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Class Project: Into the Blue

ESF engineering students send cameras soaring in remote sensing lesson

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A class of ESF students launched a weather balloon carrying cameras that were set to take photos and shoot video footage as the balloon flew up to 100,000 feet above the earth and traveled some 150 miles, part of a class project in remote sensing.

The students attached two consumer-model digital cameras — one to shoot still photos and one for video — and a cell phone equipped with a GPS unit to a 20-foot line that dangled from a helium-filled weather balloon. The array also included two parachutes that were intended to soften the cameras' landing.

"It's an opportunity for them to work on teamwork, learn about building the sensor, and be aware of potential problems with the technology. And have some fun, I hope," said Giorgos Mountrakis, the assistant professor who teaches the class.

The class launched the balloon from the ESF quad around 11 a.m. They immediately began tracking the balloon's location electronically and a group of nine, including Mountrakis, began driving east in the hopes of finding the extruded polystyrene foam box that contained the cameras and phone.

"It could get picked up by the jet stream and then really get going," Mountrakis said. "Hopefully, we'll be able to track the trajectory every few seconds. It could end up as far away as Albany."

An early report indicated the balloon was traveling at 55 mph.

Mountrakis said the expanding helium would cause the balloon to burst at an altitude of about 100,000 feet. Then the parachutes were to deploy, all while the phone kept sending a signal to the students, who could follow the flight's progress on a computer screen.

Mountrakis said the plan was for the students to have a chance to examine the images caught by the cameras. He said this is the first time such a project has been undertaken at ESF.

"Engineers can get bored in a classroom," he said. "But they get very excited to replicate what you teach."

They encountered a major glitch before the launch, as a balloon burst about two minutes short of takeoff. The class regrouped, however, and filled a spare balloon that was released into a bright blue sky about an hour later.