What is a Picoballoon?

A Picoballoon is an ultralight stratospheric probe. It is very cheap (whole probe along with balloon and helium costs less than 50€), very light (weighs less than 10 grams) and has very low power consumption (about 1mA on average). It can measure a lot of data like temperature, humidity, pressure, wind speed, height, location and UV radiation. It can then process and send this data over LoRaWAN. If the conditions are favorable, the balloon can fly for multiple weeks and for thousands of kilometers.

You can look at a video of one of our Picoballoon launches below:

Our Team

I was working on this project mostly alone from the year 2018. In the summer of 2019, I started collaborating with the Slovak Organisation for Space Activities where I got a lot of support both financially and intellectually. But I was still mostly working on my own. In the spring of 2020, I got into contact with the SFN Kassel from Germany. With their help, we are now starting to work with tens of students from all around the world (there are students from Slovakia, Germany, Italy, Spain, Cyprus and from the US). With help of all of these new people, we believe we can get more work done and all the students can learn a lot of new skills as well.

Our part of the team from the SFN Kassel student research center

Our current circuit boards

Our current of the hardware is the version 8.3.0. The probe is composed of two main parts: the main PCB and the solar array. The main PCB is only 30x13mm large. It's the heart (and also brain, eyes and muscle) of the probe. It includes the MCU along with the LoRa transceiver, all the sensors, the GNSS receiver and the power management system. This all weighs only 1 gram. The solar array holds all the solar cells together with the supercapacitor. It weighs around 4 grams and is connected to the main PCB. Thanks to the solar power, the probe can function practically forever.

Ferdinand 8.3.0 probe render - the solar array is on the top and the main PCB is connected to it

Ferdinand 8.2.0 probe before its launch - you can see the debug interface on the bottom

Our future plan

In the near future we want to work on a lot of different new features. We will have a lot of new people with new labs and equipment. Some of the things we want to do are improving the measurement capabilities of the probe (measuring new variables like gas concentrations), hive communication (large networks of hundreds of probes communicating with each other) and we consider even having the whole probe just as a thin sticker on the balloon (using a flex PCB and organic solar cells). We expect the size of the main PCB to decrease to half as we switch to BGA components and put them on both sides. For this reason we will need to use at least 4 layer PCBs. For experimenting with all the different components, we will need to create our own modules. We also want to create our own own programming adapters. In the future, we might also want to use flex or rigid-flex PCBs to further decrease the mass. For all of the tiny stuff we also need stencils.

This is where the PCBWay sponsoring could be incredibly useful. The team needs fast turnaround times for manufacturing the prototypes in order to speed up the research and development process. We could also save a lot of finances, which very important for a student project like this. We hope that we are able to arrange some kind of sponsoring.

Our website as well as our social media is currently under construction. Despite that, we already have some published stuff you can look at.

Here is an Instructable for the very first Picoballoon we made: https://www.instructables.com/id/How-to-Make-a-Picoballoon/

Here is one of the many interviews I was on: https://spectator.sme.sk/c/22369036/15-year-old-researcher-slovakia-is-far-behind-other-countries-in-aerospace-research.html

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Sep 07,2020
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