of the valve has been
sized such that the nozzle of the balloon will fit over it snugly. The retention ring ( a raised portion
on the balloon end of the valve tube) causes the latex of the balloon nozzle to stretch, ensuring a gas
tight seal between the valve and the balloon nozzle. The third interface on the valve project is the
interface between the servo and the microcontroller. This allows the microcontroller to open or
close the valve when its logic is instructed to do so.
Interface between the bottom of the valve and the Helium fill nozzle
Interface between the top of the valve and the balloon nozzle
Interface between the valve gate servo motor and the microcontroller
Figure 1: Exploded CAD model of the Valve geometry
The electrical portion of this project will consists of interfaces between electrical
components, mechanical components, and the user. The first interface will be the interface between
the customers communications system and the microcontroller in the main payload. This is
interface will have user selectable options: serial, I2C, and or some digital control lines. The user
will be able to send commands and receive data via these this interface. The next interface is the
interface between the main payload micro-controller and the micro-controller on the valve. This
interface is going to be a wireless connection. This is achieved with a radio module controlled by a
micro-controller. Next the valve microcontroller interfaces to the servo that controls the valve gate
with a pulse width modulated signal. The user will interface with the microcontrollers by
connecting the microcontroller to a computer via USB cable and uploading their desired code.
Interface between the user's communication system and the main payload micro-controller
Interface between the main pay load and the valve micro-controller
Interface between valve micro-controller and the valve servo
Interface between the user and the microcontrollers
System Interfaces:
The following figure shows the different components of the system and how they interface
Sub-System Interfaces:
Software configuration interface: physical interface - The physical interface of the software
configuration interface describes the electrical connection of the programming cable with the main
payload controller. The user must plug a USB cable into their computer and connect the other end
with the main payload microcontroller, and then with the valve microcontroller. A label or graphic
will guide the user to the correct location for the programming cable. Then the settings outlined in
the user manual will be changed by the user according to their preference.
Software configuration interface: software interface - The software configuration interface is used
to program the main payload and valve controllers with the settings selected by the user. This
interface consists of a graphical user interface running on the customer-provided computer and any
setup or installation required to get the software running. The user must interact with the software
to select their desired settings.
Mechanical interface: connecting rigging lines to the valve and main payload - The mechanical
interface between the valve and main payload requires the user to physically couple their payload
to the helium valve hardware. The rigging lines used will be provided by the customer however our
product will provide hard mounting points to securely attach these lines to the valve.
Mechanical interface: attaching helium fill nozzle to the valve fill port - The mechanical interface
between the fill nozzle and fill port requires the user to physically connect a fill nozzle from their
helium tank and regulator to the fill port of the valve assembly. The user must then operate their
helium filling equipment to fill the latex weather balloon as needed.
Mechanical interface: inserting valve hardware into latex weather balloon - The mechanical
interface between the customer's latex weather balloon and the valve assembly requires the user to
mechanically insert the valve sub-assembly into the balloon nozzle. Once the valve has been
inserted to a reference mark the customer must secure the valve to the balloon using zip-ties or
other similar means.
Mechanical interface: turning on the valve electronics and verifying status - The valve electronics
require a mechanical interface between the user and the product activation switches. The user must
physically actuate the power switch to turn on the valve electronics. Once the electronics have
powered up the user must verify proper operation using status LEDs located on the valve
User Interfaces:
The user interfaces for the balloon valve system consist of two main components: the
mechanical assembly and construction of the valve with the balloon, and the electrical connections
and configurations required to operate and program the system. This section will describe the
human factors required for proper operation of both components. This will include any part of the
valve system which a human must touch or interact with to properly operation our product.
The first main component of the user interface will be those related to the mechanical and
physical valve assemblies. First the valve housing assembly user interface will be detailed (which
connects to the latex weather balloon), then the main payload subsystem interface (which is used to
interface with the customer's tracking system) will be detailed.
The valve housing assembly will likely have the most human contact over all other systems
in our product. The valve housing assembly has three main sub-interfaces: connection of the latex
weather balloon to the valve, attaching or detaching the helium fill nozzle, and turning the system
on and verifying operation.
Attaching the latex weather balloon will be a critical step requiring the user to physically
insert the valve into the balloon nozzle. As we are designing the valve hardware to fit within a
standard Kaymont weather balloon this operation should not require heavy exertion by the user.
The user must hold the latex weather balloon nozzle in one hand, and guide the valve assembly into
the balloon nozzle with the other hand. Once the valve is inserted far enough into the latex balloon
(indicated by a reference mark) they will need to secure the balloon to the valve using zip-ties to
ensure the balloon does not slip off during use. The user must then physically couple their main
payload to the valve using their own rigging materials. The valve will provide hard mounting points
which the user may use to affix nylon rope (or similar) as required.
The second mechanical interface will be between the helium fill nozzle and the valve (which has
already been inserted into the latex balloon). This consists of attaching a helium fill tank (which the
user must supply and know how to operate) to the valve such that the balloon may be inflated. As
the valve itself starts in the closed position the user will be able to fill the latex balloon with the
valve assembly already assembled. Our product will supply a fill nozzle or adapter which will
connect to the customer's helium tank using industry standard hardware. The user must physically
couple the helium fill tube (connected to their helium tank and regulator) to the valve assembly and
ensure it is connected securely before turning on the helium flow through the regulator. Once the
balloon has been filled to customer specifications the user will then need to decouple the helium fill
tube from the valve assembly.
The third and final mechanical interface will be turning on the system and verifying it is
operational. Both the main payload controller and the valve assembly will have electronics which
must be activated prior to use. The product will have a switch or other method used to turn on each
device and status LEDs which indicate proper operation. Activating the system will require that the
user manipulates the activation mechanism and also observes the status LEDs which appear.
The electrical connections and software configurations are the other primary interface with
our product. These components will be used to configure the microcontroller for proper operation
and ensure the customer's systems can properly communicate data with our product.
The electrical connection is the physical coupling of the main payload controller with the
client's tracking and communication system. The main payload controller will contain data ports or
screw terminals which the user must electrically connect to their system (if this functionality is to
be used by the client). This may involve the user providing their own cables and tools (such as
screwdrivers) to mechanically couple these devices. A protocol datasheet will be provided with the
product which will describe how the user must communicate (through their tracking and
communication system) with our product. The user must be able to interpret this protocol and
configure their own equipment as needed for this data link.
The second electrical and configuration user interface will be the software graphical user
interface used to configure the product to the user's requirements, in this case the Arduino
programming IDE and the Xbee configuration software, XCTU. This software must be executed on
the user's computer by downloading it from a location we specify. The software will provide
meaningful labels or instructions guiding them through the process of configuring the valve
electronics. The user will select or enter various settings into the software according to their needs,
such as manual or autonomous mode and the desired float altitude. Once all settings have been
entered the user will connect a USB cable to their computer (which is provided with the valve
system) and the other end of the cable into the main payload controller. This will start the software
programming of the user selected configurations onto the microcontroller of the main payload
controller. Labels or other indicators will be present on the main payload controller which will help
the user select the correct port to plug the programming cable into. A graphical alert will instruct
the user when the programming process is complete, after which they may unplug the
programming cable. Status LEDs will provide some low level indication of configuration and
operating status.
Detailed Design
This section outlines the materials required for this design and their specifications. This
product can be divided into two sections, the mechanical or valve section and the electrical or
controller section. The valve section will require numerous custom and off the shelf pieces of
hardware to produce. The electrical section requires microcontrollers, a GPS unit, various circuit
elements, and two custom made printed circuit boards. There are some possible production issues
that need to be kept in mind when designing and getting ready to produce this product, such as a
shortage of the items required to build this product. A potential customer will want to know how
the product will perform and what its expected lifetime is, for instance the fact that this product is
designed to for one use, but could potentially last much longer should the consumer choose to
retrieve and reuse it.
Layout Drawings:
Bill of Materials
Alginment Pin
Gate Cap
Gate Outer
Gate Inner
Servo Case Left
Servo Case Right
Main Tube
Control Board
Valve Case
Nozzle Clamp
Retention Ring
Servo Horn
Sub-Micro Servo
6-32 Nylock Nut
6-32 x 3/8" Machine Screw
6-32 x 1/4" Machine Screw
Main Payload Micro-Controller (ATmega328)
Valve Micro-Controller (ATmega328)
Miscellaneous discrete electronics parts (to be determined)
Xbee Radio Modules (XB24CZ7RIS-004)
Purchased Component Specifications
Servo Horn
Sub-Micro servo
6-32 Nylock Nut
6-32 x 3/8" Machine Screw
6-32 x 1/4" Machine Screw
18/19 Micro-Controller - ATmega328
GPS Unit - MTK3339
Electronic Components TBD
Specifications GPS Unit - MTK3339
-165 dBm sensitivity, 10 Hz updates, 66 channels
Ultra low power usage: 20mA current draw while tracking
3.3V operation,
RTC battery-compatible
Built-in datalogging
PPS output on fix
We have received reports that it works up to ~32Km altitude (the GPS theoretically does
not have a limit until 40Km)
Internal patch antenna + connection for optional external active antenna
Fix status output
Ultra small size: only 16mm x 16mm x 5mm and 4 grams
Micro-Controller -ATmega328
16 MHz
Arduino compatible
Xbee Radio Modules (XB24CZ7RIS-004)
60m Indoor/Urban Range
1200m Outdoor/RF Line-of-Sight Range
Transmit Power - 3.1 mW (+5 dBm) / 6.3 mW (+8 dBm) boost mode
Receiver Sensitivity (1% PER) - 100 dBm / -102 dBm boost mode
Data Rate - RF 250 Kbps, Serial up to 1 Mbps
Configuration Method - API or AT commands, local or over-the-air
Serial Data Interface - UART, SPI
Frequency Band - ISM 2.4 GHz
Dimensions (L x W) and Weight - 0.87 in x 1.33 in x 0.12 in (2.20 cm x 3.40 cm x 0.30 cm);
1.40 oz (40.00g)
Printed Circuit Boards
Two Printed Circuit Boards:
One to accommodate the main payload controller
One to accommodate the valve controller and a GPS unit
Designed with a minimal footprint
F Antennas for the IEEE 802.15.4 radios will be designed into the printed circuit board
Detailed Design:
Valve Assembly, 10/27/14
Valve Flow-rate Calculations. Note: Final flow-Rate for Valve will be calculated pending results of
flow-rate experiment.
Valve Mechanical calculations
Micro Controller Interface and Wireless Communications:
The two microcontrollers, one in the main payload and one on the valve, will communicate
via a 2.4 Ghz radio module using the Zigbee protocol. These radios are designed for short range
communications.. The typical distance that these microcontrollers will need to communicate over
will be approximately 4 meters. These radios should be more than capable to transmit and receive
over this distance. The interface between the main payload microcontroller and the consumer’s
preexisting communications system can be I2C, UART, or some digital control lines.
Product Lifecycle :
This product is designed to be a single use item, much like traditional radio sondes. The product
will be something the consumer has to buy prior to each flight. Unfortunately due to the nature of
ballooning once the balloon is launched it is generally not recovered so recycling is not applicable
and the final disposal of the product is it being left out in the environment. Most components
utilized in the design are inert or non-toxic which should prevent environmental contamination.
Should the consumer choose to recover the product it will be reusable. The lifetime of the product
should the consumer choose to recover it could potentially be tens of uses. To reuse the product all
the consumer would have to do is recharge or replace the battery and if necessary upload new
software to the microcontrollers.
Production issues could cause delays in the shipment of the product to our clients. Most of the parts
produced for the valve system will require machining of raw materials for the physical construction
of the valve. Any delay in acquiring these raw materials could cause the production to slow or stop
especially if an outside machining service is used. That being stated none of the raw materials are
exotic and are easily procured locally or through a supplier. The main printed circuit boards will
not be manufactured in-house and as such will be vulnerable to any production delays at the
manufacturer. The discrete components used to populate the printed circuit board are not exotic
and it is not expected that a shortage or delay would be incurred in ordering them. Several major
component suppliers (DigiKey, Jameco, etc) can supply these components in abundance.
From production to the end of the life of the product the timespan will probably be a couple of
months at a minimum and if the consumer reuses the product it could be as long as a couple years.
This really depends on the consumer and how they choose to use the product.
Analysis and Test
Failure Modes and Effects Analysis:
Potential Failure
Balloon disconnects
from Valve assembly
Premature descent of
the payload, Potential to
lose payload.
Locking clamp assembly on the neck of
the valve
Valve Fails to vent
adequate Helium
Premature descent of
the payload, Potential to
lose payload.
Ground testing and design to ensure
adequate flow rate
Mechanical Failure
Premature descent of
the payload, Potential to
lose payload.
Mechanical components designed with
an appropriate safety factor
Balloon reaches
neutral buoyancy
and passes out of
control range
Loss of payload
independent timer failsafe that will
open the vent after the mission clock
has expired
loss of control, and
potential loss of payload.
Extensive testing to make sure that under
normal operating conditions the
communications link will be on.
Autonomous Valve
Algorithm Failure
potential loss of payload.
Extensive testing and simulation.
Code failure
loss of control, and
potential loss of payload.
Extensive testing and simulation.
General Electronics
loss of control, and
potential loss of payload.
Testing of electronic components to make
sure they are working properly.
Physical Testing:
A flow rate test for the vent gate of the valve will be conducted as soon as possible. This will
be a physical test of the mechanics of the system to determine their effectiveness at ambient
conditions. this test will also provide a value for the flow coefficient used in the flow rate
calculations, which is currently unknown. This test will also provide a mechanical tension test of the
valve structure, as it will be stressed in the same way as it will be in actual operation.
While preparing for the critical subsystem demo it was discovered that the selected design
for the microcontrollers and the 2.4 GHz was not going to work for this application as well as had
been expected. It was going to be far too complicated for customers and students who didn't have a
lot of experience with programming to configure and customize the product to their specific
application. This caused a reevaluation of the decision matrix to rescore the ease of use design
metric. This resulted in changing designs from the micro-controller with a build in radio to an
Arduino compatible microcontroller and a separate radio module. This will be much simpler for the
user to customize and configure the product.
Cost Analysis:
Qty. Raw Matl. Cost (per
Testing Cost
Gate Cap
Gate Outer
Gate Inner
Servo Case
Servo Case
Main Tube
Valve Case
Nozzle clamp
6-32 Nylock
Mach. Screw
Mach. Screw
Xbee Radio
$300/ Test
Total Valve
Once a working prototype has been fabricated and numerous tests and simulations have
been done test flights on actual balloons will have to be conducted. Currently there are 3 test flights
and then one final demonstration flight allotted for this project. Each flight will cost approximately
$300. These flights are critical in making sure everything operates as intended.
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