Hola Kickstarter Friends!
Finally, the weather has started to clear, and dry up a little in Washington State. That means we can begin the process of fulfilling our obligations to the Kickstarter Community. In preparation for our robot+balloon experiment this summer, on Wednesday I went driving – to look for a launch site.
So what goes into this? What makes a good launch site? What do we look for? What does the Federal Aviation, U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force expect? If you’re short of sleep, browse through this set of FAA regulations. (There’s a lot more, this is just a snippet.)
The first rules when attempting something like this is safety, hazard mitigation and success. (In that order! “Success” is an arbitrary term, and it’s my lowest priority!)
Before I got in the car, I spent days on various mapping sites… Last fall, we submitted three sites for approval – they were denied. So this is our second go-round at this particular problem. FYI, we’ve done 15 of these tests, so far. The agencies have been involved with about 70%. As we get higher and higher, sites we’d used previously become unusable. We’ve traveled as far as Utah three times, and Arizona once – but these trips were logistic nightmares!
I don’t want to do a big road trip if we don’t have to. I’m trying to find something close to home. I can (probably) head ‘over the mountains’, to the other side of the state, to a test site we’ve used several times. But the problem with that is its starting altitude ~800m / 2500ft. After looking at what we’re trying to accomplish ~7km / 24000ft I do not want to begin at 10% of our goal already above Sea Level. What we’re doing is hard. It’s never been accomplished before. I don’t want the added complexity of 10% more altitude; I don’t want the extra hazard of those sub-freezing temperatures.
I’ve made the decision to start this adventure at Sea Level. Luckily that is easy here on the outskirts of Seattle. We’ve a LOT of coastline here, thanks to the glaciers 13,000 years ago. The problem with this, is that along the whole West Coast, we’ve got a lot of population centers ranging from small villages (where I live) to thriving metropolises. What’s the first rule (above)? Safety! The launch site needs to a reasonable distance from people. We have an FAA mandated distance of 5 miles from ANY airport. Yes, that means if a farmer has a private airfield, and he’s the ONLY person that uses it, AND even if they promise not to fly that day… that whole region is off limits. And yes, if you’re wondering, this is exactly what happened last fall.
So, I start with Sea Level, looking for remote sites, and then scan for airports. Turns out, that’s harder than it seems.
Once I’ve identified a general region, it’s time to really get into the details – And get into the car! Once I’m out scouting a region I have a lot of questions I need answers to: How does the wind affect that location? Force? Gusts? Direction? What sort of phone signal does the team get? Which carrier is better? Can we find a site for my team to sleep/ eat/ use the bathroom? What about the basic logistics of hauling a lot of equipment/ computers/ radios/ compressed helium canisters across terrain? Can we get electricity/ ’net connections on site, or do we have to bring our own? What are the sight lines? How much clear space does it have for initial set-up? Which way does the wind blow, in the morning, and afternoon? Are there trees to get a line tangled in? Where – exactly – are the population centers? How cooperative are the land owners? How willing are they to help? Participate? If the balloon fails, and the robot is coming down – where will it land? (Some of our site selection has the ‘bot falling into the ocean…)
After driving all over the wilderness, I’ve found three (more) locations that fit our requirements. I’ve spoken the to the property owner of one of these, and they’ve agreed to let us use their site. The other two will get an interesting phone call tomorrow. Once I know what our options are, I’ll begin the FAA approval process.
Take care, Mjl
As always, I post more stuff on Twitter, Facebook, G+, Foursquare, Vine.
p.s., Here’s some pictures. I got my 40 year-old Porsche stuck in the mud will ‘off-roading’. It was great! Took about 45 minutes to get out of that hole. Go ahead, laugh. It was pretty funny (afterward).
And here’s one of the sites that’s already got the land-owners’ approval.
And one that I like, but we’ve NOT gotten permission to use, yet.