DCIM Credit: Courtesy | David Kozuch

Connecting disaster zones from 40,000 feet

Club members team up with Project Owl to measure weather data

As “Rocket Man” by Elton John plays in the background, a balloon ascends into the uppermost layers of Earth’s atmosphere, grazing the mysterious void that is outer space, before falling back down to the crust.

This was not just any balloon, however, but a device that could allow people to communicate if their areas had been struck with natural disasters. 

When Hurricane Michael hit the Florida Panhandle October 2018, it knocked out cellphone towers, electricity and Internet, which slowed rescue operations due to poor communication. After a company called Project OWL designed a device that would provide cheap, limited Wi-Fi in disaster zones, engineering junior Evan Agarwal and industrial and manufacturing engineering junior Jack McGuiness volunteered to test the device in extreme conditions by sending it miles above the clouds.

“The cool thing about Project OWL is our testing can help save people’s lives,” Weather Balloon Society Vice President McGuiness said. 

Agarwal and McGuiness began the Cal Poly Weather Balloon Society, which teamed up with Project OWL to test its Wi-Fi-emitting device called DuckLink, characterized by a small duck icon. To do this, club members attached the DuckLink to small computers that measure altitude and temperature. They then put everything on a mount in a Styrofoam container, along with GoPro cameras.

YouTube video
Video by Grant Anderson

This setup was attached to a weather balloon and launched up to 100,000 feet into the upper atmosphere, where the average temperature is -51 degrees Fahrenheit, and the atmosphere is so thin that sound waves cannot travel. Not even the recorder on the GoPro picked up the initial popping of the balloon. 

“As college students, if we want to take a snapshot of the pressure and the temperature in the density of the air at 70,000 feet [or more], the only way to really practically do that and get it is to send a balloon up there,” Weather Balloon Society President Agarwal said. 

The balloons travel much higher than airplanes and helicopters, which reach 30,000-40,000 feet, according to Agarwal.

Courtesy | David Kozuch

The launch

In 2019, Project OWL CEO Bryan Knouse approached the Weather Balloon Society when he read about one of Agarwal’s earlier weather balloon launches in Mustang News.

Knouse said he was “surprised” and “impressed” with how well the first launches went.

“At the end of the day, we are putting a box with computer equipment up at 100,000 feet and -40 degrees Fahrenheit, not to mention it’s going to be up there for three hours and travel almost 100 miles,” Knouse said. “So, I thought at the very least we were never going to find this thing again.” 

Club members use predicting software to figure out where each balloon is supposed to land, so they can aim it toward open fields. Using satellite trackers, they follow the balloon while it is in the air. 

“[The middle of nowhere] is exactly where we want it to land because it’s the least dangerous, and it’s the easiest to spot and find,” McGuiness said.

The latest launch came down in a field near Kettleman City in the Central Valley, half a mile from where the prediction software said it would. It landed approximately 60 miles from the launch point. 

Predicting where it would land and finding that bright orange parachute has been one of the club’s great successes so far, Weather Balloon Society secretary David Kozuch said.

Courtesy | David Kozuch

What is project owl?

Project OWL is a tech startup focused on connecting the people, places and things they care about most, according to Knouse. The company’s goal is to increase connectivity in places where it is most lacking.

“Working with Project OWL was beyond my wildest dreams for what it could have been a first project for us to work on,” Agarwal said. “Doing something that actually had an impact on a company that’s actually making moves like that was cool – to be a part of that process and contribute to something that’s real and outside of, sort of academia, but it’s really happening.”

Knouse said he enjoys working with college students because, in his opinion, they are less afraid to try things that “probably won’t work.”

“Students are much more willing to work on projects that they don’t know as a guaranteed conclusion of success,” Knouse said. “I like that, and that’s kind of why I enjoyed putting these [DuckLink devices] in space because, you know, we didn’t know what was going to happen.”

Agarwal said he hopes to do another launch with Project OWL by the end of Winter Quarter, depending on funding and weather conditions. According to aerospace engineering junior and Weather Balloon Society software integration lead Shimon Chait, club members will do whatever it takes to get another balloon off the ground.

“[The club] reinvigorated my thoughts of how important school is and, and how important it is to do stuff outside of school that is related to what you think you want to do with your academics,” Chait said.

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