IEEE Club reaches for the sky with its latest experiment

Members of the Washington State University Vancouver Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers club have taken their experiments to new heights. The club plans to build and launch a large weather balloon sometime next year as part of an ongoing club project. The idea originated with student Michael Hamilton, and the club’s work is still in the development phase. However, other organizations on campus with an interest in sending projects or experiments aloft in the balloon are welcome to contribute.

The IEEE is an international organization which, according to their website, is “dedicated to advancing technological innovation and excellence for the benefit of humanity.” The WSU Vancouver chapter is comprised of engineering students and others with an interest in the sciences. Hamilton’s weather balloon project is the first significant project embarked upon by the chapter in the last several years.

Hamilton, a retired marine, said that he had always possessed an interest in aviation, science and electronics. After he left the service he took up a hobbyist’s interest in weather balloons, and compiled almost a year’s worth of independent research before proposing the idea of a weather balloon launch to the IEEE. Because of this initial interest, the project is still quite large and open ended. However, Hamilton sees the project as incorporating various aspects of mathematics and science and is therefore a challenging prospect for the club to adopt.

Hamilton, however, is not the first member of the Washington State University community to embark on a ballooning endeavor. This past May, students of the Astronomy and Physics Club at Washington State University Pullman launched a small weather balloon with basic instruments on board. The balloon reached a maximum altitude of approximately 98,000 feet. According to Hamilton, his project seeks to take this accomplishment one step further. Hamilton plans that the balloon will be around fifty feet in diameter when fully inflated, and will reach an estimated altitude of approximately 120,000 feet. The accomplishments of the Pullman students have provided Hamilton and his team with motivation, for he said, “As long as we beat the Astronomy and Physics Club in Pullman’s record of just over 98,000, we’ll be happy.”

While the accomplishments of the Pullman students provide an inspiration for Hamilton and his team, and much research has already been conducted, the project is still in its infancy. As it stands, very basic ideas are in place, such as the projected approximate size of the balloon and some of its instrumentation. It is hoped that several programmable cameras will provide a video feed from the balloon. Additionally, a GPS unit will be carried to record the balloon’s progress, ideally to be followed by a chase vehicle. Upon completion of the actual experiment, the video and other data will be posted online, to a webpage the team currently has under development.

Clearances and funding are part of what is still needed. Currently, the club’s research indicates that low frequency signal transmissions do not require federal clearance. Similarly, Hamilton states that the project does not violate any Federal Aviation Regulations. However, Hamilton hopes to speak with representatives of both the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Aviation Administration to avoid any potential regulatory issues. Additionally, funding for the project is still being sought. However, a tentative launch date is set for spring of 2015. The balloon launch is planned for the Tri-Cities area of eastern Washington, as the geography of the region is well suited for tracking a balloon and recovery of the balloon’s instruments and experiments.

The balloon is expected to carry not only its own locator and flight monitors aloft, but also other experiments as well. Several experiments have already been proposed. For example, one experiment seeks to attach solar panels to the payload suspended under the balloon, to study solar energy at high altitudes and its consequent effects. Another experiment plans to send an SD card with digital images stored on it up with the balloon. It is hoped that upon retrieval of the card, the effects of gamma radiation on electronic memory devices can be examined.

Other clubs on campus are encouraged to provide ideas for experiments that can be carried up as part of the balloon’s payload. Proposals for experiments that other clubs may want to conduct at high altitude are welcomed, and should be directed to Michael Hamilton. The long-term deadline for proposals is set for the end of this fall semester. Those who wish to submit a proposal, or have an interest in the IEEE club’s project, can contact Michael Hamilton at michael.l.hamilton@wsu.edu.

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  1. Just a small correction, but my email address is misspelled in the article. michael.l.hamilton@wsu.edu