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Schoolboy’s Pi in the Sky idea pays off with beautiful snaps from above

June 2nd, 2016

An innovative schoolboy with sky-high ambitions has successfully launched a balloon to the edge of the earth’s atmosphere to collect a series of stunning photographs.

Sam, a pupil at Monmouth School, combined science and technology to create SkiPi, a huge balloon with a GPS tracker, a tiny Raspberry Pi Zero computer, camera and radio within its precious payload.

The 17-year-old spent around two months developing his skills and working on the project, which was funded by an engineering scholarship, and saw it come to fruition on Monday, May 30.

skipi5After painstakingly filling the balloon with helium in a friend’s field, Sam’s schoolmates, family and physics teacher, Dr Dan Jones, watched him send it off on a two-hour mission to snap Monmouth from a dizzyingly high perspective.

Sam said: “I decided to apply for the Arkwright Scholarship because I wanted to do something interesting that would help me to further my skills – and it looks good on your UCAS form.

“I got the idea for the balloon from the Raspberry Pi website. I liked that it would involve learning lots of new things.

“I had to buy a soldering iron and learn how to use it and many other aspects were closely related to what we’ve been learning in physics lessons at school. I had to do a lot of calculations involving electronics for my radio too.

“I programmed the camera to take a picture every minute and these were stored on the Pi Zero. Then the Pi selected the best photos and transmitted them back to us. But my focus was on making sure I couldn’t lose it.

“The most expensive element was the helium. I tried to get hydrogen but there are a lot of hoops to jump through to get explosives.”

Sam, who managed a budget of £300 to pay for the project, met other Pi enthusiasts in an online forum and soon had eight other people who were happy to help with tracking SkiPi’s location during its flight.

Straight after the launch, Sam and his friends scrambled into action to follow the balloon to its predicted landing site to retrieve the equipment.skipi6

“It took about an hour to reach 32,000 metres and then another hour to drop back down,” Sam continued.

“The balloon expands and reaches the size of a double decker bus before it explodes and the payload falls down to earth.

“It was very exciting looking for it.

“I didn’t have any signal so we went to the predicted landing site, which was a very strange and eerie farm at the foothills of the Black Mountains with grave stones alongside it.

“We didn’t want to hang around!”

Luckily, Sam managed to get a weak signal after climbing halfway up a mountain and found SkiPi with just 30 minutes left before the battery died on its tracker.

He said: “We didn’t have any connection to its last position but there were people tracking it from home with the same radio software I’ve got and the information they had was being forwarded to a central system.

“The pictures are beautiful. I’ve already shared them with people and set one as my desktop background. It’s an amazing view from up there. People have reacted with amazement – they are really impressed that it actually worked.”

skipi1Sam has £250 of scholarship money left to fund a similar project next year.

He hopes to use his new skills to send another balloon higher than 40,000 metres.

“I’ve learnt so much from the first flight,” He said.

“I’ve always been sure I want to do computer science at university, but it’s really delightful to be able to do these sorts of things, taking it further and doing something a little bit different and really fun.

“It brings the subjects to life.

“Talking about communication via radio in a classroom is very different to communicating with your own balloon at 32,000 metres. It was a wonderful day.”


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