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Flight S3R -1

This was our first flight on October 10th, 2009. Like many of you are thinking about doing, we used a cell phone to send the position information from the balloon. DON’T DO IT!. It doesn’t work and it is against FCC (not FAA) rules.

This was the longest recovery we have had. It took 3 months and a lot of luck to get it back.

The plan was to use a cell phone with Boost Mobile (Uses Sprint’s network) and AccuTracking ( to follow the balloon. We purchased their $99 starter kit that included everything we needed. We added a Nikon S-6 camera. The nice thing about this camera is that it has a time-lapse mode that takes a picture every 30 seconds. This was easier than using the CHDK software ( with a Cannon camera. We added a package tracker from Sparkfun to record some in flight data to give us a nice little payload under 4lbs for our first flight. Add a 600 gram balloon from eBay, a home made parachute, and about $80 worth of helium and we were ready to fly.

Everything at launch went pretty well. The only problem was we couldn’t get a signal on the phone. We had a signal not far from the launch site but not right there. We decided that it should pick up the signal after it had gone up a few hundred feet so we went ahead with the launch. We had a signal on the ATT laptop dongle so we could watch the track as soon as we got a signal.

After watching the takeoff we went to the computer to watch for the track. It never came. We suspect that the phone had a message that said something like “Press 1 to start tracking” on the screen for the entire flight. At this point the only 2 options were to go home or go to the predicted landing site (Near Space Ventures has a great prediction tool here: We headed for the landing site but never got any indication of where the balloon was. After a few hours we all went home disappointed.

Fast forward about 3 months and we get a call from someone that had been hiking in the mountains at the far edge of the predicted landing site. He brought it home and gave us a call. The payload had been recovered. It took 3 months but we finally got to see the pictures! You can see some of the best ones below. If you want to see the flight path you can load this KMZ file in Google earth:

Reasons to not use a cell phone in a balloon

  1. It is illegal. 47 C.F.R. § 22.925 “Prohibition on airborne operation of cellular telephones” prohibits use or even turning on a phone in the air. The problem is that from the air you can hit a lot of cell towers at once. This can cause problems for the entire cell network.
  2. It is unreliable. In our case the failure was extreme but if you read most of the stories on the web they all lose contact at some point. The antennas on cell towers are designed to concentrate the signal on the ground, not into the air.
  3. None of the carriers have 100% coverage. Once you get away from the cities and the major highways the coverage is spotty. That applies here in the Arizona desert as well as the corn fields in Iowa.

If you want a cheap way to maintain contact with your balloon talk to an Amateur Radio (ham) operator. The technician class license is pretty easy to get these days and that is all you need to get started with an APRS (Automatic Packet Reporting System) setup for your balloon. You can learn more about that here: In fact you will find that this hobby is 99% amateur radio enthusiasts.

Or if you want to find other ways to do this, read about our later flights. We have come up with ways to track the balloons without using amateur radio equipment. Why take the easy way out when you can spend a lot more money to do it your way?

What we learned from S3R-1

  1. Don't use a cell phone.
  2. Put your name and phone number in the payload.
  3. Be ready to lose everything you send up.

Below are some of the more interesting pictures from S3R-1.

This is a picture of the balloon being tied off after filling.

This is a picture of everything ready to go.

This is a picture seconds before lift off.

This is a picture seconds after lift off.

This is a picture of the balloon...not very good against a cloudy sky.

Once we got the balloon back, we were able to get some great pictures off the camera and find out where it had been.

This is a picture right after liftoff.

This is a picture one minute later.

This is a picture of farmland from above the clouds.

This is a picture of the edge of the earth

This is another picture of the edge of the earth, with a ice covered lense.

This is yet another picture of the edge of the earth, with a ice covered lense.

This is a picture on the way down.

This is another picture on the way down.

This is a picture of the bush the camera landed next to...we have hundreds of these!