I didn’t know anything about solar balloons until I met Nick Shapiro of Public Lab fame for coffee. We were talking about his upcoming trip to Berlin and he casually mentioned something about balloons that didn’t require flames or helium. A few days later I was seeing amazing Tweets about a project by Aerocene with two giant solar sculptures tethered and swinging in the sky. The project is actually a huge artistic endeavor by Tomás Saraceno who envisions a “Cloud City” in the future with effortless travel through balloon vehicles powered by the sun, earth and wind. For now, he hopes to have the “longest, most sustainable journey around the world”, with Germany as another leg in the series. Nick was lucky enough to be part of the team for the launch, tasked with incorporating one of Public Lab’s Particulate Matter Monitors. The monitor is a sandwich of a SEM (Scanning Electron Microscopy) pin, a mesh cover and a glass microscope slide.
Not only would the payload gather atmospheric information, but it would also gather video footage of the flight. I remember Nick writing to me with excitement when one of the team members figured out how to get the data transmitted back to earth. Despite all the tech, it’s quite a lean machine and light enough for a balloon to handle.
The day of the flight was sunny in Schönfelde, a location chosen away from the airspace used by planes as required by law. The two sculptures remind me of plastic bags that you see on a street, scooped up by the wind. You can see the nearby wind farms clearly through the footage, a reminder of the beauty of clean energy.
Part of the Aerocene project is to include many people in their flights. So, they stream the info, but they also have a “guess the landing” contest with a winner receiving a Pi in the Sky, which is a GPS radio tracker board for Raspberry Pi. It’s very appropriate for the DIT (do it together) mentality promoted by the project. This flight ended up being a great success, and an update from a team member listed the landing 12 hours later near Augustow in Poland–a total of 605 kilometers.
What started as an artistic sculpture of sustainable travel and higher dwelling places has now become an environmental scout. With the balloon’s ability to record images and atmosphere, it’s possible to understand the changes happening on our planet. This couldn’t come at a more critical time as we continue to experience crazy weather conditions, loss of habitat, lack of pollinators and other environmental issues. Using solar sculptures in this elegant and open source way will encourage others on the citizen science path.
If you have an interest in clean energy, you should consider hacking your backpack or tote with solar power. We’ve got the perfect learning guide—the Solar Boost Bag. You can collect energy from the sun, store it in a LiPo and cable it into your phone when needed. I’ve personally installed solar on one of my purses and I can tell you it comes in handy when you are in the city all day. So, take another sustainable leap with this fun project.