Will this be the year that HURRB flies? If given the chance, we will make it happen

HURRB Logo

HURRB Logo

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.

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Improving our iPhone app and getting an Android version ready for the 2013 hurricane season

HurricaneTrack for iOS

HurricaneTrack for iOS

As I continue to outline the top three major projects that we will be undertaking between now and the start of the hurricane season, it is time to look at our app.

It officially launched last August 1 with several unique features that we were excited about utilizing as the hurricane season ramped up. Those features included our blog, Twitter and Facebook feeds as well as a daily video blog that was used to highlight any potential trouble spots in the tropics. Then, when it came time to hit the road for a field mission, the app’s true power would become apparent.

Once out on the road, heading to a hurricane landfall such as we had with Isaac, we could use the app to post video updates from anywhere – at anytime. While we did have a bug that caused the video page to randomly not update as it should, we still managed to upload 26 video updates from Florida to Mississippi and Louisiana during Isaac’s several day assault on the region. The video updates, such as the one embedded below, kept app users in the loop as to what was going on where we were. Even though we employ live streaming video and it certainly is effective, there is something organic and fluid about being able to post video updates on the fly from any location. This allowed us to bring breaking news type content to the app and it kept a growing audience informed – despite the technical issues we had during its first true test in the field.

 

Screen Capture of Weather Data Page from our App during Isaac in Gulfport, MS

Screen Capture of Weather Data Page from our App during Isaac in Gulfport, MS

The other innovative feature that I really hope would work was the deployment of the weather station and live web cam. We have three distinct pages set up in the app for a total of three weather stations. I chose to only bring one during Isaac to make sure it would all work they way it was designed. It was nearly flawless. In fact, the data was 100% flawless and updated every 60 seconds for over 40 hours straight! Wind and pressure data were available in the app, without missing a beat, for almost two days as Isaac passed by the Mississippi coast. The web cam worked about 60% of the time as the laptop had an internal clock issue that made the software “wig out” every once in a while. Those who know my persistence know that this was just a hurdle that could easily be dealt with for future deployments. The fact of the matter was that we set up a high-end, precision weather station and a live cam and it worked as designed. See the screen shot at left – this was taken at the height of the surge in Gulfport, an incredible shot to be sure. I can only imagine what it would have been like to have this technology during Katrina.

Now let’s fast forward to Sandy in late October. We fixed the video page issues and I uploaded video posts from the Outer Banks where I worked with long-time friend and colleague Jesse Bass during the Friday-Sunday morning time frame as Sandy passed the Outer Banks.

Screen capture showing the weather data and cam image from Kill Devil Hills during Sandy

Screen capture showing the weather data and cam image from Kill Devil Hills during Sandy

He and I set up the weather station, the same one used in Gulfport, this time with the laptop’s internal clock fixed (thanks to Paul) and it worked perfect! We had live wind and pressure data and a live web cam image hitting the app just as we had engineered it to. I was very pleased at the results and often checked the app on my own iPhone myself to see what was going on where had deployed the station – at a cottage right on the ocean in Kill Devil Hills. It was incredible to watch the wind ramp up, the pressure slowly fall and the ocean turn angry and full of froth as Sandy’s energy arrived along the fragile strip of land that we have come to know and love for so many years ourselves.

By Sunday, October 28, it was time to pack up the gear and I would head north to New Jersey to set it all up again. I did just that, despite being without sleep for over 30 hours. I chose a parking lot at the Monmouth Beach Club, again, right along the ocean front. The data was good, but the exposure to the wind was not the best. This time, the web cam image was what astounded us the most. App users watched all day as the parking lot filled with ocean water from Sandy’s immense surge that it was pushing ahead as it neared land. By early evening, it was too much and the water level rose enough to overtake the Storm Case itself, far in the back of the parking lot, as far away from the ocean as I could get it when I set it up! It was not enough. Check out the last image that was sent to the app before the equipment was undoubtedly rolled by a big wave and subsequently destroyed.

Last image sent to the app from the weather station set up in Long Branch, NJ

Last image sent to the app from the weather station set up in Long Branch, NJ

As disappointing as it may seem to lose $2500+ worth of equipment, I was actually not too bent about it. Why? It did precisely what it was meant to do and that was record and transmit data and images as long as it could, without me having to be there. Heck, I was safe and sound, quite dry and warm, in my Tahoe the whole time. I was never in any danger while the weather station and cam unit took the beating, I was out of harm’s way. To me, this was a success. It became dark shortly there after and Sandy made landfall in southern New Jersey soon after that. I accomplished what I had set out to do and users of the app benefited from the video blogs that I kept posting and the live data that was streaming in from the weather station.

So what’s next? Obviously there is a strong demand for an Android version. As I am not an app developer, I do not write the code for the app. As such, we work with a firm here in Wilmington, NC who has pioneered some innovative technology to get certain things to work as I envisioned. This costs money and the support that goes with it is nearly priceless. I chose to roll out an iOS version first and then move on to getting an Android version out as soon as possible.

The work is underway to produce an Android version of HurricaneTrack for release in May. It will have the same features as our iOS version.

As far as new enhancements for the app as a whole – well, let’s just say that those too are coming. Obviously, I want to put in to operation three weather stations for the next hurricane landfall to fully populate the app with data and web cam images. Now that we know it does in fact work, this will be a top priority of mine going forward. I think that data is critical during a hurricane landfall, tropical storms too. My objective is to have all three weather station “slots” filled in the app, both iOS and Android, during the first field mission of 2013. That would be incredible- imagine being able to switch between locations, especially during a significant hurricane landfall? We could have a station deployed in one location while the other two are 10 to 20 miles away, set up like a net to capture reliable and accurate wind and pressure data- complete with a live web cam image to show what the scene looks like. We are going to make it happen.

Of course, the other features such as the video blogs, will continue to get better and better as we gain experience posting clips several times per hour during our field work. The daily video blogs will be improved as well with a new look and feel to the entire production. Let us also not forget the tracking maps that we have or the live web cam image and GPS plot coming from the Tahoe. All of these will be tweaked to the best of our ability as we prepare for the 2013 hurricane season.

If you do not yet have our iOS app, by all means get it now. It’s on sale during the winter for only $1.99, so take advantage.

I’ll keep our visitors posted on the progress of the Android version as well as to any updates we make to the iOS edition. Keep your fingers crossed, if all goes as planned, we’ll have some great news to announce come May.

Tomorrow, I will outline the top project that we are working on in preparation for the 2013 hurricane season. If it works, the result will be, well, out of this world (almost anyway).

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Top three things we hope to accomplish in preparation for the 2013 hurricane season

The New Year is here and we start fresh with a set of ideas and projects that we plan to tackle during the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season. Many of these projects will be in development over the coming weeks and months and some will have to wait until there is a chance for a landfall somewhere along the U.S. coastline.

I have outlined the top three major projects for 2013, beginning with #3 today. I will post #2 on Sunday and #1 on Monday. As always, our main objective will be to inform the public to the best of our ability about the hazards from tropical cyclones. As a team, we have a vast amount of experience – especially when it comes to impact and what to expect. So without any more lead up, let’s get on with the list!

#3: Develop new remote cams for easier deployment during landfalls

Storm Case Cam

Storm Case Cam with laptop, large AGM battery and other components used to stream and record live video during a hurricane.

In 2005, we developed our innovative remotely operated camera systems that would stream and record live video during even the worst of hurricane conditions. The “Storm Case Cams” as we called them, were meant to be placed where we had no business being. A simple bullet cam, connected to the Storm Case by a 60 foot cable, would be mounted via an inexpensive L-bracket to anything vertical but, most importantly, strong. After a tough first deployment during Katrina in Mississippi where we lost or otherwise had issues with the units, we quickly triumphed over any hurdles and by the time we got to Wilma in October of that year, we had a successful deployment in Collier county, Florida. We proved that using self-contained camera, laptop and battery systems to stream live video and record it locally would be a 100% safe and effective way to get closer to a hurricane’s effects than we could as mere mortals.

Hurricane Ike Cam

Mike Watkins setting up Storm Case Cam during hurricane Ike

By 2008 when Ike hit Galveston, Texas, we had refined the system to the best of our abilities at the time and again streamed live and captured incredible video of Ike’s storm surge without us having to be there – keeping Mike Watkins and me safe.

In 2012, I set up one Storm Case Cam in Long Branch, NJ for Sandy. It streamed live video from an incredible point of view for about eight hours. Then the storm surge and large breaking waves moved in to the location where I had set up the unit along the boardwalk and swiftly ripped the case out of the steel bike rack that I had attached it to. The resulting battering that the laptop and other components took rendered the unit useless for future deployments. It was that event that led me to begin working on a smaller, easier system that did not rely on the 75 pound AGM battery that we were using up until then.

While I cannot go in to details of what we will be using for 2013, I will say that we have solved the problem. What once took a Storm Case the size of a small foot locker can now be fit inside one the size of a briefcase. Thanks to a private investment from a HurricaneTrack supporter, we now have a new version of the Storm Case Cam which we will be testing often during the next few months. Once we head out on a field mission, I will post pics of the new units. Much of the technology is off-the-shelf stuff but the assembly of everything for this purpose – the purpose of getting in to the teeth of a hurricane virtually – is what makes it unique and innovative. We will now be able to set out the cams and mount them almost anywhere, high up off the ground, keeping them safe from surge while allowing them to stream stunning live video from a point of view that would likely be lethal to a human being.

Below is a sample video from our Ike deployment of the Storm Case Cam in Bermuda Beach, TX in 2008:

Tomorrow: Top project #2 for 2013: Continued development of our iPhone app and the introduction of HurricaneTrack for Android.

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The importance of finding ‘Yeager’

Sometimes failure is an option. Actually, failure is often not an option but rather a necessary evolutionary step within a project. Learning from failure is how one eventually succeeds.

Allow me to explain….

You may be aware of our HURRB project. The goal of this project is to send a payload, via weather balloon, to the edge of space from inside the eye of a hurricane. The resulting video and GPS data that we could gather will probably be nothing short of extraordinary.

Kerry Mallory, from Houston, assists with the test launch of HURRB back in May

Kerry Mallory, from Houston, assists with the test launch of HURRB back in May

We tested the project in late May near Buffalo, Texas with near perfect results. The payload, made of a $2.36 cooler, had four GoPro HD cameras attached to its outside. On the inside was a collection of tracking equipment, including the first Android phone – the HTC G1. It would send its GPS position over the cellular network as long as it was below a few thousand feet. We also had a SPOT satellite based GPS beacon that would work from the ground to around 59,000 feet. We launched our balloon and it went to at least 94,000 feet and probably higher than that. We do not know for sure since we did not have a GPS tracker that worked above the consumer standard 59,000 feet mark. I estimate 94,000 feet based on the ascent rate and the amount of time the video shows before the balloon burst. In any case, everything went about as well as could be expected considering it was our first attempt at this project.

A look inside of the CNN "Yeager" payload. The orange device is the SPOT locator, the yellow device is the APRS unit and the black device is the G1 cell phone.

A look inside of the CNN "Yeager" payload. The orange device is the SPOT locator, the yellow device is the APRS unit and the black device is the G1 cell phone.

Then, in mid-June, Chris Erickson, a producer from CNN International Newsource, got in touch with me asking for some advice on a similar project he was putting together. He was not wanting to launch a balloon in to a hurricane, but rather was working on a story about how pretty much anyone with a little ingenuity could pull off this growing hobby of launching high-altitude balloons to capture stunning HD video from the edge of space.

I agreed to help out and actually asked if we could test some additional equipment on the CNN payload. We wanted to test out an APRS beacon, used by amateur radio operators to send out data and other messages via the amateur radio band. The GPS chip in the unit that we had purchased would work well above the 59,000 feet altitude mark and this meant we could track it to 100,000 feet or higher – which was Chris’s goal. I also contributed our SPOT satellite tracker and our G1 phone to help make sure we could find the payload once it fell back to Earth.

A look at the balloon as it is filled at Falcon Field in Peachtree City, GA

A look at the balloon as it is filled at Falcon Field in Peachtree City, GA

On June 23, exactly a month after we first tested HURRB in Texas, I met up with CNN, actually several producers and reporters from their International Newsource group, in Peachtree City, Georgia. I was joined by HurricaneTrack.com supporter and HAM radio operator, Kerry Mallory. It was his funding that provided the APRS unit that we would test during the CNN launch. Since every cool science project needs a nick-name, this was one was called “Yeager” after Chuck Yeager who first broke the sound barrier back in 1947.

With the help of the National Weather Service office in Peachtree City, about 25 of us gathered to set Yeager loose in to the warm Georgia sky near 8am ET, Saturday, June 23. The balloon and payload, which had three GoPro cams attached, took off almost straight up and stayed nearly above our heads for at least 20 minutes. We tracked it using the APRS website on our iPhones and were all very excited about getting Yeager in to the air. Now it was time for a quick bite to eat before we would set out to retrieve the payload after the balloon burst upon reaching its maximum altitude – hopefully 100,000 feet or higher.

As it turned out, something went wrong. The payload only made it to 66,000 feet before falling back to the ground. There was considerable disappointment and I wondered immediately what had happened.

The SPOT locator told us where to look as it sent out a signal every 10 minutes to a special page on our account with their website. There was no data from the G1 phone and the last APRS reading showed Yeager was at 5100 feet. It is important to note that we had the APRS set to beacon its location every two minutes. So it was entirely possible that the payload was on the ground between updates. And, since this system operates via the amateur radio network, it would be difficult to get a signal out to the Internet via repeaters unless one was very close by to Yeager’s location on the ground. In other words, the higher up the APRS unit is, the more repeaters “hear” its message. When it’s on the ground, it would have to be very close to either a hand held radio receiver or a ground based repeater.

iPhone photo of my laptop and the location of the SPOT locator which is where the burst balloon remnants, the parachute and the wooden dowels were found - the SPOT device was still attached to the dowel

iPhone photo of my laptop and the location of the SPOT locator which is where the burst balloon remnants, the parachute and the wooden dowels were found - the SPOT device was still attached to the dowel

We drove to the location of the SPOT tracker and found something shocking. Only the balloon, which had not completely shattered when it burst, the parachute and the wooden support dowels used to attach the balloon to the payload via thin rope were left. Attached to one of the dowels was the SPOT locator device – but there was no cooler, no payload. We were dumbfounded. Had someone stolen the payload? Anyone who knew where to look on the APRS website could track Yeager but only we knew the coordinates that the SPOT beacon was sending out. What happened? Where was the payload and the GoPro cams?

We looked all over the surrounding wooded area where the remnants of the balloon and parachute were found. No clues, none at all. We went up to the fire station which is along the Flint River and Hwy 16 between Senoia and Griffin. There we talked to local law enforcement and asked if they had heard anything. Who knows? Maybe someone saw what happened. The two deputies were very helpful and curious about the project. They made some calls and rallied up a couple of more deputies to put the word out about the missing payload. We searched a wooded area along the last known trajectory from the SPOT locator and the APRS unit but to no avail. The CNN crew needed to get back to Atlanta, sadly, without a conclusion to their story. At least not the conclusion they were hoping for. Kerry and I remained to keep looking, as did a tree climbing expert who had come along in case Yeager was high up in a tree top.

Then, something beyond all of our imaginations happened.

This is the backyard of the Garrett family in Brooks, GA where the G1 phone landed after falling from at least 66,000 feet

This is the backyard of the Garrett family in Brooks, GA where the G1 phone landed after falling from at least 66,000 feet

One of our support team members in Nevada, Paul Bowman (it was Paul’s G1 that we were using, and he too is an active HAM operator) called and said that the G1 had “phoned home”. This meant that the G1 had been turned on and it sent a message to Paul telling him where it was. We could not believe it. This meant, perhaps, that the payload was there too. Paul said, “It’s in someone’s house over on Lakeview Drive!”. I showed the deputies the coordinates and they said that it was just around the corner from where we were. So away we went to check it out.

Within a few minutes we were all parked in the drive way of Justin Garrett. The two deputies asked him about the phone and whether or not he had seen the payload. I approached and told him it was a black cellphone. He said, “Yes! I found a cell phone in my back yard a little while ago”. I nearly passed out. “Really?!??!” I responded. “Where is it?”

He showed it to me, it was on his work table in his garage, right where Paul said the GPS coordinates indicated it would be. He told me he was mowing the back yard when he looked down and spotted the phone. He picked it up and put it in his pocket, wondering who had been in his yard with an old camera phone. After he completed his chore, he went in to the garage and turned on the phone. This triggered it to send the message to Paul and within 5 minutes, a group of people he had never met before shows up in his drive way. It was incredible.

We told him what we were doing and asked if we could look around his yard. “No problem,” he said. After about 15 minutes of looking all over his large back yard, we we still empty handed. No payload. Only this phone that had somehow landed in his yard. This meant that it had fallen out of the payload and landed there. This also meant that the payload was probably broken in to pieces. We were closer to finding it, I thought, but this was a challenge. Where was the rest of the payload and specifically, the APRS unit. It had to be near by.

As the hot Georgia sun beat down on us, we became increasingly frustrated. Where could this darn thing be? Surely it had to have fallen near the G1 phone. Then it dawned on me. Ask Kerry to turn on his hand held radio to see if the APRS was close by. It just might be still transmitting its location and if so, Kerry’s radio may pick it up. It was worth a shot. My hunch turned out to be correct. Within a few minutes, we picked up the beacon from the APRS unit. It had to be within a mile or less of where we were. Since no other APRS sites could “hear it”, we knew we were close and it was on the ground or in a tree near by.

The Garrett family leading Kerry and me through the woods as we looked for the missing payload

The Garrett family leading Kerry and me through the woods as we looked for the missing payload

This boosted our spirits and we searched in the thick woods to the east of the Garrett’s house. He and his family even gave us a guided tour in to some trails to get deeper in to the woods, eventually reaching the Flint River. Ticks were attacking us like zombies hungry for flesh. It was hot and we were all quite miserable. Still no luck.

Kerry and I looked at his radio and scrolled through the data received from the APRS unit. Sure enough, it gave us the biggest clue yet. We had the GPS coordinates. They read: 33 14.15 by 84 26.03. I ran to the Tahoe where my laptop was connected to the Internet to convert the lat/long pairs in to something that I put in to Google Earth. I did not realize, probably because of the heat and the excitement of the day, that no conversion was needed. Still, I used some website’s conversion tool to convert what I had to decimal degrees. I did not realize that I had already had that info. The resulting output erroneously put the APRS unit, and presumably Yeager, really close to the Flint River but on its east side.

The missing CNN weather balloon payload was somewhere in those woods

The missing CNN weather balloon payload was somewhere in those woods

Kerry and I drove around to the edge of an enormous field. It was bordered to the west by a foreboding line of trees which surrounded the Flint River and its many smaller streams and tributaries. I told Kerry that the APRS location was only 1800 feet in. It was the toughest 1800 feet ever. We had very little with us to cut through the thick brush, briars and bramble that stood between us and the APRS and Yeager. Snakes, ticks and spiders were in ample supply. On we went, pushing deeper in to the woods. We arrived at the coordinates and found nothing. The trees were so thick that it seemed like dusk was falling, yet it was only 4:30 in the afternoon. The heat, even in the shade of the woods, was crushing. Despair set in and we had to give up. Let’s go back to the hotel and regroup was my thought.

We went by the Garrett’s to tell them of the defeat and called it a day. Maybe we can try again some time when we have more time and energy. We really wanted to find the payload if only to see what clues the video would yield. We had found the SPOT locator with some remnant pieces and of course the mysterious location of the G1 phone in the Garrett’s back yard. Yeager was somewhere in between, it had to be.

The lost payload was supposed to be within 30 to 50 feet of the blue dot, which was my position in the woods, along the Flint River

The lost payload was supposed to be within 30 to 50 feet of the blue dot, which was my position in the woods, along the Flint River

A week later we tried again with our search. This time, we had better lat/long info from the APRS unit to work with. Since I discovered from Paul that conversion was not necessary, we realized that we were looking in the wrong place the weekend before. We’re only talking about 300 feet or so, but in those thick woods, 300 feet made all the difference. Paul was sure that the 33 14.15 by 84 26.03 was in fact where the APRS unit was. If we found it, we would probably find the rest of the payload.

So once again, Kerry and I hiked in to the rugged Georgia woods. This time we came armed with tools to cut through the walls of brush that hindered us last time. However, the heat wave that had grown to historic levels was a real problem. We had plenty of water but the heat was overwhelming. We began fairly early in the day with our search. After only about an hour or so, we reached the exact lat/long pair and looked for the wayward APRS unit and payload. Nothing. Not one shred of evidence as to where it could be. We sat down along the banks of the Flint River to get a drink of our water and I remarked that it “should be right here!”. We were standing right where the coordinates said it should be. Anyone who knows Geocaching knows how hard it can be to find a hidden cache whose only clue is usually a lat/long pairing.

We searched for about 3 hours and had to give up yet again due to the dangerous heat that was smothering us. The forest was just too thick. If the payload had in fact landed in a tree, we would never see it. I told Kerry that maybe after the winter sets in and a good freeze comes, that we can come back a third and final time to see if the canopy opens up enough to let us look in the tree tops. We agreed on that plan for sometime in December and left the woods in utter defeat.

Time marched on. The hurricane season heated up and we had a small chance to launch HURRB during Isaac but decided against it due to the eye of Isaac being rather clouded over and parked over the swamps of Louisiana. If the Georgia woods was difficult to recover a payload, I was certainly not taking my chances with large reptiles and other creatures that nightmares are made of.

October ended with the historic landfall of Sandy and I kept busy with that event well in to November. Kerry and then began to plan our last attempt to search for Yeager. We settled on the weekend of December 15th. It could not get here soon enough.

After many hours of pouring over data, maps and talking about a strategy to find the payload, the day finally arrived to put it all to the test. I drove to Newnan, Georgia, not far from where we needed to look, last Saturday. Kerry drove up from Houston. We had a nice dinner and planned out our attack for Sunday.

I had contacted the Garretts to let them know we wanted to look one more time. We thought about coming in from the west along the last known “flight path” to see if we stumbled across the payload between their house and the Flint River. They had no problem with us using their house as a starting point. We hardly slept Saturday night knowing that we had a good chance of finding the lost payload the next day.

Sunday morning was chilly but not too cold. The sky was overcast and I thought that this was of benefit to us. I figured the bright orange tape that covered the bottom of the payload would stand out better if the sun were not bright, washing everything out.

We arrived at the Garrett’s house around 9:30 in the morning. We could immediately see a difference in the woods. The trees were all bare of their leaves. You could literally see through the forest now and up in to the tree tops. This was a good sign.

The yellow line represents the possible landing location of Yeager, not very large but difficult in the deep woods

The yellow line represents the possible landing location of Yeager, not very large but difficult in the deep woods

Kerry and I hiked in from the west and made our way to where we thought the payload may have landed, not far at all from the coordinates that the APRS had given back in June. Unfortunately, its batteries had run out long ago so we had only the recorded data to work with. We searched along a peninsula, part of a feature in the river called an “ox bow” with relative ease. No luck. There was no sign of the payload and we were sure of it. I suggested we go to the east side, right back to the coordinates again, and start fresh from there.

We hiked out within 30 minutes with a very light rain beginning to fall. This time there were no ticks, no snakes and few spiders to battle. It was so much better even though we were still empty handed.

We stopped in to talk with Justin about our plans of searching the east side again and on we went.

After a quick drive over to a dirt road that ran along the woods, we were ready. The rain picked up now to become a little aggravating but nothing we could not handle. It was better than ground temps of 110 back in June!

The third attempt to locate the missing payload was much easier due to the trees being much less covered in foliage

The third attempt to locate the missing payload was much easier due to the trees being much less covered in foliage

The hike up a logging road was incredible. The tall trees lined the road like walls. There was not anyone else out there. We saw no animals, not even many birds. It was still and quiet. Only the chilled rain drops broke the air with their pitter-patter on the decaying leaves that carpeted the logging road.

Then, we reached the point where we had to turn in to the dense woods and head west to the river. Kerry cut through using his machete’ and on we went. Even though the leaves had in fact fallen, the forest was still so dense that it became noticeably darker the further in we trekked. Still, not another soul was heard from or seen, save for the random shot-gun fire we could hear far in the distance.

I used my iPhone for GPS navigation and was trying to get us to the exact coordinates of the APRS unit. We stood there back in June but to no avail. For some reason, maybe the cloud cover, maybe the thick forest, but my phone was not working like it should. My position, a blue dot on the Google Maps, would drift even when I was stopped. This caused us to get somewhat lost. We were about 200 feet from where we needed to be, maybe more than that. The day was getting shorter with each passing second and we needed to get over to the river and plan our search strategy from there.

Both of us stopped and looked at our compasses and GPS devices. Mine finally settled down enough to point me west – towards the river. Kerry made it clear that we had to know precisely where we were before we moved. I paused and checked one more time. “West!” I said. “We need to head west and we’ll hit the river”.

I spotted the orange underside of the cooler about 200 to 300 feet ahead of me - it stood out against the rest of the dormant trees

I spotted the orange underside of the cooler about 200 to 300 feet ahead of me - it stood out against the rest of the dormant trees

I looked ahead and then it happened. As if to almost call out my name, I saw it. Through the woods, probably 200 feet away, I spotted the bright orange against an otherwise dull brown and gray backdrop of dormant trees and thicket. I told Kerry that I think I have found it. I pointed my walking stick like the barrel of a sniper’s rifle towards the object, barely visible but there none the less. He saw it too. We both pushed ahead, Kerry cutting a path through briars, saplings and other brush to make a bee-line to the orange object. I checked the GPS on my iPhone and sure enough we were headed for the exact coordinates of where the APRS reported its position back in June.

“This has to be it!” I yelled out. “What else would be out here that is bright orange and in that location?”

After six almost six months, we finally found the payload almost competely intact

After six almost six months, we finally found the payload almost competely intact

After another ten minutes of hacking our way through the woods, we reached the edge of the Flint River and an active tributary that veered off towards the northeast. At that moment, two grown men acted like little kids on Christmas Day upon realizing that the present of their dreams had been delivered by Santa. We found it. Yeager was about 20 feet up in some nasty, thick trees and vines almost completely intact. We were thrilled beyond belief and relieved at the same time. The APRS unit was almost dead on. Yeager was right where it should have been. In fact, we looked at that very spot in late June but could not see it due to the choking green vines, leaves and other growth that covered it entirely. My logic of waiting until December paid off.

Kerry hopped across the tributary, climbed up the bank on the other side and proceeded to cut Yeager down out of the tree canopy. It took about 30 minutes of some serious hacking away at the grip of the forest but it finally relented and gave Yeager up. He collected all of the parts, some of which came falling down in pieces like a pinata as he poked and prodded the cooler from below. Everything was there. All three GoPro cams, the APRS unit with its steel wire antenna still attached. We had succeeded after nearly six months of waiting.

The walk out of those woods was exhilarating. As if to protest our triumph, Nature threw one last curve-ball our way as the rain picked up to quite steady. We knew the Flint River would rise some after this rain and that had we not found Yeager just then, we may never have been able to reach it. The area has been in near drought conditions for several years and the fairly low river was about to swell, even if only a few feet, with abundant rain then and more to come later.

We reached Kerry’s truck and headed back to the Garrett’s house to tell them of the news. It was an exciting moment for us all. They were fascinated by the whole experience and were visibly happy for our success. I gave their 11 year old son one of the GoPro cams to use as his own. All three were perfectly preserved despite being exposed to the elements for almost 180 days. It was the least I could do for them considering the fact that we would not have known where to begin looking had Justin not found the G1 found and turned it on. Everything happened because of that one piece of insanely good luck.

A look at what the GoPro cam "saw" with the CNN mic and mic flag displayed in front of the payload

A look at what the GoPro cam "saw" with the CNN mic and mic flag displayed in front of the payload

Kerry and I went back to the hotel in Newnan and plugged in my laptop via HDMI cable to the widescreen TV in the room. Each 32 GB chip recorded almost 5 hours of video in stunning high definition. We watched each camera to finally see what happened and why things went so wrong back on launch day at the end of June.

To the best of our knowledge and from what we can gather from the video, the payload began to rock back and forth once it reached 50,000 feet and higher. Perhaps stronger than anticipated upper level winds were pushing on it, causing it to swing like a pendulum. With each successive push from the wind, the payload swung higher, eventually achieving a brief period of being weightless, like a child in a swing that is pushed to its limit. Then, the payload which weighed in excess of six pounds, would fall with gravity’s pull. At the same time, the giant helium-filled balloon is pulling in the opposite direction, trying to ascend. This went on for several minutes until there was so much give in the payload that it may have actually swung end over end at least once. Below is a video clip, slowed down to 12% of normal speed, that shows the rocking and subsequent break up of the payload.

After one swing too many, the payload jerked against the balloon just hard enough to rip loose the wooden support dowels used to attach the balloon to the payload. This is clearly seen on the video. The balloon then takes off, continuing to climb to burst altitude of around 100,000 feet. With the SPOT locator still attached, the balloon, the parachute, the wooden dowels and the SPOT sail away in to the dark sky above.

A frame grab from the GoPro video captured via "Yeager" - it clearly shows the break up of the payload due to the opposing forces of the payload swinging in strong upper level winds

A frame grab from the GoPro video captured via "Yeager" - it clearly shows the break up of the payload due to the opposing forces of the payload swinging in strong upper level winds

After a moment of turmoil, the cooler, mostly intact, begins its free fall from 66,000 feet. This is when something amazing took place. The G1 phone, which was zip-tied to one of the dowels inside the cooler, breaks free now that the dowels are torn away. It escapes the cooler and skips across the thin atmosphere like a stone skimming the surface of a lake. From there, it falls nearly 12 miles where it lands in the Garrett’s back yard….fully functional. The screen was not even cracked. The jolt did manage to turn the phone off and this is why when Justin powered it back on in his garage that it sent a signal to Paul in Nevada. It is hard to believe but the HTC G1 fell from 12 miles with only minor damage but still completely operational. The slide out keyboard was a little twisted but otherwise, the phone was not damaged.

Frame grab from the GoPro video showing the balloon after it tore away from the payload. You can also clearly see the G1 cellphone as it sails out of the cooler

Frame grab from the GoPro video showing the balloon after it tore away from the payload. You can also clearly see the G1 cellphone as it sails out of the cooler

As for the rest of the equipment? The three GoPro cams all survived their plummet as did the APRS unit. This brings me to my conclusion as to why our finding of the payload was so important.

Part of a frame grab from the GoPro cam showing the forest that "Yeager" eventually landed in along with tthe Garrett house

Part of a frame grab from the GoPro cam showing the forest that "Yeager" eventually landed in along with tthe Garrett house

One day, we will launch the HURRB payload in to the eye of a hurricane. It will be equipped with some of the best state-of-the-art video and GPS recording equipment on the planet. We will succeed in getting the payload up in to the eye of a hurricane, even if it takes years for the right one to come along.

Knowing that the equipment can not only handle the disaster that took place but that it can also be reliable in telling us where it landed is of paramount importance to our project. This was more than just about two guys who did not want to give up and needed an excuse to go in to the woods on a chilly, rainy December day. This was about proving that the science and technology work. That when the day comes that HURRB makes it out of the top of the eye of hurricane-X, that we know that when it lands again hours later, we will have a solid chance of finding it. Then we will get to witness something that no human has even seen before, not from these angles. Flying up the inside of the most powerful storm on Earth is a powerful motivator for us to make darn sure we can find the payload when the time comes. The fact that we finally found the CNN Yeager payload gives me hope that our HURRB project will one day make history.

This is why I say that, even in the face of failure, there is opportunity for success. We will learn from what went wrong and will utilize that knowledge as we move forward with the HURRB project. Then perhaps next hurricane season we will set HURRB free to embark on one of the coolest science projects ever attempted. I can’t wait to see how it turns out….

Have a blessed Christmas with your family and friends. Stay safe when traveling and I’ll have more here in the New Year.

Here is a time compressed video showing the launch up until just about when the payload began to break up. Questions about anything you read here? Send me an email: ms@hurricanetrack.com

 

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The United States hurricane problem: perhaps it is just too big?

In the wake of hurricane Sandy there has been a constant stream of news regarding how ill prepared the affected areas were to deal with the event. Why am I not surprised? Sandy was an enormous storm. It affected people from Florida to Canada to Michigan. I think Sandy, like Katrina before it and Ike after that, sheds light on an area that we need to perhaps come to grips with. We have a serious hurricane problem and it may now be too big to wrangle.

While there certainly could have been more done to ease the situation, there always is, I am not sure what could have been done to make things markedly better after Sandy hit. Aside from putting almost all of our efforts in to hurricane mitigation and education, what else can we do? We know hurricanes are a threat. They offer the most lead time of any major weather disaster and yet we repeat the same mistakes over and over. Maybe they are not mistakes but rather a symptom; a symptom that our problem is now beyond our grasp.

During the 70s and 80s a tremendous amount of coastal building took place. People flocked to the water’s edge and lived their dream life without many hurricanes at all. Then, in 1995, just when the latest economic bubble that burst began inflating, hurricanes became a real problem again. Yet, luck was mostly on our side as most of the nasty hurricanes remained well out to sea, year after year. The luck ran out temporarily in 2004 and big time in 2005. Since then, we have not had a single category three hurricane to strike the U.S. coast. Yet, Sandy, which was not technically a hurricane at landfall, will likely have the largest cost of any storm event in our history. Further more, Sandy did not bring worst case conditions to places like New York City. What we had was a massive event, affecting people across almost a third of the U.S. and look what happened. It overwhelmed the response system. It won’t be the last time either.

Let’s look at Florida. Not a single hurricane of any strength has made landfall in Florida since October of 2005. You talk about a problem waiting to rear its ugly head. Can you imagine the millions of people who have moved to Florida since 2005 who have ZERO hurricane experience? Even though Florida is expected to be hit year after year, no hurricanes have made landfall there in seven years.

Let’s hypothesize for a minute that a large, classic Cape Verde hurricane comes rolling through around West Palm Beach next August. Winds around the eye are blowing at 125 mph – a category three. Do you think for one minute that the response to that disaster will be swift and made to look easy? I can assure you it will overwhelm (there’s that word again) the Sunshine State and tax the surrounding states who send assistance and aid. Why? Because millions of people will be affected across a densely populated area. There is no way that anyone can adequately prepare for something so large and devastating.

Then, after the landfall shock wears off, people will start pointing fingers at each other for lack of response, lack of preparedness and lack of aid.

Let’s look at a completely different scenario that actually happened.

In 1999, hurricane Bret made landfall in Kenedy county, Texas as a category three hurricane. It was a beast, a powerful, well developed Gulf of Mexico hurricane. Total damage was around $30 million. There were no deaths reported. Why is this? Because hardly anyone lives where Bret made landfall. This same type of hurricane striking West Palm Beach would have a completely different outcome. An even larger, more powerful hurricane would amplify matters to the extreme.

As I read blog after blog about Sandy and how warnings of just such an event went unheeded, I can begin to see the real problem. Sandy was more than anyone could handle. We do not live in a world where $30 billion is spent before hand to beef up our infrastructure. Instead, we live in a world that responds with what funding there is when the infrastructure is taken out. I’ve seen it first hand time and time again and the result is always the same: there is never a good outcome to a hurricane disaster.

Yes, progress has been made in areas that were hit by hurricanes such as Katrina and Ike but for the most part, life goes on as if there are no such things as hurricanes. We try to build back bigger and better but Nature always finds a way to knock progress down again, one way or another.

Trying to blame Sandy’s devastation on one or two people is absurd. While it would have been nice to see politicians come out and say all the right things at the right times, the outcome would not have changed much at all. Sandy impacted one of the most populated areas of coastline in America. What did everyone think was going to happen?

The U.S. hurricane problem is now bigger than ever. The good news is that severe hurricanes are extremely rare. However, when they do happen to cross our shores, significant damage is likely. Unless we are willing to implement drastic changes in to our coastal land use, events like Sandy will continue to happen and we will scratch our heads and wonder why more wasn’t done to prevent it.

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