Last March I announced an ambitious new project that had the potential of being one of the most exciting that we have ever undertaken. Nick-named HURRB for Hurricane Balloon, the goal is simple: use a weather balloon to loft a payload consisting of four GoPro cams and a collection of GPS recording and transmitting devices in to the eye of a hurricane at landfall. The balloon and payload should reach an altitude of at least 100,000 feet before bursting in which case the payload would fall back to the ground via parachute. That was the idea. And so we embarked on a fund raising campaign and raised the capital needed to build a prototype and test it in Texas last May. As noted in a recent blog post concerning a related project with CNN, the test in May was nearly perfect. All that was needed was a hurricane to launch in to – we had Isaac but its eye was not clear enough nor was its position over southeast Louisiana ideal for recovery. So we passed. Sandy was not a hurricane at landfall, not in the traditional sense, so it was not an option either. Now we wait again for the chance to let HURRB fly.
However, in just the past year, a lot has changed with technology and we will not be waiting around with the same equipment that we ended 2012 with. GoPro debuted a new camera last fall – the Hero3. It has the capability of shooting in stunning, digital cinema quality 4k video! Can you imagine seeing the inside of the eye of a hurricane and then flying out of it to 60,000 feet above it in video that is of the same quality as most digital movies at your local theater? Yeah, you can see why we are excited about this. Add to this the fact that we will use four cameras and not just one or two and it puts this project as #1 on our list of goals to accomplish in 2013.
Beyond the video, which will be nothing short of extraordinary I am sure, there is GPS data to collect. Using APRS, an Amateur Radio beacon, and other on-board GPS data recorders, we can track the payload and record its movements in 5 second intervals. This will help us to get a clear picture of the wind flow inside the eye of a hurricane as it is making landfall. We are going to donate ALL of the GPS data that we collect to anyone interested in utilizing it. There are a lot of questions to be answered. Where will the balloon go once released? Will it go straight up if we launch in the middle of the eye? Will it reach the top, probably 35,000 to 40,000 feet up and keep going up or will it then head off in one particular direction? We do not know. The project, once it succeeds, will give us the answer. I am a science and weather geek by my very nature and this project is as cool as they come. We are hoping for the chance to launch but realize that this will mean we have to have a landfalling hurricane this coming season. Obviously we do not control that nor do we wish for the painful aftermath that hurricanes leave behind. The way I look at it, if there is a hurricane, who better to be there and at least learn as much as we can about it? Right? Perhaps this project will inspire others to do similar work. After all, landfall is when it matters the most, let’s learn when given the chance, no matter how rare that chance may be.
HURRB has its own Twitter account and will post links to its data feeds and other info when the time comes. Feel free to follow along: @HURRB
We plan to test again this coming May in Texas. Why Texas? It’s flat and fairly easy to recover the payload there. We know (boy do we know) that finding the payload after launch can be difficult, especially when we do it in a hurricane. So we figure getting the launch part down to a precise science is vastly more important that worrying about simulating recovery conditions. We will have GPS tracking devices on the payload, two layers of back-up, maybe three, and thus we are confident we will at least know where it lands after a launch in to the eye of a hurricane. The hardest part will be getting in to position to launch in the first place. We need to get everything ready so that all we have to do is plop down a tarp, unload the helium tank and fill that giant balloon, tie it off and let it go in under 10 minutes. So much will depend on how large the eye is, how fast it is moving and where we are inside of it. Our goal is to be in the dead center where the wind should be almost calm. This gives us a real shot at letting that balloon go and having it rise at about 1200 feet per second. In less than half an hour, if all goes well, the APRS unit should tell us that we cleared the eye. If we can just do that, I will be so happy, as will the entire team. This is why we need to test again in May. We must get everything ready in advance and know the role of each team member. The clock will be ticking and we will be under enormous pressure to get things done and launched before the other side of the eye arrives. Remember – this is all to be done at showtime inside the eye of a hurricane, not on a nice sunny day in Texas. Practice will make things easier, but not perfect, it’s never perfect.
As you can see, we have several major projects in the works for this season. This is what the off-season is for. We are glad to have the time to plan and talk things over, to innovate and be ready for the chance to do some good when a hurricane does come calling. We hope you’ll following along throughout the coming months and can be with us when everything comes together. Whether it be this HURRB project, our remote cams or the app, we have three distinct but related projects that can help to bring you the best hurricane news and information that we can. I’ll post updates about these projects periodically over the coming weeks and months. Then, before we know it, June 1 will be here. We will be ready, that much I can promise you.
Check out our HURRB page here.