I grew up in a family of do-it-yourselfers. My father was an electrical engineer who taught us to build our own solutions from scratch. Some little girls played with dolls—I played with a soldering iron and multitester, wiring lamps and stereo equipment. Other kids made models of the solar system with styrofoam balls and poster paint for the science fair. I built an intercom.
As amazed as I’ve been by the progress of the Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory, my DIY side is even more impressed by a nifty little development that took place closer to home. The very nice high-atmosphere photographs taken below don't come from a satellite or a probe—they were taken by a British teenager using a home-built system he put together in about 40 hours using a secondhand camera, an Arduino processor, and some quite clever design. Total cost of the system? Somewhere in the neighborhood of $300.
Now that's smaller, faster, cheaper.
Nineteen-year-old University of Nottingham student Adam Cudworth started his high-altitude balloon experiment (HABE) project in 2009 by buying a Canon A570 camera on eBay. The most recent iteration, HABE 5, integrated the microcontroller, a GPS unit, and a radio transmitter, all installed in an insulated, shock-resistant package. Cudworth hooked the box to a 2-m-diameter helium balloon and released it, following it by GPS up to its peak altitude of almost 21 miles, where it captured the images. When it fell to ground, he used the radio transmitter to recover the unit.
The camera brought back an impressive set of images but Cudworth isn’t ready to stop there. He’s currently working on a high-altitude rocket booster designed to push the imager to an even greater height and a glider stage to allow controlled landing.
Cudworth is currently studying economics, but in terms of initiative and talent, he has a bright future in engineering. Sure, Steve Bible and the guys who built last year's ARISSat-1 amateur satellite take the prize for most sophisticated space DIY, but for a kid more or less operating solo, this was pretty impressive.
What’s the most interesting DIY project you’ve ever done? Where did you get the idea? What was unique about it? What were the biggest challenges and what made you most proud?
The one issue I never see discussed in relation to such project is safety and insurance. Two example questions:
How the baloon is launched to avoid the air traffic?
What happens if the falling payload hits a BMW?