Dropbox in Space!

Posted by Adam and Isaac on August 14, 2012

Hey everyone!

Recently, Hack Week hit Dropbox in a big way. As interns, the two of us hadn’t experienced the awesomeness of a Dropbox Hack Week, but when we were told that we could work on anything–absolutely anything–we knew we had to think big. We played around with a ton of project ideas, from real time collaboration tools to a Dropbox for Xbox app. But we decided to roll bold with a crazy idea: For years, Dropbox has let people take their stuff anywhere on Earth. But why stop there? Why not take Dropbox to space?

Intro

To do this, we decided to launch a high altitude helium balloon into the stratosphere. Attached were two Android smartphones: one programmed to take periodic photos, and the other to record video of the entire flight. At 100,000 feet above the ground, these photos and videos would capture the curvature of the Earth! In true Dropbox spirit, there’s also an added twist: we wanted the balloon to have Internet the entire flight. With an Internet connection, we’d be able to use Dropbox’s brand new Camera Uploads feature to beam live photos from our balloon back to “mission control.”

And it worked! Sort of.

Research & Preparation

About two weeks before Hack Week started, we began researching high altitude weather balloons and the legendary shopping list needed to launch one — from the balloon itself to radar reflectors, parachutes, and oversized helium tanks. Thanks to a few pleading phone calls and lots of overnight shipping (thanks Amazon Prime!), everything arrived in time for Hack Week.

Our next challenge was figuring out how to hook our balloon up with Internet. Since standard cell phone 3G fails at high altitudes, we needed to find an alternative Internet source. We first considered using amateur radio. TCP/IP, the communication protocol of the Internet, has been implemented over amateur radio before, but for us to do so would probably require a Hack Year instead of a week. After (very) briefly investigating a 50-mile long Ethernet cord, we settled on WiFi–the very same WiFi you use every day.

Researchers have successfully broadcast a WiFi signal several hundred miles, so we were optimistic that we’d be able to shoot for a modest 50 miles. Although we expected our balloon to rise only 15 miles vertically, wind could carry it anywhere from 40 to 100 miles laterally, greatly increasing the needed range of our WiFi connection. We purchased a large parabolic dish along with other long-range WiFi equipment from Ubiquiti Networks.

Assembly

Due to the tight power and weight restrictions on our balloon, our WiFi system was pretty complex. On the ground, we tethered a 4G Android smartphone to a laptop as our Internet source. The laptop was then connected to an antenna on our balloon which was connected to an extremely lightweight wireless router. Unfortunately, the wireless router aboard the balloon sported only an Ethernet jack, with no way to connect it to the Android phone.

Our solution was to connect yet another small wireless router to rebroadcast a wireless network for the onboard phone to pick up. And because there were no power outlets on the balloon, we cut open the Ethernet cord connecting the two wireless devices and spliced in two battery packs, one for each wireless device.

We also got a handheld radio with GPS to track our balloon in real time and properly aim our dish from the ground. Our plan was to use the GPS data from the balloon, our position, and trigonometry to aim the dish, even once we could no longer see the balloon. The radio would broadcast GPS information over an amateur radio network. Other radio enthusiasts would pick up the signal, and the balloon’s position would ultimately be displayed on a website where we could view the position on Google Maps. We hoped that the balloon’s altitude, high above the usual obstructions, would give us a consistent GPS signal.

With only two days before launch, we finally received our wireless equipment and started a mad dash to assemble it. Since the clock was ticking, we didn’t get a chance to fully test our setup; the farthest distance we attempted was about half a mile. Come launch day, we could only hope that our setup would work over longer distances.

Launch Day

Early Friday morning, we drove out to our launch site in Vacaville, CA. We chose Vacaville because we wanted a place that wouldn’t carry our balloon into any urban areas or large bodies of water. We arrived in time for sunrise, but spent several hours looking for a clear, flat launch site with strong 4G coverage. Eventually, we were able to set up on a dead end road next to a small hotel.

We slowly began assembling the balloon starting with our wireless equipment. After a stressful couple of hours with several mysterious network failures, we secured the cameras and wireless devices in the styrofoam payload container. Next we began to inflate the balloon. Minutes before launch, we discovered that our GPS transmitter was busted. With no other choice, we packed the GPS device into our payload anyway, hoping that the strong signal it’d get from high up would result in successful transmissions. We wrote our names and phone numbers on the sides of the container. If we were lucky, we’d receive a phone call if our balloon was found after a nice, gentle landing (it’s probably best not to imagine what could have happened if we were unlucky :P).

 

 

Fully inflated, our balloon reached a size of about 8 feet in diameter. With the wind picking up, it was actually incredibly difficult to hold on to. We tied the payload, parachute, and radar reflector to the balloon, and after confirming that photos were appearing in our Dropbox account in real time, we were ready for launch. We aimed our dish, crossed our fingers, and let go of the balloon. At almost exactly noon, several hours behind schedule, we launched!

The first few minutes after lift off were incredibly exciting. The balloon rose quickly (more than 15 feet per second) and in just minutes was a small speck in the sky. For several minutes we successfully aimed our dish at the balloon, feeding it a WiFi signal which resulted in live photos uploaded over Dropbox. But the GPS data never materialized and eventually we were flying blind! We were soon left to search the sky with our dish, waving it back and forth and monitoring the strength of the connection, our only feedback for finding our increasingly invisible balloon.

We received photos in real time from our balloon for the first 3 or 4 minutes. While we maintained a network connection for many miles, we lacked the bandwidth to continue transmitting full photos as the balloon rose higher and higher. Nonetheless, we were incredibly excited by the few photos we received in real time.

After attempting to recover an Internet connection for an hour or so, we decided to drive in the direction of our balloon’s predicted landing. Incredibly, two hours into the flight of the balloon and likely moments after landing, we received a phone call: our balloon had been found! The caller informed us that she’d gone outside to investigate a commotion among her horses when she discovered our balloon! Unbelievably thrilled, we drove to her farm to retrieve our equipment and upload the remaining photos and videos to Dropbox. After conveying our many thanks (and converting a new customer to Dropbox!), we sped back to Dropbox HQ in time for Hack Week’s closing ceremony.

We’d like to give a big shout out to everyone who helped us turn an ambitious project idea into reality. Thank you!

- Isaac & Adam

 

 

Check out the rest of the photos and videos from our flight!


What we used:


Some good resources:

 

76 Comments to Dropbox in Space!

mcd
August 15, 2012

cooooool!

cjp
August 15, 2012

that is so badass.

mp
August 15, 2012

so so sick

Trevor Berg
August 15, 2012

Awesome!

bdesarn
August 15, 2012

I have been surfing online more than three hours today, yet I never found any interesting article like yours. It is pretty worth enough for me. In my opinion, if all webmasters and bloggers made good content as you did, the web will be a lot more useful than ever before.

Nicolas Soret
August 15, 2012

Awesome ! :)

Panos
August 15, 2012

Amazing idea, execution and photos! Great job people!!!

Fabio
August 15, 2012

Congrats from Italy! Very nice attempt!

Lucky
August 15, 2012

Awesome Idea! Congrats from Philippines!

Dinah
August 15, 2012

This is so awesome Isaac! Nice to hear the full(ish) story. Next, dropbox on mars? ;)

dan
August 15, 2012
Pavel Richter
August 15, 2012

Hi Dropbox!
Congratz from Czech Near-Space Team :) What was your max altitude?
Watch our photos, videos and logs from flight
http://czanso.com/flight/index.php?c=fotky-z-balonu
czANSO max altitude was 31 084 m with beautiful views of our blue planet :)

Pavel Richter
August 15, 2012

Dan: not dangerous at all, if you have permission from authorities and all flight data are comunicated with air traffic control

24hours before the flight is also published a NOTAM (Notice To Airmen)

At least in Europe, this is needed.

Bev Churchill
August 15, 2012

Was introduced to Dropbox recently by a daughter who got tired of being nagged for pictures of the grandchild. That works great! Now to find out we can basically watch the world? Amazing! Thank you so much!

Gil
August 15, 2012

Congrats from Philippines and thanks for sharing the story. Im sure dropbox will continue to find ways to make things possible!

raullen
August 15, 2012

really necessary?

Dallas
August 15, 2012

Intensely fascinating! It’s a pity the camera didn’t catch a good view of the sun when in the stratosphere.. =)

Víctor
August 15, 2012

Hey guys, congratulations. This is living life!!

Nano
August 15, 2012

Like it..fr Indonesia…

Sathishkumar A
August 15, 2012

Awesome :-o !

Jouls
August 15, 2012

Like it…! Awesome ;)
LIVE YOUR DREAM – AND SHARE YOUR PASSION.

Alok
August 16, 2012

awesome !
i love dropbox ..

Anil
August 16, 2012

Awesome…

Richard J
August 16, 2012

What a great project. Loved it but some of the videos made me feel a bit “seasick”!

Wojtek
August 16, 2012

That’s just wonderful, love such inventions

Ahitagni
August 16, 2012

Like a Boss !! :)

Joseph
August 16, 2012

Very cool

David L
August 16, 2012

Stupendous!

Amy
August 16, 2012

Fantastic job, guys! The CIT is super proud of your accomplishment!

sis
August 16, 2012

plz support html5 video on web interface of file(video) sharing.
I removed Flash.

Maxim
August 16, 2012

What for you use Pico Station M?

param
August 16, 2012

woow great workServices you providing.Thanx for them.will it be free for always.

Jb
August 16, 2012

Great project, congrats

Tom
August 16, 2012

hey.
Great week project there.
Could you go a little into detail on what software you used on the android phones?

Kamil Boberek
August 16, 2012

I think there is something cool in this company! I would like to work with you!

haris mohiuddin
August 17, 2012

wonderfull..

simply I Love Dropbox..

from Saudi Arabia

India Study Zone
August 20, 2012

Can any one tell me about drop box.. Is there any use for me, using drop box.. I have website http://www.indiastudyzone.com/ .. for what purpose i can use

hod
August 21, 2012

Well India- Read my first blog about Dropbox and few others-
http://go.hodspot.com/2011/08/every-few-years-i-have-privilege-to-be.html

Thiet ke logo
August 21, 2012

This is very useful for me.Can you share with us something more like this ??? Thanks.

great public service
August 21, 2012

this was a great project!

Alex Thompson
August 21, 2012

After seeing this article i could remember my science class of my school days. Article with diagram helps us to understand the topic briefly. I appreciate your effort in collecting such kind of valuable information. Thank you.

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August 22, 2012

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AishaMenon9
August 24, 2012

Wow… that was an interesting read.

CupidCube
August 24, 2012

Cool as hell.  I love working on little projects like this…it’s pretty amazing what you can do if you set your mind to it and you know how to use google and amazon prime :)

Nicola Efflandrin
August 27, 2012

How can i not like Dropbox! =)

Dean Ford
August 28, 2012

Pretty cool, I was looking at the file naming. Are these accurate times between photos?

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September 2, 2012

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[...] The Dropbox Blog » Blog Archive » Dropbox in Space! New Web Order – Nik Cubrilovic Blog Leap Motion Meet Mat Honan. He just had his digital life dissolved by hackers. Photo: Ariel Zambelich/Wired. Illustration: Ross Patton/Wired [...]

Ivette
September 7, 2012

New to Dropbox and just read this story – what a great idea!

Jab_law
September 8, 2012

Cool project but I don’t understand why you didn’t just connect the phone’s wi-fi directly to a router to boost the signal to save the weight of the laptop.  Could have also used a downward facing parabolic antenna to direct the wi-fi signal rather than have it reflect upward into space although the ISS and/or little green men could have used you network connection too. Anyway congraulations, way cool project.

pramodliv1
September 11, 2012

Inspiring stuff! Truly out of the box.. oops Dropbox!

Frieda Bergman
September 12, 2012

Could have also used a downward facing parabolic antenna to direct the
wi-fi signal rather than have it reflect upward into space although the
ISS and/or little green men could have used you network connection too.
Anyway congraulations, way cool project.

Gto1967
September 12, 2012

Dudes…….you did it.  Not unlike the first NASA missions.  They didnt know if it work either.   Only difference is they had a slightly larger budget. LOL

Martina Jacob
September 13, 2012

Pretty cool, I was looking at the file naming. Are these accurate times between photos?

Bo Schaefer
September 15, 2012

Dropbox has let people take their stuff anywhere on Earth. But why stop there? Why not take Dropbox to space?

http://www.uspremiumhcg.com

Morgan Hoo
September 17, 2012

we wanted the balloon to have Internet the entire flight.

http://arrowbids.com/

Lily Hen
September 18, 2012

While we maintained a network connection for many miles, we lacked the
bandwidth to continue transmitting full photos as the balloon rose
higher and higher. Nonetheless, we were incredibly excited by the few
photos we received in real time.

http://www.prometmarketing.com/

Cherry Watson
September 19, 2012

After (very) briefly investigating a 50-mile long Ethernet cord, we settled on WiFi–the very same WiFi you use every day.

http://www.charlottegaragedoorsrepair.net/

Cozy Thomas
September 20, 2012

Dropbox has let people take their stuff anywhere on Earth. But why stop there? Why not take Dropbox to space?

http://www.localfocus.ca/

maria albright
September 23, 2012

Dropbox has let people take their stuff anywhere on Earth. But why stop there? Why not take Dropbox to space?

http://www.saraisthere.com/

Lorillo
September 28, 2012

Dropbox has let people take their stuff anywhere on Earth. But why stop there? Why not take Dropbox to space?

Sherrill Wofford
October 3, 2012

from real time collaboration tools to a Dropbox for Xbox app. But we
decided to roll bold with a crazy idea: For years, Dropbox has let
people take their stuff anywhere on Earth. But why stop there? Why not
take Dropbox to space?

http://shortsaleshift.com/
 

Maxie
October 8, 2012

We played around with a ton of project ideas, from real time collaboration tools to a Dropbox for Xbox app. But we decided to roll bold with a crazy idea: For years, Dropbox has let people take their stuff anywhere on Earth. But why stop there? Why not take Dropbox to space?

Jeanene
October 8, 2012

Dropbox has let people take their stuff anywhere on Earth. But why stop there? Why not take Dropbox to space?

Tierra
October 10, 2012

Dropbox has let people take their stuff anywhere on Earth. But why stop there? Why not take Dropbox to space?

Ian Reide
October 11, 2012

Great read, great adventure. Kudos.

Turkeyphant .
October 12, 2012

Cool images. What was the total cost of this project?

Chris Hathcock
October 15, 2012

I’d definitely be impressed if you guys got constant Internet connectivity working over amateur radio on a balloon. You can stream photos and video live over amateur TV but that kind of defeats the purpose of using dropbox. It’s always a lot of fun to read about others’ experiences with high altitude balloons and the pictures and videos are always amazing.

It’s unfortunate your GPS broke. We’ve had a lot of luck using a Byonics MicroTrak HA in my university’s high altitude balloon program. It’s self contained, rugged, and pretty inexpensive. We’ve also had our fair share of broken GPS systems as well, as well as people not paying attention and occasionally putting in altitude limited GPS units.

We should be launching again within a month or so though. If anyone’s interested you’ll be able to track our balloon here: http://aprs.fi/info/a/KI4NQO-12

Elenor Harder
October 17, 2012

Dropbox has let people take their stuff anywhere on Earth. But why stop there? Why not take Dropbox to space?

Erlinda
October 23, 2012

Dropbox has let people take their stuff anywhere on Earth. But why stop there? Why not take Dropbox to space?

Mindi
October 23, 2012

Dropbox has let people take their stuff anywhere on Earth. But why stop there? Why not take Dropbox to space?

Apprendreledessin
October 25, 2012

Awesome.
What great shots.

william
October 27, 2012

so was ur face

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